By Trev McDiffett
Ida Mae Willey was a true patriot. Everything from the flag she flew above her Sutton, Nebraska home, to her son, Wayne, who fought in World War II had American pride written all over it.
During the war, troops returning home on the train would often make stops in Sutton. Ida Mae was always first in line to hand the soldiers baskets packed with sandwiches, cakes and fresh fruit. Everyone knew Ida Mae as a proud American.
“She was probably the most patriotic woman I had ever known,” says my grandmother and Ida Mae’s granddaughter Karen Doyle. “I tell you, when the band came by with the flag, we better stand at attention with our hands over our hearts.”
However, there was something about Ida Mae few people knew – something she was not proud of.
Ida Mae spoke fluent German.
Before she was born, her parents had immigrated to the United States from Germany. The exact location of where in Germany is unknown. As a child, Ida Mae was brought up in a household that spoke mostly German.
Ida Mae was ashamed of her German heritage and her knowledge of the German language.
“I could have been bilingual if my grandmother hadn’t been so terribly afraid of doing something that wasn’t American,” Karen said.
A compassionate side
When Karen sat at Ida Mae’s dinner table, there was never much conversation. It was expected that the table should be set properly and the children obey their table manners.
Despite Ida Mae’s disposition, she still had a caring and compassionate side.
A couple of blocks down the street from Ida Mae lived a woman by the name of Lucy Danner. Lucy had immigrated to the United States as a child but her family still remained in Germany.
Lucy was at a disadvantage in the United States. As a German immigrant, she did not know English well and she was illiterate in her native tongue. Crippled by her language barrier, Lucy did not contribute much in the Sutton community. She rarely spoke to people and didn’t have any friends.
Ida Mae and Lucy had met on several occasions, and Ida Mae had felt sorry for Lucy’s situation. As they grew to know and trust each other, Lucy revealed to Ida Mae that her family had been sending her letters, but she didn’t know how to read or write back to them.
Meeting in secret
Mae’s heart broke for her neighbor. She agreed she would read Lucy the letters and write letters to her family back for her, under the condition she would do in secrecy.
“She (Ida Mae) was very ashamed of the fact that she knew German, and didn’t feel like she should be helping anybody who was non-English speaking,” Karen said.
Lucy would come to Ida Mae’s back door with her letters concealed in her pocket. Then the two sat in the living room as Ida Mae translated the letters.
Often times Lucy would shed tears of joy upon the news of hearing her family was doing well.
No one is sure how long the two carried on the secret translations, but Ida Mae and Lucy remained friends for the rest of their lives.