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Neighbor Spotlight • Irene Wergin

Photo by Jason Santiago “People live longer than they used to,” remarks Irene Wergin. At ninetythree years old she certainly has the perspective to make such a statement. After all, being born in 1915 means that her family and friends included people who came of age in the 1800s. And with a sharp and amazingly supple mind she is capable of capturing in words stories that bring to light not only her history, but also that of many of our families.  Irene’s parents, the Karpowicz’s, migrated from Poland to Jackson, Michigan and then on to Milwaukee. “Where they came from in Poland they were just the serfs, worked the land. They didn’t own anything. It was working for somebody else,” she explains. “They never owned anything. That’s why people of Polish descent are very anxious to have some roots, to have a house, to be independent.” America offered the promise of ownership and prosperity for those who were willing to work hard and save. Irene describes the Poles as thrifty, citing her parents as an example. “My dad did dangerous work, digging tunnels (for the city water department),” she says. “He worked with pick and shovel but we were never poor. We survived the Depression. We ate well. We had good clothes.”  Serfdom had precluded any opportunity for schooling. But once in America her father taught himself to read, particularly the Polish newspaper. Tuning in to memories of those times Irene comments, “It’s surprising how smart people were, how smart, without any education.”  Her parents bought a house at Richards and Clarke after a year in Milwaukee. Irene was born here and resided in that house until her marriage in 1939.  Although she lived west of Holton, most of her friends lived east of the busy street. The whole of the community was very homogenous in those days. She recalls, “Here in this area, especially, it was either German-mix or Polish-mix, it was the predominant language here, religion, everything was pretty much the same. The kids went to parochial school. Everybody went to the same church, participated in processions and whatnot…”  “I miss how it used to be,” she says. “I know there are supermarkets now, but then, when you went to the corner store you knew everybody, at least nodding (acquaintance). And you heard this gossip or that gossip and you knew, more or less, what was going on in your neighborhood.” Women chatted in their backyards while hanging out clothes. The men congregated at “The Poor Man’s Club”, Irene’s nickname for a Polish bar that was another place to learn who was up to what. The kids played at the school playgrounds or were down at the river “catching a frog.”  Community interaction was the norm. English was the language that allowed the Polish-speakers and Germanspeakers to communicate. Irene’s parents learned “enough English to get around.” A necessity since, as Irene tells it, “The storekeeper was German and the butcher was German and the baker was German.”  There was another aspect of life in those days. “Everybody prospered,” Irene says. “Good food. Good drink. Which, among the Polish people becomes a necessity. Whether you have a headache, a foot hurts, a stomach ache….that was the cure-all. Whiskey. Hundred proof whiskey. You didn’t buy it on the market during the Depression, but you knew people who had a still in their basement.” The still her family bought from was on Fratney. She continues, “That was my job, to go and get the bottle. It was traditional. They would send me and say ‘Don’t fall.’ (They weren’t worried) that I would get hurt, but that the bottle would break. That would be a tragedy,” she says, laughing.  Irene and her German husband moved into her present home in Riverwest 65 years ago. He passed away in 2000. She also lost her sister, the original owner of the house. “I’m the last survivor,” Irene says.  She may be the last of her generation but her progeny are plentiful. One corner of her well-kept house displays photographs of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She keeps up with all their lives even though most of them live in other parts of the state or country. They are a high-achieving and well-traveled bunch, of whom she is obviously very proud.  Traveling was one of Irene’s passions. “Bus travel was the one for me,” she says. “I never flew in a plane, had no interest.” With summers free from her job as a school secretary Irene made her way up and down the coasts and across the country. Her husband was reluctant to join her so her sister accompanied her. That is, until she came home from Nova Scotia. Suddenly, he decided he wanted to go. “Then,” she says, “we went everywhere I had been. Nova Scotia, Florida, Glacier National Park, you name it, I’ve been there. But I repeated everywhere I’d been because he wanted to go.”  Although Irene misses the neighborliness and slower pace of the past, she remains open-minded about people and the way they live. Like she says, “It’s everybody’s privilege to do what they want to do.”