By Ben Jones

When I look at both sides of my family’s history, I see symmetry. I can’t see the big picture without understanding what role the military and education played.

On both my mom and dad’s side, the story starts in Germany.

William Boettger was born in 1861 in Tangstadt, a village in the north part of the country near the border with Denmark. He had five or six brothers and an adopted brother.

The Franco-Prussian war broke out, and William’s older brothers, wanting to avoid being drafted, moved the family to the United States. Some of their relatives stayed behind and were caught up in the subsequent wars Germany endured, including both World Wars. My grandpa, Bob Boettger, has visited Tangstadt and said there are still monuments there honoring his family members who fought in World War I.

William Boettger found a better situation in the United States. He moved to Nebraska and married Mina Stuhr, whose father gave them 160 acres of land homesteaded near Omaha as a wedding gift. My family farmed that land for three generations, and there is a Nebraska State Historical Society marker there today.

Mina and William Boettger at the farm near Omaha. Otto, my great-grandfather, is between William and Mina

William’s son, Otto, inherited the farm and fell in love with Irene Grau, a schoolteacher who taught across the road from the farm. The two bonded over ballroom dancing (Otto was apparently a great dancer), shows at the Orpheum Theatre and meals at King Fong’s, a local Chinese restaurant. My grandpa Bob was born in 1936 to Otto and Irene, married a widowed schoolteacher named Nadeen, who already had two daughters, and the couple had two more daughters. One was my mother, Brenda.

The story on my dad’s side also starts in Germany. Ernest Maaske fought in the Franco-Prussian war, but saw trouble on the horizon for his country. Because of  impending wars and fearing the loss of freedom of religion, he and his wife, Sophia, came to America in 1869. They bounced around the Midwest before coming to Nebraska by covered wagon and settled down to homestead near Bertrand in 1879.

Three generations later, my grandma, Mildred (Millie) was born.

But the similarities between the two sides of my family go beyond their immigration story.

First, even though my ancestors left Germany to avoid fighting in wars, both of my grandfathers were in the military. My dad’s dad, Merwyn Jones, joined the Air Force at age 18 and traveled to Jordan and Japan as a mechanic, which was a big contrast from his small-town Nebraska roots.

My grandpa Bob was drafted at age 20 into the Korean War and drove a Jeep for American intelligence officers. He earned the rank of corporal and returned home in less than a year.

The other theme that rings true on both sides of my family is education. Neither of Millie’s parents finished high school, but they both wanted their eight kids to have a full education. Millie’s parents pushed for her to get moved to Bertrand High School, which they thought was a better place than Smithfield, where her older siblings went.

Millie was the valedictorian of her class, finished one year at Kearney State teacher’s college and started teaching in a one-room schoolhouse at age 18. She had to do mail correspondence courses to finish her bachelor’s degree while she continued to teach.

Her family’s emphasis on education paid off. She took the same approach with her twin sons, my dad and my uncle, whom she sent off to college.

“We didn’t even think about it any other way,” she said. She would make sure Monte and Mitch would get degrees.

My dad followed in my grandma’s footsteps and became a high school teacher. My sister, Abby, followed in his footsteps and became one, too. All of this was because my great-grandparents were sticklers for education.

My mom’s side bears a similar story. Her grandma Irene’s father only had a fourth-grade education, but made sure his daughter would do better. She got her teaching certificate from Peru State in Nebraska City. Her son, my grandpa Bob, married Nadeen, who got her certificate from Wayne State and was also a schoolteacher.

Grandparents Merwyn and Millie (left) and Nadeen and Bob (right)

Bob never went to college, but he made sure his four daughters would. He had a rule that they couldn’t get married before they tried a year of higher education.

“It was a very German thing to make us do,” my mom recalls.

Neither of my grandfathers made it beyond high school, but they are still two of the most intelligent people you’ll find. They aggressively keep up with the news, scour magazines and have endless stacks of books they rifle through.

What I take away from my family’s history is that your past is important in shaping who you are, but you don’t have to be defined by it. My ancestors always looked for ways to make sure their descendants would have better lives than they did. Whether that was moving away from unjust wars or recognizing how important education would be in the world to come, I’m glad they saw the future the way they did.