Book of man’s stories preserves family folklore
A year ago, Tiffin native Bill Wilhelm died at age 86. The 1945 Calvert graduate became a successful businessman in the Cleveland area and donated to charitable causes during his lifetime.
Before he died, his wife, Dody, arranged for Bill to preserve his stories for his children and grandchildren. The result is a new book, “You’re Never Gonna Amount to Anything.” Although a limited number of printed books are available from amazon.com, the book also can be obtained in electronic format.
“I had said to him for years, ‘Bill, you have a unique story that your grandkids need to know,'” Dody said.
Because Bill showed little interest in writing, Dody started looking for someone else to take on the project before Bill became too ill. At church in Florida, she met Justine Powell Kuntz at choir practice. The former English teacher had retired in Florida and was teaching memoir writing classes. In getting acquainted, the two women were surprised to learn they both grew up in western Pennsylvania.
“When she started to talk, I said “You’re from Pittsburgh, aren’t you?” … (As a student teacher,) I taught at the high school where she taught English,” Dody said.
Kuntz was “delighted” when Dody asked her to put Bill’s stories in writing. She agreed to come to the Wilhelm home in Florida to make recordings and take notes.
“So, for a year and a half, we sat around my dining room table once every few weeks. She would ask the questions and Bill would tell his stories,” Dody said.
When Kuntz had written the material for that session, she emailed it to Dody for editing. Having heard most of the stories before they were recorded, Dody was able to clarify some of the details. Bill’s sister Helen located family photos and granddaughter Victoria Wilhelm scanned them to be used in the book. A family tree diagram and a copy of a newspaper clipping also are included.
One of Bill’s classmates, Bob Haefling of Tiffin, has a copy of Bill’s book that The A-T borrowed to write this article. Born Sept. 13, 1927 in the home at 387 W. Perry St., Tiffin, Bill was one of 12 children. All are pictured in a 1944 family photo in the book. Wilhelm tells about his real name, which is not “Bill” or any variation of William.
The family moved to the grounds of St. Mary Parish when Bill was a child. His father was hired to be the caretaker for the church, and the Wilhelm children were called upon to help their dad keep the school, church and rectory in order. Ringing the church bells was one of their father’s unending duties. The family became well-acquainted with the priests and sisters who taught in the school.
With such a large family, finances were limited. They never had a car. Their furniture and some clothing were used. Mr. Wilhelm remodeled the doctor’s office as payment for the family’s medical care. The children were expected to do odd jobs to help with expenses. Bill did various jobs for two older single women, collected pop bottles and sold newspapers outside of church.
Bill writes about his general dislike for school. At Calvert, he enjoyed playing football, but he got off to a shaky start on the defensive line. When the newspaper report said the line was weak, Bill’s mother told him, “You’re never gonna amount to anything.” In adopting that quote as the title of his book, Bill explains he did not choose it to offend anyone. In the book, he says, parents in the 1930s and ’40s often used such admonishments to motivate their children.
Other stories in the book concern Bill’s jobs, including trimming trees, railroad maintenance and construction work. After graduation, he spent six months shoveling coal on a Great Lakes ore boat. Bill remembered blackouts and sirens during World War II. By the time he enlisted in the Army in 1945, World War II was nearly over. He was sent to Germany to disarm weapons.
Back home at age 20, Bill worked on pipeline construction and met his first wife, Pat. They married in 1950 and had three children. Bill drove a delivery truck in the Cleveland area and later started his own delivery service. The business evolved into a warehouse and storage company called Amware. Many members of the Wilhelm family worked for Bill at various times.
Bill became a successful businessman. He donated to Calvert, made a mission trip to Haiti and treated the family to several vacations. After Bill and Pat divorced in 1973, Bill remained single for a few years before meeting Dody. They were married in 1980. It was the second marriage for both.
In 1995, Bill sold his business and retired to Florida with Dody. The couple often returned to Ohio to visit relatives and attend Calvert reunions. For his contributions, Bill was inducted into the Calvert Hall of Fame.
For Bill’s 70th birthday in 1997, Dody had a bronze plaque made to display on the house where Bill was born. Dody said her husband remained active as long as he could. The last four years of his life, he was on kidney dialysis, but he managed to share his stories with Kuntz. Aforefront Press released the book in December.
“The last session we had was about two weeks before he died. I was so thrilled to get it out, because how many kids coming out of high school today would go up to Toledo and get a job on an ore boat? I don’t know any,” Dody said.
She has sent copies of the book to a number of Bill’s relatives. If she is able to attend the Wilhelm reunion this summer, Dody plans to bring copies of the book for those who want one. The bits of Tiffin history and the vintage photographs make it interesting reading, even for people who did not know Wilhelm. The book gives insights on Tiffin’s earlier days and the hard-working families who overcame disadvantages and made the best of what they had.