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December 16, 2014


A man named George A. Fetterly died 62 years ago this month of a cerebral hemorrhage in a hospital in Tulsa, Oklahoma, 11 days short of his 70th birthday. That man, as satisfactorily as I can determine, was my great-grandfather, the missing father of my grandmother — Grandma Bertie, one of the special people in my life.

I heard Grandma Bertie tell only one story about the father who abandoned the family in Pittsburgh when she was a child. She related how he came from Chicago by train to Lock Haven, the small town in north central Pennsylvania that had become her new hometown. He showed up after the death of the wife he had cast off. Grandma Bertie, by then a young wife herself, met him at the station. It’s likely her younger sister, Marie, was also there. George A. Fetterly was angry no one had let him know about the death of his former wife. My grandmother tartly told him that since he hadn’t been concerned about what had happened to them, why should they have been concerned about getting word to him? He took another train back to Chicago. She said she never saw him again.

He was never mentioned when I was growing up. For a long time I knew nothing about him, not even his name. We all like to think we are descended from good people. Most of the time nothing disturbs that belief. Such was not the case with this man. His actions had drastic and lasting repercussions. Because he left, Grandma Bertie, her sister, and their brother spent four years in a church-run children’s home in Ohio. Her lingering memory of the home was singing Christmas carols around a piano played by a blind girl and understanding that Santa Claus had too many other places to go.

Grandma Bertie became a kind-hearted, generous a woman, but she forever suffered from a streak of fearful insecurity. It drove her to let no need or want go unmet in her family if she could help it, first with her two sons and then with me, her only grandchild.

I have an old photo that shows George A. Fetterly standing in front of the corner store he ran in the East Liberty section of Pittsburgh. The sign over the front window says “Geo. A. Feterly.” (In various records, the spelling of his name changes back and forth between Feterly and Fetterly. He started out as Feterly. His death certificate had the last word, sending him off as Fetterly.)  The lettering on the window advertises candies, ice cream, tobacco and cigars, and sodas. With him in the photo are his three children: his oldest daughter, Alberta, known as Bertie, my grandmother; his son, young George, the middle child, who would have a short life, dying at age 20; and Marie, the youngest, who would live the longest of the three, to age 98.

George A. Fetterly and Anna Speece married in 1901 in Pittsburgh. From 1905 through 1908, various Pittsburgh directories list him as a confectioner in business at several different locations in succession. As of the 1910 census, the family is listed as intact and still living in Pittsburgh. Also in 1910, an article in the newspaper in Lock Haven, where Anna had previously lived, identifies her as Mrs. Fetterly of “Pittsburg” (as it was then commonly spelled) and says that she and her three children were in town visiting friends and relatives.

Something happened after this to change things. As of 1911, a Pittsburgh business directory lists George A. Fetterly as out of the confectionary business and working as a chauffeur. According to census records, in 1912 he had a son named Ralph Clyde Fetterly by a 20-year-old woman of Slovenian heritage named Marketa Shallack who lived in Chicago. This event surely played a part in destroying the marriage to Anna. So far, though, I have found no official record of a divorce. It’s uncertain if George A. Fetterly and Marketa Shallack ever married, but at some point he moved to the Chicago area. The census of 1930 lists him as living in Oak Park, Illinois, and working as a chauffeur/taxicab driver. But, surprisingly, he’s also listed as being married to someone else, someone new, a woman named Eva (no maiden name given), the daughter of Russian immigrants.

In the meantime, my great-grandmother moved back to Lock Haven but struggled to support herself and the children. She subsequently was forced to send the children to the Cleveland Christian Home where they were kept as “boarders” for four years, from 1916 to 1920.

I wrote to the home to find out if any records still existed. The official who responded sent photocopies. The information was sparse, but under the name of the children’s father was an interesting notation: “Thought to be dead.” It’s not clear whether Anna didn’t know what had happened to him or where he had gone, or if it was an innocent fiction to assure that the children qualified for admission to the home.  The circumstances suggest that a pastor in Lock Haven who was from Ohio and belonged to the same denomination that operated the home may have arranged the placement. In the census for 1920, the year the children finally returned to their mother in Lock Haven, Anna reported that she had a job in a local furniture factory—and listed herself as a widow.

In 1930, Anna’s two daughters, Bertie and Marie, were both now married and still in Lock Haven. Their brother, George, had died three years earlier, at age 20, apparently of food poisoning. On a Saturday morning in November, Anna arose early and set out in a truck with a helper, a man named William Welsh, to pick up produce for a business operated by her son-in-law, Harold Finnerty, Marie’s husband. The pair had to cross the tracks of the Pennsylvania Railroad. At that early hour there was no guard on duty at the crossing to warn of oncoming trains. They didn’t see a westbound freight train coming around the curve. The truck and the occupants were violently struck and their bodies scattered in a grisly scene.

It was some time after this terrible accident that George A. Fetterly arrived in Lock Haven on the train from Chicago. What brought him? Why then? Had he known or somehow heard about Anna’s death? The people who could answer these questions are gone. I have to wonder: Did George A. Fetterly ever have a legal divorce from Anna? He now had a son from another liaison, and he was considered married to the woman named Eva in Illinois. Anna’s death would have been an event of significance to him, possibly affecting the legality of his current marital status. He might have wanted confirmation, proof, or some sort of documentation of Anna’s death.

I have another photo that shows George A. Fetterly in a studio portrait. He is standing, looking at the camera, with his right hand and arm resting casually on a small table. He is wearing a rumpled three-button suit coat. He has aged greatly from the photo of the young man in front of his store. The hairline has receded from his forehead He is not smiling. His lips are rigidly held and his mouth is a dark slit, suggesting teeth gone bad. His expression makes me think of a man with a sense of suspicion or wariness. The photo is printed as a postcard, but it obviously was never sent. It bears no address, stamp, or cancellation mark. Handwritten on the back is the message: “For Alberta From Dady.” (This time a dropped “d” instead of a dropped “t.”) The card bears the embossed imprint of a photo studio in downtown Chicago. How did the photo wind up among my grandmother’s things? Did her father give it to her that day at the station? If so, it was a parting memento from the father she never saw again.

By roughly 1935, George A. Fetterly was no longer living Chicago. He had taken up residence in Benton, Arkansas, employed as a retail grocer. According to the 1940 census, he was divorced from Eva, who was now an inmate in the State Hospital for Nervous Diseases in Little Rock, the place in which she would ultimately die. After Arkansas, George relocated to Tulsa, Oklahoma, the state where his parents had been born. His last job was as a salesman and warehouseman for a dairy. He died on December 20, 1952, in Hillcrest Hospital in Tulsa of a cerebral hemorrhage. According to the death certificate, he left a wife named Thelma.

The funeral home that handled the arrangements is still in business. I called to find out if the establishment kept files of obituaries. Not files, said the gentleman I spoke with, but there was a scrapbook down in the basement. I gave him the name and the date and he said he would check. He was gone from the phone for a few minutes and then he picked up again. “I found it,” he said. Could he send me a copy? That would be too difficult, he said; all the clippings were pasted in a big book. I asked him if he would read it to me over the phone and he agreed. Actually I asked him to read it to me twice to make sure I took down the details accurately.

Besides, his wife, Thelma, the listed survivors were his son, Ralph, in Chicago, and several siblings. I was especially pleased to have that list of siblings. The names provided final confirmation that I had followed the right man through the long trail of records. They matched the family names I had started out with from the census of 1900. What I did not find in the obituary was any mention of the family that George A. Fetterly left behind in Pennsylvania. I find it hard to believe that someone among the survivors would not have had an inkling of their existence. My disdain for this man had grown as I searched for what had become of him. Now it hardened.

George A. Fetterly was a ghost figure who hovered as an absence felt over the lives of Grandma Bertie and her sister, Marie. Grandma Bertie died in 1987, ironically of a cerebral hemorrhage like her father. Marie died in 2008. They and their brother, George, and their mother, Anna, are all buried in Cedar Hill Cemetery in Pennsylvania, 1,276 miles from the grave in Rose Hill Cemetery in Oklahoma that George A. Fetterly will never abandon. Thelma died in 1973. Ralph died in 1957, after having started a new branch of the Fetterly line.

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