Saturday, April 25, 2009

Bert Szymanski (1921-2009)

South Bend, Indiana--This week, our friend and neighbor Bert Szymanski. He was 87 years old and is one of the last surviving people in Indiana (besides his widow) who saw John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson in life. Bert was also a father, a grandfather, and a great-grandfather who was loved by many. Bert was a trucker who helped build the Alaskan highway during WWII. Like many of his generation in South Bend, he worked at the Studebaker plant for several years and was laid-off when it closed in 1963.

Bert told me in January of this year some interesting details that are corroborated by Dillinger's lawyer's (Louis Picquett) book regarding the gang's hideout--a safe house--here in South Bend during the 1933-34 crime wave.

Details told to me by Bert fit Picquett's account of their staying in-hiding in South Bend like a glove. There were other Dillinger gang hideouts in this are, one at Koontz Lake that's long gone, destroyed by a freak tornado in the 1960s (my father showed us the remaining steps and foundation during the 1980s).

Dillinger was chased just down the road of our current residence by Indiana State Highway Police on old S.R. 6, just ten miles down the road from our home in Walkerton, Indiana. This was his stomping ground. Bert and his wife Sally saw Dillinger inside the Biograph just minutes before his murder by FBI agents in the alleyway of the theater, but fled the scene out of fear. They were just kids, no more than 13. Amazingly, I don't think Bert ever told his children about this, but then, I don't think he and Sallie were supposed to be in East Chicago on that hot summer day in 1934 either.

We're losing these stories to mortality every day, and it's a shame that we don't take more care in preserving our history. Sounds like a job for the federal government and a new W.P.A. oral history program.

Bert was a good man who loved his family, his children, his grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and his neighbors. He was a good friend of my late grandparents and he will be missed. Bert and I reflected that he lived to see two Great Depressions in his lifetime, but he was pleased that Barack Obama had won the election and was hopeful that he could be our FDR. He was a smart man, a working man. I helped Bert from the floor of his garage twice--which contributed to a hernia! I will never regret helping my neighbor, he was quite a man. He was buried this morning, and hundreds attended his viewing yesterday. I'm going to miss taking him vegetables from our garden. Sleep well, the neighborhood isn't going to be the same without you.

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