What would the Founding Fathers do?
There seems to be a wistful longing these days for when men were men and the likes of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were the talk of the town. But don’t you wonder how all those revolutionary heroes navigated their home life?
Let me tell you the story of a revolutionary father.
Let’s start with the daughter, Magdalena Beme Reese. A success by any measure: young mom of a 13-month-old, good marriage, early stages of a successful career as a lawyer here in Polk County, and loving parents. Trust me, there is no downside. But her life began a little more complicated. Let’s see. Her parents were unemployed, no one spoke English, and the family fortune totaled $30 when they first arrived in the U.S. Imagine. One trip to the pizza joint and the need for a wallet disappeared.
“I had no accent. No one would have known I was different while I attended Jackson Elementary School. However, there were little things. When we would go to the Food Fair, we brought Polish food,” Reese said with a small smile.
When Reese arrived in Iowa at the age of 4, she could only speak Polish. Two years later, she graduated from the ESL program and never looked back. “For me growing up, it was trying not to stand out, not to be different. It wasn’t until I got older that I started to appreciate what my parents did and what they went through to come here.”
From notes on a piece of paper, Reese began to read aloud the history of her family. “In May of 1982 my father was in jail. By October of 1982, he was moved to the prison.”
Stefan Beme is not a big man. But he is square, solid, and not afraid to give you a clear-eyed look. He just cleaned up after getting off his shift at Firestone with the maintenance department.
“I grew up in Communist Poland,” Beme says. “It is a beautiful country today, a free democratic country, but different then. . . . I graduated from trade school and worked for the Power Company. I worked up high on the power lines and at transformer stations and with cable lines. In 1974 I was drafted to the military. You had to go for two years. After service, I met my wife, Maria. We got in love quickly. I loved her from the first moment. And in 1980, Magdalena was born.”
The world then became more complicated for Beme as he and Maria struggled with austere food rationing and loss of individual freedoms. “The election of a Polish Pope gave people big hope.” And Beme became a member of Solidarity — a consortium of unions from various industries around Poland, including the Power Company. He soon became a leader in his group. They demanded independent unions, more food, increased wages, safer conditions for workers, and the release of political prisoners. This did not sit well with the communists, according to Beme. On December 13, 1981, martial law was imposed and Beme’s activities with Solidarity were outlawed. Beme went underground.
Beme began a printing press with others and distributed materials against the government. He would run his press in various locations, and then go to churches, train stations, wherever people would gather, and hand out flyers. “People were hungry for these flyers.”
The secret police were on to Beme. One time too many he distributed flyers in a church. He was arrested.
Beme was sentenced to four years in prison. His religion, he claims, kept him strong during this time. On Sunday, Catholic Mass would be said over the speakers in the prison. “I tell you something. Everyone in the cell would put on their nicest clothes and stand in front of the speakers. People were crying. It was something that kept you going.”
Epilepsy, according to Beme, was his salvation. He had suffered from the disease for years. Prison made it worse. His seizures became more and more frequent. The authorities eventually cut his sentence to two years. He was released from prison, but fired from his job and harassed by the secret police. Maria and Beme decided to leave the country. They chose the United States.
To get a passport, they discovered they had to give up all monies and assets in Poland. They did. They were then each given $10, the clothes they could carry, and a passport. By 1984, they were in Des Moines, not because they knew Des Moines, or even knew Iowa, but because Saint Stephen Lutheran Church and Saint John’s Lutheran Church sponsored them. “We learned we are going to Iowa. Where’s that?”
Maria and Beme then lived the immigrant story. They worked night and day. They slept little. They went to school for English classes. They did everything they could to survive. Eventually Beme ended up at Firestone in the maintenance department. Beme says that over 30 families from Poland were in Des Moines then. All came because they fought for freedom in their own way in the home country. These were survivors.
“When Magdalena went to Dowling, I did not make enough money at my job, so Maria and I cleaned houses, nothing wrong with this, and I worked in gardens to make extra. I took all the job that was possible so Magda could go to the Dowling School.”
And now his little girl is a successful lawyer. Maria has retired and watches her grandchild during the day, where she speaks only Polish at the request of her daughter. And Beme goes off to work at Firestone. A good life.
Looking back, Beme reflects with a slow shake of his head. “I knew it wasn’t easy at all for Maria when I went underground. Maria knew I was pretty active with Solidarity. Everybody knew if you got caught you ended up in jail. We never had any serious talk about it. Maria had to take the pressure of taking care of a six-month-old kid. That was a lot of nerves Maria was in. She didn’t agree. . . . Sometimes we would print at our house. I really admire Maria. She was father and mother to Magdalena.”
“I’m blaming myself. That I put my family and Solidarity activities on the same level. Maria didn’t. I think it was like a power to me. I was young and didn’t look at the consequences of my decision.”
And Maria? “The prison time wasn’t easy. I wanted him home. I never deal with police before and never deal with prison before. I’d rather have him home than prison. We are married only 4 years.” Maria gave a long sigh and looked down.
What would the Founding Father’s do? Got me. So I read to Maria her husband’s words of loving her “from the first moment” and “getting in love quickly” and blaming himself for leaving her without really thinking it through. And Maria looked up and smiled with glistening eyes.
A revolutionary father.