by Penny Ziemer Ford
Paul Ziemer (left) builds a snow bunny. Center back, his nephew Allen Abrahamson; right, his daughter Penny Ziemer; center front, his niece and goddaughter Janice Christensen. 1950s.
Ed. Note: This piece is about my godfather and uncle
Paul Ziemer, a journalist who worked on newspapers in
Gonzolas, Texas; Chicago and Detroit. It was written by
Penny Ziemer Ford, his oldest daughter and my cousin.
She and I both learned a lot from Paul Ziemer.
This Father’s Day we hope you can reflect on the things
you have learned from the fathers in your life.
My dad taught me that a poll tax was wrong because
it kept the poor from voting and because it kept black
men and women from voting.
He taught me that segregation was wrong because it
ruined the self respect of the children sent to inferior and
distant schools. He taught me that institutionalization
was wrong because it broke the hearts of mothers,
fathers and children. As it turned out I needed to know
both those things.
My dad taught me that Siegmund and Sieglinda were
the parents of Siegfried. He taught me to love Wagner.
He taught me to suspect the German culture and to
decry the arrogance that touts a master or a master
My dad taught me to make deviled eggs, pork hocks
and sauerkraut, and navy bean soup. He taught me
to use only cold water for potatoes. He taught me to
sweep a floor.
My dad punished us when we left fireflies in a jar
overnight without air holes; he taught me that we
must be stewards of the living creatures on this earth
because God placed us here to watch over the land and
My dad taught me to dig and plant and weed a garden,
to bring in tomatoes to the windowsill before the frost,
and to make wild berries into pies.
My dad taught me that Protestants and Catholics argue
over faith and works but that since faith presumes
works there is no worth in that argument. He taught
me that Lutherans call their pastors but that Catholics
believe God calls the priest. He taught me that John
XXIII prayed the priestly prayer of Christ – “that they
may be one” – in the agony of his death.
When my dog died my dad taught me that after awhile
you just remember the good times and the pain fades.
He told me he knew because his own father had
recently died. (He was right about dogs, but wrong
about fathers; for me the pain never faded.)
When some of our dog’s puppies died my dad told me
about the baby our mom was expecting. He taught
me that that baby “will be much more wonderful than
puppies.” Again, he was right about the dogs, and he
was right about the baby, too.
My dad taught me that sometimes it’s good to keep your
head down and take care of business: he shaved his
beard off before he interviewed Joe McCarthy in 1951
because he knew that as a former Socialist he would be
vulnerable to investigation. He didn’t win the longest
beard contest for the Onalaska town centennial, but he
did stay off the blacklist.
My dad taught me that life is darn close to meaningless
before your morning coffee.
My dad taught me that when the door opens in a
moving car you shouldn’t reach for the handle. He
taught me that in Pampa, Texas, in the moving car as
the door opened and I was reaching.
My dad taught me never to put in writing what you
don’t want others to find out.
My dad taught me that sometimes you have to keep
your mouth shut or your typewriter unused, because
once upon a time he libeled someone in the morning
paper, was sued, and lost.
My dad passed on something he was taught by Henry
Maier, a Wisconsin politician who became mayor of
Milwaukee. Confronted by Dad about a scandal in the
Wisconsin State Senate, Maier said he had no intention
of digging into the problems beyond what was already
known. When Dad asked him why, Maier replied with
one of Dad’s favorite political truisms: “The more you
kick shit, the more it stinks.”
My dad taught me what the word “schmuck” means
and not to say it.
My dad taught me that there is more to everything than
meets the eye, or at least that is true if you read T.S.
My dad taught me to organize books according to the
Dewey decimal system. He had a list. This proved to
him that he was German, I think.
My dad taught me several songs about sheep. He taught
me that “The large stars are the sheep. The little stars
are the lambs, I guess, and the big round moon is the
shepherdess.” Now I am a shepherdess.
My dad taught me to love horses by making me a
rocking horse named Rochester out of stove pipes, a
mop head, and some old rocking chair rockers.
My dad taught me to express what I learned and knew
by taking me to sing “Jesus Loves Me” on Radio Station
WKBH in La Crosse.
My dad taught me that you have to go to work “so the
Man will give you money.” Also, if you work extra hard,
you’ll be “rich and crabby.” He taught me the meaning
of overtime and respect for the guild.
My dad tried to teach me to read musical notes, but
failed. He taught me that to play the piano and to sing,
year after year across a lifetime, is no less wonderful
because one will never master either.
My dad taught me another rule of politics and life:
“The guy with the gun always wins.” He taught me not
to try too hard to catch a man you plan to kill, because
the chance is too great you’ll go to jail. As part of that
same tale, the story of the burglar who got away, my
dad taught me that you should not keep a gun unless
you would kill a person if called upon. He decided he
would not, so he did not.
My old pappy taught me that in the end we can finally
say it: “Thy will be done.” He taught me to revere the
burial places and the history of my family. He taught
me that you ought to be able to ride your bike to work
at midnight in Detroit, Michigan, but if you do you
will come close to death. He taught me that if a teacher
mistreats your child you go straight to the pastor and
you make sure it does not happen again. He taught me
to take my library books back and to open a new book
carefully so I wouldn’t break the spine. He taught me
not to acknowledge a whistle or a wink, to wear gloves
and a hat downtown in Chicago, and to always expect a
gentleman to walk on the outside of the sidewalk so he
can dodge the shit that rains from the sky.