Saturday, January 26, 2013

An Athlete, Olympian and True Hero

                       The Life and Times of Charlotte Rickert Stengel

This past Sunday night a true hero died. There was no fanfare, no television coverage of her death, no stories in People or Wall Street Journal...and that is a shame. With all the brouhaha  over Lance Armstrong - his victories, his battle with cancer, the did he or didn't he take performance enhancing drugs, and the final confessions on Oprah, we gave a lot of time to someone who was never a hero. It seems to be the story of our times. Athletes rise, athletes lie or do stupids things, athletes fall; so few really become any kind of role models. I can think of a few - Kristi Yamaguchi, Scott Hamilton, Tim Tebow...there are still some around, but I really want to share with you the story of Charlotte Rickert.

Charlotte was born in Germany October 31, 1919 to a circus family. Her father Richard was a known weightlifter, her mother was Elisabeth Nufer. From the time she was an infant, her father prepared her to be a performer, balancing her on his hands as soon as she could stand. He was a weightlifter of rank,and systematically trained her from childhood - especially with expanders

"Ladies and gentlemen, girls and boys, and kids of all ages ... may I direct your attention to the center ring and the death-defying feats of Miss Charlotte Rickert, the youngest acrobat on earth!" shouted the circus ringmaster.It was 1921, and the German-born Charlotte was only 2 1/ 2 years old." (footnote 1)

The family became quite famous and performed before royalty. Richard started training Charlotte as a gymnast and also had her work with weights.

As the years passed, she became an expert performer, not only tumbling and somersaulting far above the ring, but also juggling, dancing and singing for cheering crowds.When she was 14, Charlotte was billed as "The World's Strongest Girl," and she and her family entertained Europe's nobility and heads-of-states. She also made two movie appearances in 1939.(footnote 1)

 In 1935, Charlotte played the Wintergarden in Berlin with a troupe of performers.The revue featured an array of young performers ranging from singers, dancers, and musicians, to acrobats and circus performers, all of them children. Charlotte, at fifteen, was billed as the world's strongest woman, and performed feats of strength, highlighted by her challenging the strongest men that could be found in the audience to pull a high-tension spring-expander. At sixteen, she already managed an expander with 300 kg clamping force. Unlike many 'of her predecessors, Charlotte was virtually a "petite Personnel," which won with teen-fresh charm the sympathy of the audience. Charlotte comes in a bout 5' tall. Shortly after,  she pulled an 800 pound tram spring and took on five men at once to prove her extraordinary strength in a career that conquered all important stages between 1935 and 1946. (footnote 2)

In 1936, Charlotte went to the Olympics to compete in weightlifting. There was no category for women at that time, and she actually lifted more than the men. She was awarded a gold medal.

The war started soon after and Charlotte was pressed into service, entertaining the troops on the Russian front. During the war, her mother was wounded and Charlotte carried her mother through the woods for four days until they reached safety, eventually ending up in Poland. The Rickert's fame, success and wealth ended abruptly with the onset of Nazism and World War II and, when the war took a turn for the worse for Germany, the family became separated. Newspapers even told the world that they had died. Charlotte told me her family lost everything during the war, even to the point of her having no shoes. Someone saw that and gave her some shoes, and she made a promise to herself that day, that if she ever saw someone in need, she would help them. The family was eventually reunited and later, in Wiesbaden, Germany, after the American forces arrived, "The Charlotte Rickert Show" performed before the Allied High Command and the troops. This is where Charlotte met her husband, American Special Services' officer George Stengel, who was a promoter, and after marrying, in 1947 they came to America. Nineteen months later, their son George arrived.

Charlotte was enjoying her new family life when her siblings begged her to rejoin them so the show could become established in America. She finally agreed and performed again for a year in 1950. While performing one day in Pennsylvania, she heard shouts and went running to find a blaze coming from her trailer. She dashed inside and quickly passed her 19 month old son out to waiting arms. Confused by the smoke, she couldn't find the trailer's door. Receiving burns over 75 per cent of her body, she hovered near death for weeks. Although she hadn't been especially religious before, she now looked to her faith during her long and painful recovery. 

After all this, money was tight and Charlotte was not afraid of work. She worked as a chambermaid and did other menial labor to help put food on the table. She had not forgotten her promise to help those in need, and soon the Stengel's house was filled with both strangers and neighbors who needed a place to sleep or a good meal. Her husband and family accepted her passion for helping others. She started a food pantry in her home and that led her into finding furniture and clothing for the needy as well. Many times, she found jobs for people. As time went on, her food pantry outgrew her home and she turned to her church to see about starting one there. It wasn't long before she had things up and running at Resurrection Lutheran Church in Cairo, NY, working five days a week recruiting volunteers, collecting donations, feeding the hungry and working with other programs to distribute cheese, honey, cornmeal and other staples to these families. She spent many hours on the road delivering furniture and often logged in 17,000 miles of back roads driving a year.

At one point, she was in a terrible car accident which resulted in a broken disc in her back. Even that hardly deterred her as she quickly jumped back into action even though she was still undergoing physical therapy. She wasn't a young woman at the time - she was 73! I remember she could move full bookcases that even our young pastor couldn't move! Charlotte worked with the storehouse until she could no longer physically manage and at 90, she finally slowed down. The storehouse feeds well over 3,000 people a year. Charlotte gave over 60 years of her life in service to other people.

Charlotte has won all kinds of awards for her work - In 2008, she won the Tyson Foods Hunger All-Star of the Month Award.  Charlotte’s dedication to fighting hunger is inspiring,” said Ed Nicholson, director of community relations for Tyson Foods. “If each local community had volunteers who gave a fraction of what Charlotte has for our nation’s hungry, I believe we could win in the fight against hunger in this country."

I stayed with her one Sunday so her caregiver could go to church and found it to be one of the most interesting days of my life. I was able to see her photos from her circus days, her gold medal and talk to her about her achievements. While the Olympics was a very special time for her, she was more interested in talking about the poor. However, as frail as she was, she said to me, "Would you like to see what I can still do?" I said, "Of course!" and she took her leg and pulled it straight over her head!

Charlotte spent the last 2 years of her life in a nursing home, but there are very few people in this town who haven't been touched by her humbleness and her driving force in helping the needy. As I said, this lady is a true hero and role model! Spread the word! We need more people with her heart.


2.  Jugglers 1947

Saturday, January 19, 2013


Last night my husband and I watched the movie Monumental. I am a bit of a history buff, so I was looking forward to it. My husband's ancestor Abraham Pierce came here on the ship Ann in 1623, the third ship to come with Pilgrims/Puritans/Separatists to Massachusetts. As a mom who homeschooled her children, we had spent quite a bit of time studying the Pilgrims. If you ask my son what he remembers, he will inevitably talk about Squanto the Indian and how he came to a Pilgrim's house and asked for beer - that always cracked him up. We always hoped to go to Plimouth Plantation and Boston to trace our family roots, but somehow this never happened - probably because money was always tight and to my knowledge our only family vacation was to D.C. one year.

The film follows the Pilgrims from their start in England, why they split from the church, their attempt to go to Holland to escape the king, their capture, release and second journey to Holland. There were a lot of interesting facts. I knew they had tried once to escape imprisonment by King James and that the boat captain they had hired ratted them out. I did not know about the second attempt where they sent their wives and children on a raft down a river so they wouldn't get caught while the men went to the boat. The ladies got stuck on a sand bar and were captured. The men's boat got caught in a storm as they went to get the ladies, and were tossed at sea for 2 weeks. Apparently 100 other ships were caught in the same storm which pulled them up toward Norway, and they were the only ship to survive. They went on to Leyden, Holland and their wives after being released got there a year later. I won't tell you all that was on the DVD - I could never remember it all and I really would encourage you to watch it as the extras are amazing. At any rate, after a false start, the Mayflower finally set sail for America. Their main goal was to start a settlement and spread the Gospel. Of the 102 passengers, 47 died that first winter - mostly women. I can't imagine the heartbreak and hardship they endured. It speaks of their relationship with the Indians and there is a nice interview with a Harvard professor about the roots of Harvard.

They bring you to the Plymouth Monument - the largest free standing granite monument in the USA, now tucked in the cul de sac of a neighborhood in Plymouth overlooking the ocean

The film then tells more stories about colonial America and the signers of the Declaration of Independence. It puts to rest the idea that the signers were deists and not Christian, showing many original manuscripts in the collection of Historian David Barton. They speak with a niece of Dr. Martin Luther King, a congressman and other scholars.

In short, if you are at all interested in American History and the true story, I would recommend this film. It does come from a Christian perspective, but gives solid evidence for each part of the journey. It may surprise you! It is available on, possibly from your interlibrary loan and from the producers

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

German Genealogy

Don't you just love this photo? It's of my great-grandparents and taken probably in 1907 when they married. He (Peter Riess) was originally from Konigsburg in East Prussia, but somewhere along the line moved to Leipzig in Saxony where he married his first wife Anna Marie Julie (no idea of her last name) and had two children (no names for these two either). In April of 1882, he boarded the Suevia and arrived in the port of New York at Castle Garden on the 28th. I have never found any arrival for his wife and children and yet I know they did arrive. So many of the records before Ellis Island are hit and miss. There are several members of my family who arrived in New York pre-1888, but I have yet to find them on any of the databases available.

He was a furrier and built quite an impressive house alongside the Bronx River with a workshop in back. He employed several men and women there who helped with the process of getting the furs tanned and ready to be made into coats, stoles and hats. He looked to have a very nice life there. In 1899 he was the first person in the Bronx to buy a Winton touring car - the only other person in New York with one was a Rockefeller! He bought several Wintons over the years - here he is in one of them. I believe it was an 1899 Winton Stanhope. I am guessing this is his first wife and two children, it is the only plausible idea.
 He owned several over the years - one had bright red wheel rims and apparently sat in his garage long past his death in 1937.

He and his first wife held several patents regarding boats and marine ideas - the family lore says he invented the bilge pump, but a friend stole the idea and got to the patent office before him. Somewhere around 1903, his wife and two children died. Again, a mystery. I am pretty sure they were on a visit to Leipzig when it happened but haven't yet found the information as I have no names for the children. Thant information seems to have been lost.

My great grandmother (Ernestine Liedke) was a young women who worked for him in the factory. She was from a small town that was German, but in Poland,under Russian rule. That sounded crazy to me growing up, but she was very adamant that they were Germans! Eventually, in my searching, I found what she said was true. Her town was called Witoczyn, although it has a Polish name now and I recently was able to find it on  Google Maps - to me that is incredible! She was 36 years younger than he, but in 1907 they married. They had three children just as the depression was starting. His home on the Bronx River was torn down to make way for the Bronx River Parkway, and he bought an apartment building as well as a two family home over the ensuing years. Sadly, he had invested in Vienna bonds and lost a lot of money and by the time my great aunt married, his apartment building was so empty, they had her wedding reception in  one of the apartments.  He died in 1937, leaving my great grandmother with one child still at home. I don't think my grandmother was ever able to grasp not being well to do after the depression, she talked about it until she died.

One of my goals this year, is to find those records for Konigsburg and Witoczyn and find more information regarding both of their families.

Monday, January 7, 2013


Here is a recent photo of me and my favorite singer Keith Harkin!News
As you can see, it would take just about 2 of Keith to make one of me!

I've been thinking about the differences between the words resolution and resolved, so  I decided to look them up
resolution - the action of resolving to do something

resolved - fixed in purpose, firmly determined, resolute

Hmmm, they really are pretty close in meaning, but the difference I see is one is making a decision and the other is standing firm in that decision. So, I don't want to make a resolution this year, because I rarely keep them. I mean to, but as the months fly by, they sort of drop off into space somewhere. This year, I need to be resolved!
I have been carrying a great load of weight for way too long now. I am morbidly obese.All my fault, really. I mean, I can make all sorts of excuses for letting this happen - pregnancies, small bouts of depression, junk from my past, living in an area where it seems the people I know are all overweight...none of that gives me permission to ruin my body. Every year I watch Biggest Loser and find it so inspiring - but I watch it while I am snacking, vowing that I am going to do this...and I never do. I don't eat humongous meals like the contestants I see. My problem is snacking.  I get close, last year I lost 30 pounds and went to the gym 3-5 days a week, but you can firm up all you want, and it still doesn't take weight off your body unless you are dieting as well. I have tried a lot of fad diets, no luck there - my hubby keeps saying the only way to lose weight is to stop eating so much and to exercise. He's right. There is no easy way. My doctor keeps telling me I am a good candidate for bariatric surgery, but I don't want to do something that changes my insides and never lets me enjoy a dessert again. I want to learn to eat responsibly.  Funny, I am listening to K-Love radio and they just had a woman on talking about weight loss and she said, God made food for us to consume, not food to consume us! How true.

All this weight has taken a toll on my knees. They have gotten worse every year and I am so frightened of losing the ability to walk. It didn't matter when I was in my 30's, 40's or even the beginning of my 50's. Then one day I tore a muscle running down the subway stairs in New York City. I started to favor that knee and soon enough the other started bothering me.That was in 2004. Every year since then I seem to have lost a little more mobility, a little more strength. Now I walk with a cane, knee braces and a little hydrocodone just to go shopping, and by the time I am done, I am ready to cry with the pain. This is not a way to live! I went on a cruise last year and couldn't do anything more than walk the few blocks near the boat! I felt like I wasted a wonderful opportunity. I want to go into New York City with my sisters, or to the zoo with my grandchildren. If I don't do this, who is going to help my husband as he gets older? He is already in a wheel chair due to injuries from his job and post polio syndrome. I see how hard it is to move my mother-in-law in the nursing home and think who the heck is going to be able to move me if I live a long time (which is the norm for my family), it would be near impossible.

I joined today. I have done a lot of homework looking into different plans and what works - even Consumer Reports had an article this month regarding the various programs. If I had money, I would do Medifast or Jenny Craig, but who the heck has that kind of money? I certainly don't! And if you get your meals pre-packaged, what about your family?? I still have to cook for my husband, so it really isn't practical for me - and again, does this kind of eating teach you how to be responsible for making your meals for the rest of your life??? I can't take any of the pills that give you energy or help you lose weight, blood pressure is a problem - so far, my only problem other than my weight, which is a real blessing. I also have a bodybugg to help me keep track of how many calories I am burning and how many steps I am walking.

So I am resolved that this will be the year I get healthy. I will walk every day, starting small and adding a bit every few days. I will exercise and I will eat responsibly. If I fail, I fail in front of all reading this - that's pretty embarrassing, and may be the one thing that keeps me resolved! I will keep you updated on how I am doing. If this man can do it, so can I!

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Les Mis


It was our anniversary yesterday, so hubby agreed to take me to see Les Mis. This is a big thing  because, being a good Scotsman and penny pincher, we rarely go. He would much rather wait till a movie is on DVD so he won't have to spend as much money! As a bonus, he also decided to take me out to dinner! Score!

Oh my gosh! I cannot even begin to put in words how much the movie affected me. I've read the Victor Hugo book, listened to the CD, watched most of the 10th and 25th anniversary shows on PBS, and nothing compared to this. I felt like I was part of it. Everything was so realistic - the filth of the people, the whores and vagabonds, the scene where the convicts are bringing the ship into dry dock - just heart wrenching. To watch Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway change through the course of the movie was incredible. The attention to detail, like the missing tooth in Fantine's mouth, was superb.
Surely Hugh and Anne will be nominated for the Oscar, but really just about everyone was first rate.

I had a good giggle when I saw this on you tube - said on my facebook this would be me and the hubby - little did I know we would come close to it!

I just cried for the last 10 minutes. I had no idea it would hit me so hard  and I noticed hubby had tears streaming down his face during the revolution scene. We left the movie just drained, but in a good way, and so glad we had seen it on the "big" screen.

I think one of the most powerful scenes in the movie was this one

Anne Hathaway singing I Dreamed a Dream - wow! I have sung this song several times in concert, but I have never captured the intense feelings she showed. I understand that the songs were done in real time rather than in a studio and added in. The director felt this would give a much more realistic feel - it surely did. Hugh Jackman is known as a song and dance man and does a decent job. Is he Alfie Boe?

 Absolutely not, but his acting skill more than made up for his vocal deficiencies

I was impressed with Eddie Remayne. I had enjoyed him in My Week with Marilyn, but had no idea he had a background in musical theater. Samantha Banks was from the 25th Anniversary Celebration as Eponine and did a beautiful job as well.

Amanda Seyfried is a beautiful girl and I truly enjoyed her in Mama Mia!, but vocally, she left a bit to be desired. It wan't bad, but those high notes were a bit thin. Russell Crowe, well, he did a good job acting wise, but his voice had no power or warmth to it.. I think I might have preferred Gerard Butler - also not the  best vocally, but I think better than Crowe. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter were amazing - they portrayed those reprobates so well  - they half had you laughing and half had you sick over how disgusting they were as people. Little Daniel Huttlestone did a bang up job as Gavroche, the little street urchin, (spoiler alert) and his death started the crying jag! I also appreciated Aaron Tveit - an upstater like me - beautiful vocals.

Afterwards, went to our favorite dine - Ambrosia and had a lovely meal. We picked up some ice cream on the way home - a lovely end, to a wonderful day.