Otto Wenke was born on the shortest day of the year, December 21, 1897 in Olean, New York. He was one of eleven siblings and his mother died when he was a small child. He was the first in his family to graduate from high school and went on to study business in Buffalo, NY. He served in the Navy. He met my grandmother, Mary Hammond, and eventually had a son, David, and daughter, Mary Ann (my mother). My grandfather, often referred to as Daddy-Ott, was an accountant for DuPont. DuPont was one of the first companies to occupy part of the Empire State Building after it opened in 1931. At one point in his career, he worked directly in New York, but eventually, my grandfather and his family landed in Wilmington, Delaware where DuPont was based. And that is where me, my brothers and my cousins all grew up together in close proximity to my grandparents.
My grandmother Daddy-Mar (crazy name for a grandmother, my oldest cousin Claire is responsible) died in 1962, one year after I was born. I have no memory of her but I have a multitude of memories of my Daddy-Ott.
Here are some memories of him:
Every Labor Day weekend, the Wenke reunion is held in Olean, New York. With 11 siblings, some of those siblings ended up having upward of nine kids, meaning a multitude of Wenkes who grew up in Olean. There is even an area of Olean called Wenkeville! The family reunions garner upwards of 300 folks every year who get together and sing German drinking songs, remember their ancestors, play games and eat. We went several times and I can remember them all calling my grandfather “Gros Uncle” as he was the only remaining sibling of the original eleven. He was revered. Everyone came to see him and would give their kind regards. I felt like he was a celebrity. He was always in his element at the Wenke Reunion. What I appreciate most is that he wrote a history of his family to chronicle the escapades of his sister, Clara (the rebel), his father’s truck garden that helped keep the family afloat, and mapped out the various Wenke cousins on the family tree. I was always proud of being Ott’s granddaughter especially in Wenkeville.
My grandfather was a traveler. He took a trip to the West Coast with my grandmother in the late 1950’s and accounted for every penny of the trip. The whole trip came to $724 with notable entries for 533 gallons of gas for a total of $202, 20 motel room nights at $181 and meals and snacks at $182. I think of how incredibly brave this was to head out on an 8,800 mile trip across country without a cell phone or GPS. That is wanderlust. After he retired and my grandmother passed away, he would travel to Florida, Canada and the west coast on his own. He always memorialized the trip with photos and meticulously wrote in his block pencil handwriting each location and person in the photo. Between my dad and my grandfather, I can understand why I love to wander.
I lived in the same home in Wilmington, Delaware from the age of two. We lived next to park land and we had an enormous rock garden behind the house. The entire garden was the hard work of my grandfather. I’m sure he was inspired by the local DuPont estate, Longwood Gardens and the Butchart Gardens from his travels to Victoria, B.C. I can remember as a child that my grandfather came over every Saturday, without fail, to work on that garden. Dogwood, azaleas, impatiens, pansies, lilies, hens and chicks, and a maple tree. He had them all blooming throughout the spring and summer with nary a weed to disrupt his work of art. I can remember his voice coming in the front door of the house, “Hello, anybody home?” and sitting down to a hot cup of coffee, taking a sip and saying “hot ta ta.” He was a man of habits and we were able to enjoy the fruits of his labor.
Fortunately for me, I am the youngest of his grandchildren. As I was growing up and my mother returned to work, my grandfather cared for me on many occasions. What I remember most is escaping from the house in his Maroon Skylark Buick and riding “down the valley”, which included Beaver Valley Road, its hills and the Brandywine River. I loved to go gliding down in this big air-conditioned car with my grandfather behind the wheel and the farmland streaming by, honeysuckles perfuming the air. Even into high school, my grandfather would pick me up after swim practice or take me to a doctor’s visit. I could depend on him no matter what.
My grandfather had a grand piano in his apartment. He played it beautifully. In fact, he played piano when he was a teenager at silent movie houses. I had little appreciation for his talent when I was a child. I can remember visiting his apartment and him setting out block puzzles for my brother, Rick and me to play with and him playing his piano. It’s not until I tried to play the piano in elementary school that I understood what tenacity and practice it took to play the piano the way my grandfather did.
My Daddy-Ott was regimented. Perhaps it was his motherless German upbringing, or becoming a parent amidst the Depression, but my grandfather was uniquely suited to being an accountant. He wrote in his diary every day of his adult life. Each day was memorialized with the external temperature and his daily activities in a brief 7 to 10 sentence paragraph. I believe you could set your watch to my grandfather’s activities. He was a devout Phillies fan and listened to the radio to follow their progress. I can remember crying when they won the World Series in 1980 because I was happy that my Daddy-Ott was alive to witness it. My grandfather and I had two struggles that I recall. Once when I was about 5 and he was babysitting me around lunchtime. He insisted that I could only have plain milk and I threw a tantrum over wanting chocolate milk. I can’t remember who won but boy, I remember us both being stubborn over who should prevail. For a brief year, my grandfather lived with my family, while I was in high school. Every Saturday night he insisted on watching The Lawrence Welk Show. This was excruciating for me. I loved Pink Floyd and Yes, and there I was suffering, listening to Polkas and watching bubbles float above the Lennon Sisters. What I would give to spend an afternoon watching Lawrence Welk with my Daddy-Ott now — although I’d still insist on chocolate milk!
My Daddy-Ott was a fixture in my childhood growing up in Wilmington, Delaware. He was there for Sunday dinners, Mother’s Day at the DuPont Country Club and escaping down the valley in his Buick. How fortunate I was to have a grandparent close by and involved in my upbringing. We always ended our Sunday dinners by my grandfather asking if we were “sufficiently suffonsified”? I have no idea where this expression came from but it’s basically asking if you are sufficiently full. He lives in my heart now and in my memories. I love you, Daddy-Ott.