An Overdue Salute to an Unsung Hero

George Donar U.S. Coast Guard 1929

George Donar
U.S. Coast Guard

There’s a pair of photos in the family album of my uncle, George Donar, which as a child, I could never quite figure out.

In the studio portrait, he’s a very young man–a boy really–dressed in a sailor’s uniform. In the other—a snapshot taken more than a decade later—he’s dressed in a light colored Army uniform, dark jacket and cap, standing proudly it seems, in front of an Army tank.

As kids in the early 1960s, my brothers and I knew little about our mom’s older brother.

All we really knew was that many decades after those photos were taken—well after his return to civilian life—every few years he’d hop the Greyhound in Chicago and travel to Kalamazoo for a visit, sharing Pall Malls and a bit of wine at the dining room table with Mom.

Heads bent, they’d talk together for hours on end, in the kind of hushed undertones that kids innately know mean the grown-ups want to be left alone.

We obliged.

George Donar U.S. Army 1942-1945

George Donar
U.S. Army

Uncle George never said much to us kids, though. He ignored us, really. I don’t ever remember getting hugged or kissed, or even being spoken to or acknowledged by him. It didn’t offend me, though. It just made me more curious about this person who clearly meant something to Mom.

After a few days, George would head back to Chicago by Greyhound once again ‘til his next visit a few years later when the quiet conversations between the pair at the dining room table would resume once again.

The visits stopped after Mom died in 1970; and a few years later he passed away as well.

Since Uncle George had no other immediate relatives nearby, my older brother Gerry—in his mid 20s by then—was assigned the duty of taking a train to Chicago to handle my uncle’s final arrangements. Our only mementos of him were those two photos and a small trunk containing a few odds and ends collected over a lifetime that George felt were important enough to save. Gerry brought the trunk back from Chicago and put it up in the attic in the house on Hawley Street where it remained for years until our family eventually moved away. Whatever became of that trunk and its contents is still unknown.

Fast forward, forty plus years when this genealogist finally got around to pursuing the mystery of the man in those military photos. Documents obtained last month from the National Archives in St. Louis, along with research on the Donar family here in Chicago, helped clear up, at least a bit of the mystery, of the man known as Uncle George.

It seems that the first photo was taken when he joined the Coast Guard in March of 1929. He was discharged after just seven months of service though—15 days after his father’s death in October of ’29, and three days before Black Tuesday—the dawn of the Great Depression. His discharge was the result of a hardship request to the government made by my grandmother, citing herself as a dependent parent with no other means of support.

George had been earning $21 a month as an Apprentice Seaman in the Coast Guard, but in civilian life, he earned three times that amount in his job as an “office boy” for a title company in Chicago’s Loop downtown. It was the kind of income his mother came to  depend upon for her very survival during the Depression years that followed.

Though it must have been a tremendous disappointment for 21-year-old George to give up what he hoped would be a life of adventure as a seaman in the U.S. Coast Guard, he had no idea his greatest days in the military still lay ahead.

Over a decade later—in 1942 to be exact—he joined the military again. This time he enlisted in the U.S. Army for a three year stint as a member of Company A, 714th Tank Battalion, 12th Armored Division.  It was a duty that brought George and his fellow “Hellcats” to the front lines of some of the fiercest battles on German soil—ultimately winning them recognition in April of 1945, for liberating the Kaufering concentration camps.

We’d never heard about George’s military feats from him or from our mother. For all we know, Mom wasn’t even aware of her brother’s military accomplishments during World War II—which of course, just adds to the mystery.

After the war George returned to Chicago. Little is known about his life in the years that followed, but we do know that he never married or had children of his own. As far as we knew, George lived a modest life after the war as a bartender in a neighborhood tavern somewhere on Chicago’s West side–just one of so many quiet heroes of that generation whose story had been left untold until some digging eventually brought it to light.

So…here’s to you, George Donar: Veteran of two branches of the U.S. military, whose service during World War II is still being felt today–felt by the descendants of those you helped free from those concentration camps almost 70 years ago…

…A long overdue Veteran’s Day salute to one among many unsung American heroes whose song can finally be sung.

Hear, Hear!


To learn more about the U.S. Army’s 12th Armored Division and its actions during World War II,  please visit its official website which contains a membership list, photos, videos, oral histories, a timeline, book recommendations, and much, much more:


 Copyright © 2014 Patricia Desmond Biallas

Posted in American History, Biographies, Chicago History, Family Legends, Military | 8 Comments

Part 2: When History and Family History Intersect

In my last post I shared a fascinating newspaper tidbit from 1901 from the Jackson (Michigan) Patriot on my aunt Grace Desmond (1891-1972). It mentioned that she was a “child wonder” and “musical prodigy” at the age of 8 who had played on numerous occasions at the home of Carter Harrison II, Chicago’s mayor at the time.

Jackson  (Michigan) Patriot August 23, 1901

Jackson (Michigan) Patriot
August 23, 1901

It took me awhile to get past my astonishment at this unusual, yet true, story about a member of my own family whom I actually remember from my childhood.  Once I did though,  I went on to review some of the other news items on that same page which, as it turns out, proved to be equally fascinating, and clearly products of their historical time.

Take this, for instance, on the Baroness Burdett-Coutts of England:

Second Lady

courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

Baroness Burdett-Coutts of England in her younger days. (Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery. Washington, D.C.)





Don’t you just love that last line? She was acquainted with William IV (an ancestor, no doubt); was a friend of Dickens (I’m presuming  British author, Charles Dickens); and expended over $1,000,000 in charity. (That’s a lot of  bucks in 1901!)

Elsewhere on the page with Aunt Grace’s mention is this bit of royal gossip related to Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands and her hubby who wed earlier that year.  Seems the queen-mother was none too happy with her new son-in-law’s spending habits:

Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands on her wedding day, 7 February 1901

Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands on her wedding day, 7 February 1901







And how about this for all you female meteorologists out there today?  You can thank Mrs. L. H. Grenewald for paving the way for you. (It’s a shame we don’t know her first name, however.)

meteorologistIt also seems that despite her renown in the “scientific circles of Europe,” her credentials as President of the Woman’s National Science Club, and her overall experience in the field of meteorology, her beloved manages to show up in this news item as  sheriff of  York County, PA after the Civil War.  (Ahem…and what’s that got to do with her accomplishments?!)

My favorite news item on this page, however, is the  following.  It manages to combine  details on the resignation of Mrs. Marguerite Coleman, a 27-year veteran of the Treasury Department, with how she personally saved the life of  William H. Seward (President Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State), on the fateful day Lincoln was assassinated in 1865.  It then winds up tossing in a little harmless nepotism at the end of the story when it indicates Mrs. Coleman’s position would be filled by her very own niece.

William H. Seward, Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln (Courtesy of  Google Images)

William H. Seward,  (1801-1872) Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln (Courtesy of Google Images)











And I was impressed with Aunt Grace–the  child wonder and musical prodigy–who entertained at the home of  a Chicago mayor at the turn of the last century. Amazing what else you can find in those old newspaper clippings to put your ancestor’s story into context!


 Copyright © 2014 Patricia Desmond Biallas

Posted in American History, Biographies, Civil War, Family Legends | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

When History and Family History Intersect

Jackson Patriot August 23, 1901

Jackson  (Michigan) Patriot
August 23, 1901

Over a year ago, GeneaJourneys readers were introduced to Grace Desmond (1891-1972)–a  gifted pianist at the turn of the last century, who just happens to be my  aunt.

Grace Desmond c. 1906 Chicago Illinois Desmond Family Photo Collection

Grace Desmond c. 1906
Chicago, Illinois
(Desmond Family Photo Collection)

Our family knew nothing of Grace’s fascinating past which I was fortunate to learn about for the first time from a complete stranger–Jay Sherwood–who I now count among my dearest (and most generous) genealogy friends, for providing me with numerous photos, newspaper clippings, and historical ephemera related to Aunt Grace and Chautauqua which he has gifted my family with.

You can read all about how this talented, liberated young woman from the early 1900s traveled the Chautauqua circuit with equally gifted artists of the day–like  Jay’s grandmother Ruth Bowers, a violin virtuoso–bringing music and culture to the American west in the early 1900s.

Grace Desmond, classical pianist, c. 1910. (Photo courtesy of University of Iowa  Libraries.)

Grace Desmond, classical pianist, c. 1910. (Photo courtesy of University of Iowa Libraries.)

I first met Jay online and we began conversing by email.  Eventually I had the good fortune to meet him in person during a research trip he made last year to repositories throughout the eastern U.S. and Midwest for the book he’s writing on his grandmother’s Chautauqua career.

It was Jay who showed this genealogist how obtaining primary, original sources can add to the richness, depth and context of the family stories we tell.

Noting his success, I decided to give newspaper research a try myself, and was delighted to uncover a number of fascinating headlines and stories that not only mention Grace–but  more importantly–place her in a time period of American history that brings her story to life .

One example is the item that opened this post which I repeat below:

Jackson (Michigan) Patriot August 23, 1901

Jackson (Michigan) Patriot
August 23, 1901

Once I got past the astonishing headline describing Aunt Grace as a “child wonder”, I looked a little deeper into this brief newspaper mention from 1901.

Grace is described as the daughter of Owen E. Desmond (my grandfather), yet her mother’s name is not even mentioned–an  oversight which would be politically incorrect if not outright offensive to women today, over a century later.

She’s also described as a “musical prodigy” which is borne out in numerous other newspaper articles I found in Chicago and across the country in the years that followed this one.

The age listed for Grace is incorrect. Grace was 10 years old in 1901. Was this perhaps a two year old story actually written in 1899 which appeared in the  Michigan newspaper years after it was originally penned? Who would know?

Cover of The Musical Critic, a publication of Chicago Musical College, July 1901.

Cover of The Musical Critic, a publication of Chicago Musical College, July 1900.

The details about Grace “playing piano by air”, taking lessons at age 6, and  and “reading music at sight” may or may not be accurate.  I’m not a musical prodigy and have no idea what “playing the piano by air” and “calling the root, third and fifth of a chord upon hearing it struck” even means.

All of the above are minor points, though. My favorite part of this newspaper mention is right there in the last line which states that “Little Miss Grace has given several recitals under the patronage of Mr. and Mrs. T.S. Bergey, at the Carter H. Harrison house.”

That’s when I put my keystroking skills to work on Google.

Advertisement in The Musical Critic, a publication of Chicago Musical College, July 1900.

It seems  Mr. and Mrs. T. S. Bergey were voice and piano teachers in Chicago as seen by this advertisement in the July 1900 issue of The Musical Critic, a publication of Chicago Musical College.

Perhaps Grace was one of their proteges in 1901 and the Bergeys obtained engagements for her to enable her to practice her craft.

And the “Carter H. Harrison” home where Grace gave numerous recitals at that very tender age?

Why, that refers to the residence of  The Honorable Carter H. Harrison II, who served five terms as the mayor of Chicago between 1897 and 1915.

Way to go, Little Miss Grace!

Chicago Mayor Carter H. Harrison II with his wife (c. 1913) during his fifth and final term as mayor. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia and The Library of Congress.

Chicago Mayor Carter H. Harrison II with his wife (c. 1913) during his fifth and final term as mayor. Grace Desmond, a gifted and classically trained pianist, performed for the mayor at his home in 1901 when she was only 10 years old. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia and The Library of Congress.)


 Copyright © 2014 Patricia Desmond Biallas

Up next:  Other articles that appeared on the “Society” page of the Jackson Patriot on August 23, 1901 which place Grace Desmond in historical context.

Posted in Biographies, Chicago History, Family Legends | Tagged , , | 2 Comments