Often stories tell us more about a person than facts. In describing my father, Paul, I’m going to start with a true story. In early 1944, Paul and a few of his army buddies are walking down Lincoln Road, the well-to-do shopping area of Miami Beach. Paul notices something sparkling in the asphalt along the edge of the road. With his ever-present pocket knife, he carefully digs out an impressive ring with a large faceted stone. He and his friends gawk—one offers to buy it from him. Paul declines. Later he takes it to Marie and asks her opinion. She describes it as “too gaudy”. Then she volunteers to take it to her jeweler to get a professional opinion about its worth.
Marie is told that this good-size stone is, in fact, a diamond! The two decide to have the stone set in a simple, elegant platinum setting to be mother’s engagement ring! False pride did not deter them for taking advantage of this opportunity. They were willing to seize the moment! This is part of what I describe as a “can-do” attitude.Yet, Marie and Paul did not share this unbelievable story with just anybody.
Today my youngest sister has transformed that special diamond into a necklace she wears every day. She enjoys telling the story when asked about her unusual necklace.
William Paul Neilson grew up in a large family living in a beautiful area of farms and forest near a pristine glacial lake. These are the green rolling hills of western New York state long known for its vineyards. During the late 1800’s and through the mid-to-late 1900’s, Penn Yan and surrounding Yates County were home to a large number of dairy farms, many settled by Danish immigrants and their descendants—like the Neilson family.
Born in 1921, Paul was the oldest boy. He had two sisters and two brothers. In those early years they lived on a farm near Penn Yan, New York. Penn Yan is the village located at the northern end of Keuka Lake, the central lake of the eleven Finger Lakes. Once you’ve seen a map (see the map below) you’ll understand the name for this group of long, narrow lakes. More than 100 million years ago, glaciers moved south with the huge ice sheets gouging out deep crevices in the land. When the ice receded, the crevices became these pristine group of lakes. All the creeks and lake waters drain from south to north to Lake Ontario.
This area is known as part of “upstate New York”. I’ve learned that any part of the state not in New York City is upstate, with downstate referring only to the greater New York City area!
About age twelve (1933), their father left the family and would soon start another family. Paul’s mother, Edith, moved her family into the unheated attic of a house belonging to her brother. This must have been a desperate move for a woman—divorced during the Depression and struggling to support her five children. Her youngest was still a toddler. The move to the village of Penn Yan would have been difficult for the children after knowing the freedom of farm life.
Edith depended on child support payments from their father. Often the payment would be late or not arrive at all. Edith struggled to care for the children. The population of the small village of Penn Yan was 4,517 in 1920. It had only grown to 5,308 by 1940, so employment for the mother was difficult to find. Eventually Edith found work in a men’s clothing factory and worked there until she retired about 1955.
My Uncle Bob, dad’s younger brother told us all these details after my father’s death. He described being sent to the post office to get the support money, and then, the many times it was not there. As boys, he and his brothers had blamed their mother because they thought “she had pushed father away”. Bob described how the boys hunted along the railroad tracks searching for any coal that had bounced out of the coal trains in an effort to heat their rooms. As teens, he and Paul had worked as golf caddies—not great wages, but sometimes decent tips. Probably they made money shoveling snow in the long winters. Bob told me they also made money as “pinboys” setting up the tenpins by hand in the early bowling alleys.
During these conversations with Uncle Bob, he vividly remembered Paul giving him money for a movie and a soda so Bob could pay for a date with his best girl—who became my Aunt Jean. Bob graduated from high school just two months before Paul went into the army in 1942. Bob seemed to hold Paul in high regard. He and I had a good rapport in sharing memories about Paul. Since my dad talked little about his early life, I’m still appreciative of Bob’s willingness to tell us about those years. It’s helped me to understand Paul better.
During his high school years at Penn Yan Academy, the local public school, Paul was a “big man on campus” because of his athletic abilities. Paul captained the football and basketball teams, played baseball and ran track. One of the few stories we heard from him about these years was a love story. He was a kid from a poor family and his high school sweetheart was from a wealthy family who did not approve of their dating. After graduation in 1940, her parents sent her to an out-of-town college in an effort to break their connection. Both Paul and this young women asserted that the separation would not change their relationship. But, as Dad told the story, apparently it did. He did not share any more details of this story.
Uncle Bob was quite surprised that Paul had told me about this love story. Bob confirmed that it had been hard on Paul. Perhaps this episode came up because Aunt Rosemary mentioned it first. Rosemary was four years younger than Paul. She moved to the Miami area about 1950 and was the only relative I ever had living nearby while growing up. In some ways, Rosemary was the big sister I never had.
There is no way to know if that broken romance was part of the reason Paul moved to Rochester sometime after high school graduation. Rochester was the largest city in the region. When Paul was inducted into the army in July, 1942 the records show he was 6’1” and weighed 162 lbs. That same record indicated he was working at a hotel in Rochester in an unknown position. One likely clue: the records on his induction papers list his civilian occupation as “clerk, general office”. Three years later on my birth certificate in August 1945, Marie listed Paul’s occupation as “accountant”. Those years in the army before he was sent overseas are a blank for us now—except that we know he met Marie while training at Miami Beach.
In 1945 he served in the U.S. Army in the Philippines preparing to take part in a possible invasion of Japan. Paul had been promoted to Staff Sergeant. He was a hard worker and comfortable in the company of men. In the baby book Marie kept about me, she recorded that Paul brought a silk kimono home as a gift for me—and one for her. Paul understood that Marie was interested in beautiful fabrics. From notes in that same baby book, I learned that they lived in an apartment at 1518 Drexel Avenue, Miami Beach.
Those Drexell Avenue apartments are now part of the historic district of Miami Beach! The twenty-eight unit, two story building was built in 1926 in the Mediterranean Revival style popular in that period. After returning from the Philippines and being demobilized in January 1946, Marie, Paul and infant Paula began their life together. They had a number of things to figure out.
How to make a living in civilian life? We know Paul worked for a time at the Biscayne Kennel Club, a popular dog racing and gambling facility on Miami Beach that only recently closed. We know he went to night school to learn to be a land surveyor—a job necessary for the growing cities of south Florida. Paul like working outdoors and was good with numbers. He helped survey some of the early cloverleaf entrances and exits to the new highways of Miami. He spent most of his working years as a surveyor for the City of Miami Beach.
“We are formed by the events that progress at our coming of age,” observed Robert Trout, news broadcaster for seven decades in a NPR interview. I thought about my father! By age twelve Paul had lived during the beginning of the Depression, saw his family split apart, moved from country to a village, struggled with poverty, became an admired high school athlete and shortly after school was drafted into the army and shipped 1500 miles away to train for war. Before being sent overseas he married and soon knew that his wife was pregnant. Each of these events did shape the father I grew up with. He wanted the best for his children, but we did not always agree on what was best for us.
Set for Adventure! Both my parents were interested in seeing our country. Once the youngest child reached five, we took family camping trips all across the U.S. However, their first adventure was aboard an airplane! Dad returned from WWII in January 1946. In June the small family boarded an airplane to visit his relatives in Penn Yan and her relatives in Richmond. Traveling with a ten-month old infant is always an adventure and a challenge–here is another example of their can-do approach This was my first airplane trip! And the last one they would take for almost twenty years.
The Finger Lakes region is a central part of the Iroquois homeland. The Iroquois tribes are also known as The Haudenosaunee, or “people of the longhouse” which refers to their dwellings. The Iroquois confederacy includes the Seneca and Cayuga nations, for which the two largest Finger Lakes are named. Lake Keuka (pronounced KYOO-kah) is about 20 miles long and 187 feet deep at its deepest point. It is perhaps the Finger Lake that stands out most due to the Y-shaped channel at the north end, near Penn Yan, with a scenic bluff rising over 700 feet above the water level.
The unusual Y-shape contrasts with the long and narrow shapes of the other ten Finger Lakes. Formerly, Keuka Lake was referred to as Crooked Lake. Keuka means “canoe landing” in the Iroquois language and “lake with an elbow” in the Seneca language. Even today the crystal clear water water of Lake Keuka is used as the public water supply for Penn Yan, Hammondsport, Branchport, and Keuka College.
Nearby Seneca Falls was the site of the first women’s rights convention in the U.S. Attended by almost 200 women, the Seneca Falls Convention advertised itself as “a convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of woman”. The convention met July 19–20, 1848. It was organized by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, two abolitionists who met at the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention in London.
The proposals put forth by the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments, which was presented at the convention, reflect the strong association between Iroquois women and their culture and with the organizers of the Seneca Falls Convention. The positive influence is clear. Willow Michele Hagan writes more about this connection: