A few years ago I received a death certificate in the mail that I’d ordered for my uncle Jack Donar (1902-1929). I had a pretty tough time transcribing the document due to the poor penmanship of the clerk who recorded it, but I was able to glean a few facts about this young man who was only 26 when he died.
Among those facts are these: Uncle Jack (given name, John) was born December 5, 1902 to my grandparents, Peter Matthew Donar (1867-1929) and Mary Agnes Kennedy (1872-1958) who were each born in Albany, New York—first generation Americans who descended from Irish immigrants. He died at 9:45 pm on Thursday, May 9th, 1929, leaving behind a wife named Bertha.
At the time of his death, Uncle Jack (and presumably his wife) resided at 3822 Jansen, Chicago, Illinois. Michael Nelson, M.D., of 1001 Belmont Avenue, Chicago, was Jack’s physician and had been caring for him since January 24th of that year.
My siblings and I vaguely recall hearing our mother recount that Jack, whom we’d never known, had “died young” due to something related to his liver or kidneys. No wonder her memories of the event were vague—she was only 18 years old herself, when her brother died that spring of 1929. The cause of death written on the death certificate is nearly illegible—about all I could make out from the poor penmanship was something about “acute ? of a chronic ? nephritis.” Closer study though, combined with a bit of Googling and suggestions from my daughter, Kelly (who just happens to be learning about diseases this semester in nursing school), helped sort it out.
I’m pretty sure that Uncle Jack’s cause of death was “chronic parenchymatous nephritis” –basically kidney disease–known at one time as Bright’s disease. Listed as a secondary or contributing cause of death was “anasarca” or edema–more commonly known as swelling.
As Kelly pointed out, when Uncle Jack died in 1929, dialysis and kidney transplants were treatment methods of the future—so why wouldn’t such a diagnosis be fatal? There was no way of curing a disease like his in the early 1900s.
One thing I love about genealogy is its ability to fire the imagination. I enjoy taking hard facts I’ve gathered from decades old documents to place a family member in an historical place and time, then imagining what their life was like in that setting. In Jack’s case, brief as his life may have been, it must have been an exciting time in history for a young man to be alive.
Though born in New York, he grew up in Chicago in the 1920s: the age of flappers and Al Capone.
Imagine the headlines Jack must have read on his way to work about the latest shooting sprees of Capone and his gang on the streets of Chicago where he lived. Eliot Ness and G-Men were real—not just characters portrayed in reruns on late night TV (what’s that?) or in a blockbuster movie being shown at a local cineplex (what’s that?). Jack was a boy during World War I and died ten years before World War II even began. Did he hear stories from older boys in the neighborhood who’d fought for the Allies in Europe? Clearly, he knew nothing of the horrors of a holocaust or a man named Hitler. And he died just months before the Great Depression brought America to its economic knees.
In a perverse way, Jack was one of the lucky ones in the Donar family who died over the next few years—he actually got a gravestone. His father Peter, who died several months later, just days before the Crash, did not—there was probably no money available for such a luxury at the time.
It must have been a very tough year for my Grandma Donar. She’d lost her eldest child and her husband within five months of each other. Little did she realize that just seven years later she’d lose her youngest child, Matt, on the brink of his own adulthood when he was just 21. Little has been found on Uncle Matt—not even a death certificate. But there is a cemetery record that proves he was buried near his brother Jack and father Peter, in All Saints Cemetery—also, quite sadly in an unmarked grave.
On a happier note, here’s a fun bit of trivia about Uncle Jack I would never have known without obtaining his death certificate: His occupation was listed as “salesman” for the “Buick Company.”
A Google search of “1929 Buick”–the year Jack died–resulted in the images below.
What an exciting occupation for a young man of the times to engage in! Imagine being 25 years old in the late 1920s shortly after the horseless carriage was first introduced by Henry Ford. Off to work you’d go each day knowing it was your job to polish, demo or drive these beauties for prospective owners of this new-fangled mode of transportation. Now that’s what I call job satisfaction!
Unfortunately, there are still many unanswered questions about members of my mother’s’s family of origin. How and why did Jack contract nephritis? How long was he ill? How long had he been married to Bertha before he died?
Jack was 26. She may have been even younger—which would have made her a very young widow. Did they have children? It’s doubtful, as no children were listed in this obituary, which ran in local Chicago papers of the day:
John J. Donar, beloved husband of Bertha, nee Benson, beloved son of Peter M. and Mary A. Donar, fond brother of Helen, George, Dorothy and Matthew. Funeral Monday, May 13, 1929, 9 am from chapel, funeral home, 3552 Southport av to St. Andrews church. Interment All Saint’s. New York City papers please copy.
Did Bertha remarry? Quite possibly, as she still would have been quite young, and there’s a marriage record at cookcountygenealogy.com for a Bertha Donar who married Oscar C. Scoville in Chicago on June 30, 1930 (file # 1282428). Was that Bertha Donar, Jack Donar’s widow? If so, she would have remarried just 13 months after his death. A perusal of 1930 census records however, shows no Bertha and Oscar Scoville, so that mystery will probably never be solved. And how and why did Jack’s brother Matt die at the age of 21? Another incurable disease?
How did Grandma Donar get along after the deaths of her husband and two sons? There was only one man in the family left at that point–my mother’s brother, George. George was a loner, a military man who served in both the Navy, and later, in the Army during World War II, but he never married or had kids of his own. Three sons, but none who carried on the Donar name.
My beloved Aunt Helen went on to marry and outlive two husbands, and my mother went on to become a model, marry a Notre Dame man at the age of 23, and produce eight children of her own. Grandma Donar, who lived to be 86 years old, lived with her daughter, Helen, in her golden years, and was eventually buried beside her in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
The Donar story is a common one of a hardworking American family and the struggles they endured, in a particular place and point in time. Just what we genealogists like to research, learn about and share with others.
So here’s to Uncle Jack, whom I never knew: a young man, whose life in Chicago in the 1920s–brief as it was–provides a snapshot in time of what life was like for one of my American born ancestors.
Copyright © 2012 Patricia Desmond Biallas