One Thursday I received a call from Eugene, who was briefly mentioned to me in passing.
He was an older gentleman who taught Chinese after store hours at the end of my shift.
I gave my pretty natural yet generic salutations anyone develops working in customer service.
“Peoples Book’s. This is Alice, how can I help you?”
“Hello this is Eugene. I am going to be a little late,” he answered.
True to his word, he walked in late, sat down, and started to read a book and write in his notebook. This was his routine, and mine was to close and leave him the key on my way out.
After I closed the store one night and packed up my things I bid him adieu. “Until next time Eugene,” I said with a wave. He chuckled and said something along the lines of that’s how they ended radio shows back in the day.
He started to tell me about a show on WBBM 780 AM, where they play the old time radio stories on Tuesday nights. We spent a few hours talking about what had been lost over time in acting and sound-creating with the advent of CGI and modern visual technologies. The art of inflections and how important it was when you had only voice to tell a story.
IAfter I sat down in my coat and with all my things, the conversation turned to current events. We talked about the real threat that could be brought to America with the way information is shared and televised. “Loose lips sink ships,” a phrase that came out of WWII, was definitely said. This topic led to a very informative chat about Pearl Harbor and the root of the Kamikaze Air Strike. This is when I realized how much we had covered in what started out to be a farewell and how easy it was for us to talk to each other across a big generational gap. Eugene is a wealth of knowledge. From then on I decided to take in as much as I could from him, and now I will share with you.
Eugene is a natural storyteller, as am I. I think it is why I find interest in him and our conversations. They are engaging, filled with historical context – even dates and personal sidebars. He is also a jokester and easy to follow. He has witty analogies and hand gestures to help contextualize the then to the now. I was interested in how he became a teacher of the Chinese language. And the story began.
Eugene is a Milwaukee native, a third-generation American. His family immigrated from Romania, Serbia, and the Ukraine. He went to grade school at Hi-Mount off 49th and Garfield Avenue and then to Rufus King High School on 18th and Olive.
He was drafted in the 50s and was stationed in Germany at Bremerhaven, located in northern West Germany. During the cold war this was an embarkation point for supplies and military equipment that hosted transport and support units as well as being a huge control unit for their communication.
After the military he went to the Milwaukee School of Engineering and graduated in 1960 with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. While in school he secured a job at Allis Chalmers at night and went to class during the day.
“How did you meet your wife? What do you consider your greatest accomplishment in life?” I asked like any “interviewer.” He told me that he was getting to it. Being a little impatient in nature I now knew that I would have to wait for the story to develop and put myself aside.
As I stated earlier, Eugene worked his way through college, so he naturally wanted to find someone in class that he could discuss concepts with and share notes. In one of his classes he noticed that the guy sitting in front of him took meticulous notes.
“I figured I should get to know him so we could talk about the class,” he stated.
This Japanese student was named Al. He and Eugene became friends and they helped each other. Al supported Eugene with his attention to detail in note-taking and Eugene unknowingly helped Al with his English. They became long-time friends.
One summer Al married a “gal” named Mina from Japan and then got a job offer in Canada. “I packed everything he owned in my car and drove him to the train station.” He also thought it important to point out that Mina’s father was the captain of a ship during WWII that exchanged prisoners between Japan and America.
At this point I was still impatiently wondering when he was going to mention how and where he met his wife and why his friend Al was relevant. Then Sei came out with it. He had first seen her getting ready for a folk fair at Radio City. She was doing Origami and Ikebana demonstrations (a technique of flower arranging). Ikebana literally translates to “flowers kept alive” in Japanese. Sei and Mina had known each other and worked together at Children’s Hospital.
Sei later had a going away party for Mina. He couldn’t go because he had to work, but he asked her if she needed a ride. This was the opportunity “to pick her up at her house and then I could memorize the address, 3318 N 46th street, so I could come by another time,” he said with a smile.
The next time he showed up, he was invited in by her host parents. “Sei set up a nifty table with sliced cucumbers, you know the prettiest blossomed radishes, tea, celery with cheese. I was so impressed,” he laughed. “I thought, I gotta come back.” He then asked her host family if he could take her out to see a movie. That movie turned into other dates and trips to Chicago. They started to become close and Eugene eventually proposed.
“She said, ‘Are you sure?’ and I said ‘Yeah, I think it’s a good idea.’”
From there the excitement of planning a wedding took over. “She checked her books, you know, horoscope or whatever, for a lucky date to get married on. It said December 18,” and it was set. They married, started their lives and their family. They had four children, three boys and one girl, and now have 10 grandchildren.
I asked again, what his greatest accomplishment was. He replied, “Those guys. They are exceptional,” he shook his head with pride. “But I had back up, you know, I didn’t do it alone. If you do riveting, there is always a guy on the other side, there is always back up.”
“So how did you end up teaching Chinese, Eugene? You went to school for engineering.”
He then reminded me that Mina’s father had been a captain of a ship during the war. He also referred back to our very first conversation about Japan’s involvement in the World War and China’s involvement, the secrets of the “Flying Tigers” years before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Really before anyone even knew much about it, there was talk about the base. Japan caught wind of it from listening to our news and government officials speak in American media. Without even knowing it, our first connection might have been about old time radio, but our “loose lips sink ships” conversation was really just the beginning of the story of how he became interested in the Chinese language and following the history of China in the western world.
In 1982, his wife Sei advised him to learn more and further his interest. So he started to take classes. His children were now out of the house and he could use his free time wisely. He studied under an instructor at MATC. He took more classes and eventually found himself in a substitute teaching position when one of the teachers started to have trouble with her visa and couldn’t do it any longer. Two weeks of substituting in class then turned into a permanent gig for him.
Then in 1998, a girl approached him looking for someone to use the People’s Books basement. He started teaching Chinese there and has been there ever since. He also teaches at what used to be Wilbur Wright, which is now the Milwaukee School of Languages, and at Hamilton High School on Mondays or Tuesdays.
He has anywhere from three to ten students per semester and has had as many as 22, but more often just has a single student and works closely with them to get their credits at UWM.
One of the final questions I asked was, “What drives you to keep up and teach even when you have only one student? Is it your love for the history and language or do you use this to supplement your income?”
He replied, “Well, both.”
Eugene may not live within the “bounds” of Riverwest. But he comes to our neighborhood to use his knowledge and share it with those who want to learn and those who are willing to listen. He is just another friend who found interest in a topic and decided to expand his exploration to the fullest and most fulfilling aspects of that single interest. He is invested in teaching and we give him the opportunity to teach in Riverwest.
He is always looking for more students to teach. If you are interested you can leave your name and telephone number for him at People’s Books Cooperative or send them to me at and I can forward it to him at our next talk on Thursday nights.