Near Strasburg, North Dakota
Sunday, June 7, 1992
Presentation by Larry Welk, son of Lawrence Welk and grandson of Ludwig and Christina (Schwahn) Welk
When, at the age of 21, my father left this home to seek his fortune in a wider world, he never forgot the important virtues and values which had formed his character. These were carried throughout his life and were the foundation for his work, both as a celebrity and a business leader.
As he left this place, the only skill he possessed was his accordion playing. He spoke no English, had no education, knew nothing of the entertainment field. Cars, radio stations, business contracts and gangsters were all new to him. But the hardships of his boyhood, with deprivations of every kind, provided a major strength to this self-taught musician. It didn't matter that he had to sleep in cornfields or in cars. A life of music, which had found its expression in his accordion, seemed like a miracle. Into that music he poured his immense sense of wonder, joy and zest for life. And people listened -- and are still listening.
My dad always reminded me of the Russian comedian, Jacob Smirnoff, shortly after he immigrated to America. Jacob (pronounced Yah-Kob) tells about walking down the aisles in an American supermarket and being utterly amazed by what he was seeing. First he noticed some milk powder for sale and discovered that you only had to add water to it to have real milk. He marveled at this technology. On the next aisle he found powdered orange juice and found that he only had to add water to that to make real orange juice. He was astounded at this advance. Then, as he rounded the next corner he found a shelf displaying baby powder. He turned around and shouted, "My God What A Country!"
Dad mirrored this same exuberance and optimism about life in America. I think the word "Irrepressible" was coined for him. His persistence was legendary. He felt that most people gave up on a project much too soon. In fact, he felt that they gave up just before the project was ready to take off and fly. He would say, "Always keep trying -- never give up." My mother often commented, "Your father is like a cork. If you push him down in one part of the water, he soon pops up in another part and keeps right on going."
My dad was the son of immigrants -- the first generation in this country who had to struggle with the tensions between an old-world culture of formal rules and tradition and a new-world culture of curiosity, independence and diverse values. His life reflected the competing forces of these two worlds - few men or women of his generation integrated these two worlds so successfully into their lives and work.
I want, for a moment, to speak here about my grandparents, Christina and Ludwig Welk. They had come to this site in the waning years of the last century, having left the Black Sea region of the Ukraine, under gathering clouds of economic and political oppression. They, along with many young families, left behind parents, siblings, extended family and friends knowing with a heartbreaking certainty that they would never again see these loved ones. I wonder if any of us can comprehend the enormous courage of mind and heart that it took to make that final break and to walk forth into an unknown world and an incomprehensible future.
And, having weathered the grueling journey by wagon, ships' steerage and train, they finally settled here on the plains. Do we have any idea of the sheer guts it took to carve their home out of this soil, block by hard block, while they lived in temporary shelters and Christina gave birth to their first child? In their first years they endured the extreme cold of winter and the searing heat of summer with no relief, often spending sleepless nights and days nursing children gravely ill with diseases for which there were no immunizations and no antibiotics.
Each year there was new hope that the seeds sown the previous season with backbreaking labor would produce a good harvest - a harvest that would not be destroyed by drought, locusts or frosts. In the bitter years of the depression, there was still hope that the family would survive with enough food and enough clothing - and a little extra, to share with less fortunate neighbors, so that they could have some semblance of pride.
We often think of those great Americans who have climbed mountains, or formed alliances, who have been fine presidents or who have walked on the moon. Or those who have achieved a stunning breakthrough in man's endurance record or in man's understanding of technology. We hail these remarkable individuals and we are inspired by them. But do we ever ask if their marvelous feats required a lifetime of the kind of quiet valor that Christina and Ludwig and their neighbors possessed? Their lives of perseverance called for stouter hearts than those worn by many who have been lauded in our history. Each day of their lives was infused with a dedication to their family and to their principles which we now see was heroic. That is the legacy which they left to their heirs, among them my father.
I also want to take this opportunity to pay a special tribute to the women of these plains - and to my grandmother and my aunts. In addition to sharing in all of the work of their men, these women also endured the ordeals of pregnancy and childbirth under primitive conditions, the enormous responsibility of sheltering and rearing infants and children while working on a farm and the often soul-shattering experiences of nursing children through long illnesses or losing them to death. I am here today to praise their courage and to thank them for their vision in securing the strength and stability of their families and their communities. I want to know my history! It is my generation that wants to explore our history - that wants to know the details of personalities, circumstances and motivations which formed the lives of our ancestors. But my ancestors are silent. They have left no letters, no diaries, no stories. Much that they experienced was too painful to relate - to painful to ponder. The pain would have been crippling. So they put it behind them in order to build a different life. This is the tension between those who want to learn their history and those who have lived it.
There's a story about Richard Nixon when he was president. At one of his press conferences he had answered several questions. Finally, a reporter asked him a personal question: "Sir," he queried, "Is it true that you were born in a log cabin?" "Oh no, no," replied Mr. Nixon, not true at all - no no. I believe you're thinking of Abraham Lincoln. You see, I was born in a manger." Well, my dad was so poor, he was practically born in a manger and he never forgot it. He was always proud of his roots, of his family and of his home town. He had no pretensions. [His virtues and talents were born here.]
A deeply ingrained respect for every person made him the confidante of farmers and financiers, of peasants and presidents. It was hard for him to be biased because he so quickly saw beyond race, creed or gender to the essential humanity of people.
His was one of the first shows to display the talents of performers of all races, to play the music of many religions and to show the joyous contributions they were making to America's culture. He was the first entertainer to institute a profit-sharing policy in his corporation and with his orchestra - a policy that continues in place today.
His curiosity and keen insights into business patterns enabled him to spot trends, to analyze concepts and listen to his intuition. Throughout his life, people knew that they could trust his word - that his handshake on a deal was as good as an ironclad contract.
So, my friends, it was this home and this family that, despite daunting hardships, nurtured the young boy who became my dad - who became Lawrence Welk. In those harsh early times, it would have been understandable if his family had forced him to conform to their rigorous schedule in keeping a small farm going while trying to support 8 children. Yet his musical talent was respected, and shared, by his parents and his many siblings. His artistic temperament and creative mind were not crushed by insistence on a rigid conformity to rules but were accepted by parents who did not know what life held for him but trusted that his talent, and God's guidance, would bring him a full life. How often we find, as parents, that it is our non-traditional children who become a great source of pride and growth for us!
In this home I see the embodiment of all of the
values which my father lived and which our family still lives:
- It was this home that taught him integrity and honesty.
- It was this home that formed his exquisite sensitivity to people and ideas.
- It was this home that modeled sacrifice and self-discipline for other's benefit.
- It was this home that taught him to worship God and the world he (or she) created.
- It was this home that was an example of perseverance.
- It was this home where a love of music became a part of their artistic fabric.
- It was this home which strengthened him to meet and conquer adversity.
Our futures, too, were born in this home, this town, this state. Let us take hope and courage from this place as a precious legacy from our ancestors, as we carry forward their dreams to fulfillment.
Reprinted with permission of Welk Group Inc., Santa Monica, California.