Things My Pappy Taught Me

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

its beings.


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.