Happy Birthday, Grumpy

My grandfather would have been 95 today. Most of us called him Grumpy from about the time I was born. There are two stories about how he came to take the moniker. One says that his wife decided that "Grandma Hillinger" was too much of a mouthful for a kid, so she decided to go by Nana. After that, everyone wanted to know what my grandfather wanted to be called. He said "Grumpy." The other says that when I began to talk, I mangled the word Grandpa, or straight out called him Grumpy. Either way, it fit, so it stuck. From the time I was born, he was Grumpy. He was a good man, but not easy to talk to, and often a little hard on those around him. Still, he was our grandfather, and we loved him.

Sam and his sister Minna

His birth name was Sammi Hilinger. He was the third child born to his parents, Alex and Dora. He had an elder brother, and an older twin sister, Minna, who is still alive today and living in Colorado. They were born in 1922 in Frankfurt am Main and grew up in a very vibrant Jewish community.

The Hillinger family ca 1932

Unfortunately, that was also a time of rising nationalism in Germany. By the mid twenties, the Nazis were in power, and as soon as they were, they began to make life difficult for Jews and other "outsiders" in their country. Sam's father had been born in Galicia, a place where it was very hard to be poor and Jewish. He had later been sent to an English camp for being of Germanic citizenship during World War I. Both experiences helped him to recognize the signs of what might be coming for their people. He decided it was time to get out of Germany, and even Europe entirely. In 1933, they moved their family of what was now eight to Paris, living there for about a year while Alex worked on getting them all passage to the US. My grandfather often mentioned being a paper seller on the streets of Paris to make a few coins while they were living there. Because of their time there, he picked up French, which later stood him in good stead with the Army when he served during World War II.

Still, I'm sure it wasn't easy, going from a tight-knit community where everyone was like them to being exiles. Having to leave so much behind that they simply couldn't afford to take with them. Living in a new country where the language was completely different. Never knowing what might happen next, and the underlying tensions in Europe that would be impossible to ignore, even as a child. Grumpy rarely spoke German while I was growing up. A few words or phrases here or there, but he spoke English nearly always, and so it was odd to hear it when he did speak it.

Sam's page from his senior year highschool yearbook
Soon after the family made it to the US, Sam's father had a stroke, so they floundered a bit. Dora began to work as a cook in a string of institutions to make money for the family while the children learned English and finished their schooling. Sam graduated from the same Hot Springs, Arkansas school that Bill Clinton would later graduate from, and then went to work in a nearby oilfield in Texas. However, when his family moved to Chicago, Sam moved with them, leaving the job behind.

Private Sam Hillinger
Before they were too settled in their new home, the US had entered World War II. Sam and his elder brother were drafted, and Sam became a citizen, formally changing his name from Sammi to Sam. He was sent to Europe, where he worked as an accountant and occasional translator, given that he knew both French and German, both of which were very valuable languages during the war. After the war ended, so many others were eager to get home quick that the boats were packed going back home. So Sam chose to stay in Europe, using his translating skills to help in the aftermath and cleanup. He was transferred to his home town of Frankfurt, where he ended up meeting and falling for a young Lieutenant in the Army by the name of Margaret Hansen.

Sam and Maggie at their Reception
Sam and Maggie met on a trip to St. Moritz. The trip had been set up by the Red Cross as a form of entertainment for the soldiers and workers who had remained behind to help with the war cleanup after the war. Sam was travelling with some of his Army buddies, but Maggie was all alone. Upon meeting her, he ended up ignoring his buddies to sit and talk with her for the entire trip. When they arrived at the resort, the two spent much of their time there together, even learning how to ski together. It was something that would become a lifelong pastime for the pair, and something they passed on to their children and grandchildren.

They were married in 1948 in the City Registrar's office, and held a reception for their friends the next day. By that time, Maggie had retired from the Army, though Sam still continued to work for them. The two stayed in Frankfurt for another year before returning home. Their first child, my father, was born right there on the Army base.

Sam and Dora with Sam's son
Back in the US, they visited with both Sam's family in Chicago and Maggie's in Cleveland before settling in Ohio so that Sam could attend Ohio State University. He got an accounting degree there. Then they decided to move to Seattle. Neither were particularly attached to the cities their families lived in. They wanted more freedom, and more greenery. Sam received several offers from Touche, Niven, Bailey & Smart in a number of locations across the US. One of which was for Seattle. They'd heard good things about the Pacific Northwest from several of their friends in the Army, and when they learned there were ski areas within a few hours driving distance, that sealed things for them. The family drove across the country and settled in Seattle. Sam and Maggie ended up having another son and two daughters. All of their children still live in the greater Seattle area today.

Sam continued his career as an accountant, working in a string of businesses before finally starting his own business as a CPA. He found a partner to share a space with, and they bought a small house in Ballard, setting up their practice there. By that point, Sam and Maggie's children were all in school, so Maggie came to work for them as a receptionist and secretary. Sam did quite well, doing taxes for many of the businesses in the area, which gave the two enough money to travel during non-peak times of the year. They traveled to Europe quite often, visiting places they'd been to as well as those they had not, and visiting their extended family throughout Europe. He retired in the late 80s, giving them more time to ski and travel, going on cruises and with travel groups for elders, and generally enjoying their life together.

The Hillingers ca 1971

The family continued to grow. Their children married and had children of their own. Family gatherings grew larger and larger. Sam and Maggie enjoyed their time with their grandchildren, often taking them on trips as well, though more local ones. There were family Thanksgivings up in Whistler, trips to other ski areas, and trips down to California to spend time with Maggie's family down there. And through it all, there was plenty of skiing.

Sam and his sisters

It was on a trip to Spain in 2000 that we lost Sam. They had just arrived in Madrid when Sam suffered a fatal heart attack. One of their daughters went to Spain to be with Maggie so that she would not have to deal with it all alone. A year later, we scattered his ashes at one of his favorite ski areas, Steven's Pass. Nana lived more than ten years after that. She got to meet her first two great-grandchildren before she passed.

On 9/11, Grumpy was one of the first people I thought of. How would he have reacted? What would he have done? And each time there is some new upheaval in this country, I think of him, of them. Especially this past election. I wonder what he and Nana would be doing now, and how they would react to all this. Right now, they're a touchstone for me. I hope they will guide me carefully through the next four years. Whatever else, I will keep them close to my heart.


Randy Seaver January 5, 2017 at 9:30 PM  

What a wonderful life story - a tribute to your enterprising and smart grandfather, and something to pass on to all of Sam's descendants.

Theodulf January 5, 2017 at 9:43 PM  

A couple corrections.

Dad moved to Seattle because he was offered a job with a large accounting firm of Touche, Niven, Bailey & Smart (now part of Deloitte.) After a few years with them he moved to Sunny Jim.

And it is Stevens (not Stephen's) Pass.

Elf Flame January 5, 2017 at 10:38 PM  

Randy - Thank you so much.

Dad - Thanks for the corrections. I'll go edit those. I'd thought he was at Sunny Jim first.

Just Kidd'n Playwear for Kids! January 6, 2017 at 8:33 AM  

Beautifully written! I'm so glad to have this story of dad's life. Thank you, and Happy Birthday to Grumpy ♥

Elf Flame January 6, 2017 at 10:20 AM  

Thank you, Carol. I find I learn a little more each time I write about them.

Post a Comment

About this blog

This blog is maintained by two sisters who have had a life long interest in geneology.
Mika writes here mostly about our family (Hansen, Hillinger, Bordewick, Park, etc), and her search for more information.
Shannon mostly uses this space as a place to make the many stories written about and by her husband's family (Holly, Walker, Walpole, etc) available to the rest of the family, present and future.

Our blog is named Oh Spusch! mostly because Shannon is bad at naming things. The first post I put up includes a story about the time Walker's great grandfather took his whole family out to see a play and the littlest kept saying "Oh! Spusch!" No one ever figured out what she meant by that.