My family’s story is much like many others’. We sailed across an ocean to find a new, better life and to build greater opportunities generation by generation. For much of my family’s history, the effort to build pathways to opportunities for the next generation demanded sacrifices. Sacrificing their time to work hard on their farms; sacrificing their educations to make sure the family kept moving up by way of sheer grit and hard work.
Joseph and Anna Slezak, my fourth great-grandparents, came to America from Bezdekov, Bohemia, in 1876. Three of their children came with them and their oldest son remained in Bohemia. They settled in Fillmore County, Nebraska, near a small town now called Milligan, and began their new lives as farm laborers. They preferred the area around Milligan because its gently rolling hills reminded them of home.
Not long after Joseph and Anna arrived in Nebraska, Joseph began to long for the social life in the old country and moved back to Bohemia. My great-great-great-grandfather Frantisek Slezak, the son who stayed in Bohemia, was now 21 and had married Barbara Kasak Kolar. The couple moved to Nebraska in 1881, so that Anna could stay in Nebraska.
From laborers to land owners
Five years after arriving in Nebraska, Frantisek was able to homestead his own land to farm instead of working someone else’s. The Slezaks would live in a dugout for 11 years until they were able to build a home in 1897. Two years later, on September 26, 1889, my great-great-grandfather James Slezak was born.
James and his siblings attended School District 33 and then Milligan High School. But school was never the focus of the Slezak family’s life, and James only attended through the 10th grade. The family had little time for an education; farming was hard work without the luxuries of modern machinery or horses. The farm required long days of manual labor, and all hands were needed.
Eventually James inherited the land his father had worked so hard to obtain and built a home there. James married Josephine Simacek. And on August 25, 1914, Milo Slezak, my great-grandfather, was born on the family farm. In 1917, the Slezaks moved from the homesteaded farm to another farm nearby. Like his father, Milo attended School District 33. He attended the school for eight years and had perfect attendance.
While the Slezaks acquired horses, and then a tractor and other modern machinery, to make the day-to-day labor on the farm less strenuous, the farm still demanded the attention of the whole family. Milo only attended Milligan High School for one year. Instead of spending his time in school, he had to spend it working on the family farm.
Eventually Milo purchased some of his own land outside of York, Nebraska, to farm with his wife, JoAnn Lottes. The third of five children, and their oldest boy was Michael Slezak, who would be my grandfather.
Milo later became a car salesman and lived in Lincoln and Columbus, before returning to the farm life in Crete. Unlike his father, my grandfather graduated from Crete High School, but that’s where his educational journey ended.
Each generation had farming in its blood, and my grandfather certainly did too. He rented out 80 acres of farmland from an elderly woman in Crete, Nebraska, to farm when he was 17. He also helped farm his parents’ 240 acres and worked full-time at the Alpo dog food plant in Crete. This all added up to 70 or 80 work weeks.
Eventually Michael would become a trucker and own his own trucking company. According to my mother, Kristi Slezak, he would continue his habit of consistently working 60-plus hour weeks to provide a better life for his family.
While no previous members of the Slezak family were able to focus on school, my grandfather changed that for my mother. While she lived the first few years of my life as a single mother, she never gave up on furthering her education. She earned her master’s degree in social work and laid the foundation for not just agricultural success for the Slezak family, but for educational success as well.
I know that because of the back-breaking work and the sacrifices of Frantisek, James, Milo and Michael, my mother and I are able to pursue a new form of success. They laid the foundation for us to have a better life and greater opportunity.
While the type of labor has changed, my mother and I are continuing the Slezak legacy of striving to succeed and making sure the road to success has a few less speed bumps for the generations to come.