Grandma and Grampa Rinkema

The family’s political lineage traces to the early 1900s.  Grampa Rinkema, the youngest of ten children, was a Dutchman who immigrated to the US with my grandma and their daughters after serving time in jail as a conscientious objector for refusing to fight in World War I.  He met Grandma Rinkema at a kissing booth where she was selling kisses to raise money for the stop-the-war effort.  (He got in line for a second kiss.)  My mom was 2 years old when he got out of jail.  Ostracized by his family, Grampa packed up his wife and daughters and came to America.

Grampa Rinkema was a very large man (size 16 feet) whose first job in the USA was wheel-barrowing wet cement up the planks to the top floors of the then-being-constructed Stevens (and by 1968 Conrad Hilton) Hotel in Chicago.  As a side job he was a carpenter who helped neighbors put additions onto their small homes.  Grandma Rinkema anticipated the mass exodus of Whites for the suburbs (and the better schools for their baby-boomer kids) and used the money they saved to buy the tracts of land where Grampa later built the first million dollar suburban homes.  In fact, Grampa Rinkema built the house I grew up in as a wedding present for my Mom & Dad; and in fact, I was lucky enough to attend some of the best schools in the nation.*

Unfortunately, most the Rinkema fortune was later spent on expensive mental hospitals.  The Rinkemas lived across the street from the house I grew up in.  Late in life Grandma became seriously mentally ill.  She tried suicide several times and had raging, maniacal episodes a sad number of times.  But she also shone like a star most her life.  Grandma was a political organizer and was friends with Anna Spies (a Wobbly whose husband was hanged as a Haymarket Riot co-conspirator) and Ralph Chaplin (the Movement Balladeer, author of the organizing anthem “Solidarity Forever”).  They, and others, were often dinner guests when my mom was growing up.

Yet another sign of the times - this time my mom's mom in 1970

A sign of the times – Grandma Rinkema in 1970

Grandma was the one who got me and my friends to drive McCarthy delegates downtown on the back streets from O’Hare Airport during the 1968 Democratic National Convention when Mayor Daley closed the expressway for construction amidst a cabbie and transit workers strike, and arranged city vehicles for Humphrey delegates.

Not only was she the brains behind the small family fortune, she was also very smart about marrying off her daughters.  She had Grampa build an addition on to their place near the University of Chicago which she rented out to U of C guys.  (Yes, each daughter married a U of C grad.)

It was when I was 10 that the mental illness first became manifest after she returned from a trip to Holland.  Grampa got her in the nearest, best mental hospital in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, and the whole family would go up for visits, but nothing seemed to work.  Eventually she just lived out her life at home – and we all learned to live with the outbursts and incoherencies, and sadness.  I still remember racing the ambulance from the school yard to see where it was going but being horrified when it pulled into the Rinkema driveway and my grandma was brought out on a stretcher after one of her suicide attempts.

All through high school I made a daily visit to talk baseball and football with Grampa and give him some respite.  And because there was no TV in the Dawkins’ house, I watched a lot of White Sox, Bears and Black Hawks games over there.  Grandma really liked hockey having grown up skating on the canals in Holland.

Here’s the Moral to this Story:  For you teenagers reading this – if you want to imagine something any one of you could do with your life to have it well-spent, consider doing something to help the less fortunate, the mentally-ill or others living in the shadows of life, like being a mental health aide, a nurse, a doctor, a scientist or even President.


*These were the best schools and best teachers that money could buy.  For those interested in Government 101, read my “Open Letter to Jack & Nick, Up & Comers and Fed-Uppers” which talks about “communitarianism” – an economic system to maximize the efficiencies of community values.  There was a time when the government gave-away land to pioneering homesteaders willing to encounter the dangers and uncertainties of a starting a brand new life in the unknown.  It was an early government program to make our country prosperous.  What could Government do today that could totally re-make America great??





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