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Memories of An Artist

As many of you know, I have moved from London to the Seattle area. Many things have happened during the move which have impacted my life, but two have conspired to remind me of my past in important ways.

First, the person we bought our house from is Lenee Hildebrand. I do not know her, but amazingly Hildebrand is part of my family tree. Second, because everything I owned was wrapped up and packed up, placed in a container, and shipped to my new home, I have had to unwrap my life here in Seattle. Five of the items I unwrapped were original works of art by my uncle who created them during difficult times. He was a Hildebrand.

My mom, Betty, had two sisters, Barbara and Virginia (known to us all as Ginny). My mom married a man by the name of Charles Rominger. Barbara married Douglas Theiler. Ginny married Fred Hildebrand. When we were little we called Fred, Freddy. Fred was a carpenter by trade, though I also think he worked in construction from time to time. I remember when we were kids he said he was offended by the song that started with the lyrics: “If I were a carpenter and you were a lady, would you marry me anyway, would you have my baby?” Even as a kid I wondered if he was offended with a smile on his face. One of his daughters, my cousins, used to play it (in my mind to wind him up), but I can’t remember if it was Joann or Susie.

Besides being a carpenter, Fred was also a very gifted artist with diverse and impressive talents. I remember he built a large and elaborate dollhouse for his daughters. When I was young he took a piece of soft wood and carved me a horsehead. It was beautiful. I have no idea what happened to that carving, but God knows I wish I still had it. He could draw and paint as well, and I think his son Jeff, my cousin and friend who died much too young, had inherited this gift, but I’d need to check with Greg, Barbara and Doug’s son, to see if my memory is true. (I was the youngest of the three sons, but to Greg and Jeff’s credit, they treated me fairly well when we were kids, though I do remember once out in the woods back of Hildebrand’s house Greg shot me in the ass with a bee bee gun. Hurt like hell!)

When I was a child I was told the following: Fred served in Europe during World War II and had a rough time of it. He was pinned down in a barn somewhere with his unit and was the only one to survived the nightmare. He may have been in the barn for a few days, but my memory may be unreliable. I am more than a little curious if these memories are accurate, or partly accurate, but as millions of soldiers before him and after him, he brought the nightmare home with him.

Once when the Hildebrands and Romingers were all living in Cleveland, Ohio, Fred went missing for a few days, was found in the street and ended up in a VA hospital. While in the hospital recovering, he drew in pencil and ink, and painted in black water color, a number of pictures. I have no idea what Fred’s religious and spiritual history and inclinations were, if any, but these pictures, with the exception of one, were explicitly religious in nature. I was told that given his injuries, a nurse had to put the pen, or pencil, or paint brush in his hand. He then drew or painted with broader arm movements, without the delicacy of fingers and hand. For reasons I do not know, the pictures, all drawn or painted on cheap paper, ended up in my mother’s possession. One day, for reasons I do not remember, she showed me the pictures which she had kept in a box. I was moved and impressed (I am particularly fond of the Jesus in pencil and the thorn crown nailed to a block of wood in ink). Fred was, after all, my uncle whom I loved. I asked if I could have them and without hesitation she gave them to me.

Five of them I framed and hung on my wall, actually on numerous walls through the years. I think there were a few more and I am ashamed to admit I do not know what happened to them. It is a loss, but there you are. I have photo’d each of the framed five and include them here. The quality of the photos is not great, and though it is true the paper is now yellowing, the actual pictures are not quite as yellow as the photos.

If my memory serves me well, which it does not always do, it seems to me that Fred overcame the burden of his history, which was also our burden and history, and became as well as we burdened people can be. I realize he had serious problems in his life and on at least one occasion when I was a small boy, witnessed how problems can manifest themselves in behaviour. Still, I remember him as a creative, fun, friendly guy who treated me well. I can see his face now as I write.

If my recollections are inaccurate, particularly those of his war time experience, it is due to fading memories or that the stories were told to me in a certain way because I was a child. In any event, sincere apologies to his family if either is the case. But for now, blessings to an artist who suffered for good and bad reasons, for political and personal reasons, for global and local reasons. He should have been renown. He was talented. He was human. He was my uncle.  

Copyright © 2015 Dale Rominger

Reader Comments (4)

This was my father, my hero! I loved him more than words can tell. Thank you Dale for honoring his beautiful memory!

Thank you for the beautiful words Dale. He will always be an amazing man and father. Love always Susie

May 28, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSusie Hildebrand

Mr. Rominger, Thank you for the amazing and very well written story about my grandfather Fred and my father Jeff. Please allow me to first comment about my father, your cousin, Jeff. I can assure you that like Fred, he was a gifted artist. Art was always a part of his life for as long as I can remember. His drawings, paintings, sculptures and to an extent the skill seen in the form and function in his carpentry skills was apparent to those he know. He truly was a "master builder" and his life had striking commonalities to the story of the Master Builder by Ibsen. He held on to being an artist and painter right up through the final weeks of his life while cancer drained him. I have only a few of his ink paintings and would love to have the opportunity to show them with you some day. My grandfather Fred was also a skilled craftsman and as you demonstrated, a talented artist. As a young child I have fond memories of him working on wooden models of Clipper ships. The detail and skill needed to construct these models always impressed me and I marveled at his skill. Your describing his tragic ordeal in WWII and struggles once back home was something that I never really knew. I remember asking my father about Fred's wartime experience but he said that he simply had a bad experience. However, I do recall Fred once saying how he served under Gen. Patton in the North African theater and he and George chased the Nazi general Rommel "the desert fox" across the Sahara. I have been working on my family tree (part-time) for a while now so I appreciate your story about the Hildebrand family.

May 29, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJeffry D. Hildebrand


I can not Thank you enough for your kind words! My father was an extremely talented man as was my brother Jeff.
My father did not speak much of his time in the war especially not to me being the youngest. I don't recall ever being told not to talk about it but I knew in my heart that it was painful for him so I never questioned him. Reading your article brought back a lot of memories.

If at all possible, would you be willing to send me copies of his drawings? I would gladly reimburse you for all costs. It would mean a great deal.

Thank you!

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