This Father’s Day Teach Your Kids About Their Forefathers

AMAC Exclusive – By David P. Deavel

If we are to believe the advertisers, the ideal way of honoring fathers on Father’s Day has to do with buying them the right gifts, whether frivolous or usefully manly, and serving them the food and adult beverages of their choosing. You’ll get no argument from this writer on that score. But a much better idea for the holiday is one that involves a bit of work not only on the part of the family but of fathers themselves. Let’s use the day to teach the kids—and maybe ourselves—about our own forefathers.

While some families have a lively sense of their own family history, too many do not have any sense of them. The causes are many: American education has for too long not taught much history; many American families are broken, making family history a difficult subject; our current digital culture is focused almost exclusively on the present; the scattering of families over the country due to jobs makes the connections to a family seem artificial and unreal. The end result is that too many Americans feel rootless and disconnected, without history and without family.

My own children have a very different experience than I did. Summers in my northern Indiana childhood involved at least three or four different family reunions that took place each summer, introducing me to all sorts of distant relatives who were connected to me in ways that had to be explained to me by my parents—relatives with old-fashioned names such as Veva and Vadah, Devon and Dessie, Nina (pronounced “Nine-ah”) and Dickie.

The Harbaughs, my paternal grandmother’s family, were one of the groups that had a reunion. Though I was not named Harbaugh, my dad had lived with his Grandma Harbaugh as a child after his own father had abandoned the family. Uncle Ralph Harbaugh had been a kind of surrogate father to him. The fact that Grandma Harbaugh was born in 1860 on my birthday gave me the sense that I had a connection to them, too, as well as a connection to history—she was alive during the Civil War! Though the people at the reunions were not all familiar, they were family, and I had a sense of belonging.

The reunions were, as many are, largely potluck meals, veritable feasts of meatballs, fried chicken, pasta salads, casseroles, jellos with fruit in them, deviled eggs (we called ours “Deavel’d Eggs”) and cookies, pies, and cakes of all sorts. Remembering whose crock pot was whose was a must. The formal meeting part of the reunion would largely be dedicated to the business of the next reunion, but it would include news from relatives who hadn’t been able to make it to the reunion, notifications about weddings, births, and, of course, deaths.

Sometimes we would meet at cousin John and Evelyn’s house in South Bend, which had a pool. When a hotshot young University of Michigan quarterback named Jim Harbaugh burst onto the national scene, Cousin John told me he thought the football player was about a sixth cousin to me. I’ve never verified that detail, but it’s probably too good to check anyway.   

My own father passed away ten years ago. The northern Indiana Harbaugh reunions seem to have stopped a few years ago and I have not lived in northern Indiana for a long time anyway. True, some of my older first cousins and even my dad’s older brother—who all knew the Harbaughs— are still alive, but we don’t see them often enough either. So the burden of teaching my kids about the family falls to me, a burden that reminds me how much I need to learn.

That’s why I was delighted recently to find a book available on Amazon Kindle called Perseverance Amidst Adversity: The Ancestry of Three George Harbaughs. My great-grandfather, Grandma Harbaugh’s husband, was named George Harbaugh. Could this be about my family?

Indeed it was. The three George Harbaughs were my great-great grandfather George Henry Harbaugh, my great grandfather George Frederick Harbaugh, and my great uncle George Bryant Harbaugh—my grandmother’s brother. George Henry was part of a large clan of Harbaughs in Pennsylvania and Maryland descended from Yost Harbaugh, the first Harbaugh ancestor to come across from Germany in the first half of the 18th century and one described by a descendant as “a man of stout physical frame, energetic spirit,”

Many of Yost’s descendants were like him. George Henry was born in 1823 and grew up in Pennsylvania and was a hard-working wagon maker, but due to the destruction of the Civil War (Franklin County, Pennsylvania, was the site of the only battle to be simultaneously located on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line), he relocated with his family to Liberty Township in St. Joseph County, Indiana, in 1869.

George Henry was not the only one to have moved. His brother Howard had decamped to Missouri before the Civil War and he had published a newspaper in the town of Lexington that “raised the names of Lincoln and Hamlin at the head of its columns,” for which Aetna promptly canceled his insurance and a mob ran him out of town in 1860.

George Henry’s move was the reason his son George Frederick (born in 1856), a school teacher, met young Margaret Long. Margaret’s own father had moved to northern Indiana from Tennessee due to a dispute with his father about slavery. The two eventually had eleven children, including George Bryant (born 1894), my grandmother Mary Ellen Harbaugh Deavel (born 1896), and my uncle Ralph Harbaugh (born 1907), who served as a surrogate father to my own father.

George Bryant Harbaugh’s life had a bit of adventure. As a deputy sheriff in Gary, Indiana, he wound up in a shoot-out with a disgruntled steel worker who was threatening to kill people because his paycheck was not being dispensed quickly enough. George went from there to serve, as did his brother Grover Cleveland Harbaugh, in World War I, where he was in England and France, experiencing life in the trenches and also the dangers. He survived the Meuse-Argonne offensive, which was considered the greatest battle fought by the Americans during the war. Over 26,000 men were killed and 95,000 were wounded—including George who was hit by parts of a shell. He wrote to his fiancée, Elsie:

“As my name may appear in the paper I’ll write you so you’ll know I’m still alive.  Well, we were in it and I got a little used up not badly, though.  I’ve still got 2 arms 2 feet 2 eyes 2 ears a nose and I can eat anything they give me so you may know I’m not badly used up.  Expect to be back and help finish the thing before long.  We sure have been giving them ____. Well, I expect I’d better not say that, it might not look well.  I hope they didn’t put my name in as it would worry Mother and Dad a whole lot and it isn’t necessary at all – it wouldn’t help me a bit.”

Though George ended up spending much time in hospitals due to injury and illness (he did receive a Purple Heart), he also lived to return and marry Elsie. He worked as a policeman, fireman, and eventually mailman. And his son, George Willard Harbaugh (a fourth George) served in World War II as his father had served in World War I.

George Willard was shot down above Bologna on his 26th mission as a ball turret gunner on a B-24, suffering burns and a fracture to his ankle. Taken prisoner by the Germans, he was sent to hospitals and became a Prisoner of War in Camp Stalag Luft 4. The camp was evacuated in February 1945 and George was forced to take part in an 85-day forced march known as the Black March. Like his father, he survived and was awarded two Purple Hearts along with other decorations.

I never met the three George Harbaughs of the book’s title, but I did meet George Willard Harbaugh and knew that he was a POW in World War II. Reading about his heroism and his father’s made me proud to be both an American and part of the Harbaugh family. Today I’m going to be busy telling my children about these forefathers of theirs, whose dignity, hard work, faith, and heroism is something that belongs to them and something to which they should aspire.

Oh, yeah. I contacted the author, Lori Samuelson, a professional genealogist. Turns out her husband is my second cousin, a grandson of George Bryant Harbaugh and a nephew of George Willard. They’re living in Indiana now. They have promised to tend to my parents’ graves back in St. Joseph County and have invited me to come visit sometime. If so, it would be an opportunity to arrange a Harbaugh reunion of sorts. And thanks to Lori’s book, my kids will have some idea of the family they come from and why their forefathers ought to be rightly honored.

It would be great if more Americans discovered their own past in this way. Doing so might make Father’s Day more meaningful. It might also bring to life our American past, showing younger people that ours is not merely a history of injustice (as the left keeps insisting), but a history of people who acted in conscience, faith, and with a spirit of self-sacrifice.

David P. Deavel teaches at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, and is a Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative.

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