By Ky Venney
Both sides of my family crossed an ocean to come to the United States. Much of each family’s history has been lost or forgotten over time, but the fortitude of my grandparents ensured that a new American saga would begin.
My maternal grandfather’s family immigrated from Germany. They changed their name from Meier to Meyer and settled down in Weeping Water, Nebraska. Several generations later, Arlene Meyer married James Cook from Lincoln, and Jim was born. Jim is my grandfather and known as Papu to his family.
“This is really a female-centered family,” Papu said. “I did crazy things to get us by, but it was the way the family came together through the women that made it so special.”
While he was going to school at Lincoln Northeast, Papu worked at the McDonald’s on 27th and Vine streets. On weekends, he played poker with co-worker Thom Bicoy. The Bicoys were Filipino-Hawaiian, and had moved temporarily from Hawaii to Lincoln while their father (Thomas Sr.) was in Vietnam on an Air Force tour. It was during one of their poker games that Papu first met Gwen Bicoy.
There were 10 children in the Bicoy family, and Gwen was born third. None of the children ever exceeded a height of 5’1”, and to this day there are arguments about who is the tallest. Since Thom Bicoy Sr. was away, Thom Jr. was the head of the household.
During the poker sessions, Gwen always cooked and Papu never won. Gwen said Papu was a bad liar. So she devised a plan to help him win in order to get back at Thom Jr., and that night Papu won his first game of poker.
Shortly after Gwen’s high school graduation, her father, Thomas Sr., discovered she was pregnant. Thom Sr. retired from the Air Force and forced the Bicoy family to move back to Hawaii.
Gwen and Papu were heartbroken. Papu wrote love letters to Gwen every week, but her father would not pay for her to return to Lincoln.
Gwen sought advice from her Filipino-Hawaiian grandparents, who had immigrated from the Phillipines only decades before.
“They barely spoke any English,” Gwen said.
She cried for hours on her grandfather’s sugar farm. Finally, her grandmother said she would buy Gwen a plane ticket to Lincoln so she could reunite with Papu.
When Gwen arrived, the couple told Papu’s parents of their intentions to marry. Gwen said she would never forget Arlene’s reaction.
“What will the neighbors say?” she asked
Papu and Gwen were married at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Lincoln. Papu joined the Air Force and Gwen began a career in dentistry. In the next 20 years they had four children, including my mother, Mailani.
Meanwhile, my paternal family members lived on the opposite side of the country. Leno Russell Veney Sr., who would be my grandfather, was born in 1943 in Luray, Virginia. He was mostly African-American, but his grandmother was full Cherokee. The name Veney is French, but most likely came from a freed slave named Bethany Veney. She is more commonly known as “Aunt Betty” for her autobiography “Aunt Betty’s Story.” Although she was known to have a son and died in Luray, we don’t know for sure that she is our ancestor.
At 17, Leno persuaded his mother to sign the waivers to allow him to enlist in the Air Force. When the armistice between North and South Korea was first announced, Leno found out he would be stationed at Inchon Air Force base in Inchon, South Korea. It was there that he met Yong Cha Kim.
Yong, known now as Nina, was born into a wealthy South Korean family. Everything about her life was to be arranged: from her career to her wedding. Nina said she had seen the American soldiers walking around the city and she knew she wanted to be with one of them.
Leno and Nina met in Inchon and immediately started dating. Nina kept the relationship a secret from her family. One of their first dates was seeing the movie “Ben-Hur” at a local theater. Nina knew little English at the time, and when the movie ended, she misinterpreted it. It was only years later she realized the ending wasn’t happy.
When Nina’s family discovered their relationship, her father disowned her. Her father felt disgraced because Leno was black. Nina was forced to stay in a hotel that Leno paid for with his military salary. Over the next six months they married, and Leno successfully secured American citizenship for Nina. The first time she boarded a plane was from South Korea to Virginia on United Airlines, the company her son (my father) would become a pilot for decades later.
Papu told me it’s no accident my family ended up in the heart of the country.
“Our families may have been different but they work in the same ways,” he said. “It’s always been all about the family.”