Usually when you meet a person born in the U.S. who speaks Lithuanian, it turns out that they grew up in the Chicago area and went to Lithuanian Saturday school in Marquette Park or Lemont. Few know there was a once a small Lithuanian Saturday school in Springfield for children of the post-World War II immigrants, called displaced persons or “DPs.”
Violeta Abramikas Abad of Ohio, a former child DP, tells me that the Uzgiris DP family hosted such a school in their Springfield home from 1949 through about 1957. This made sense, since the Uzgirises had three of the seven children attending the school—and the largest study table.
After writing so much about the illiteracy that blighted the lives of “first wave,” turn-of-the-century Lithuanian immigrants, I must underscore the dedication to education that was a hallmark of the “second wave” of Lithuanian immigrants after World War II, like the Uzgiris, Paulionis, and Sidlauskas families. Even my immigrant father, who grew up on a subsistence farm in the Lithuanian countryside between the Wars, benefited from the mandate of the newly independent Lithuanian republic to begin providing the universal education that the Lithuanian people long had been denied, first under feudalism, then the Russian czars.
As a country boy needed for hours of farm-work every day, my father didn’t get further than the government’s mandatory three years of reading, writing, and math. Reading was limited to a few books and a weekly or monthly newspaper read by kerosene lamp or candlelight after a long day’s work. Dad later prided himself on learning English well enough to read the State Journal-Register every day, and in fact, regarded our daily newspaper—any daily newspaper– as a kind of gift.
Other Lithuanians who ended up in the U.S. after 1948 were urban professionals with far more education, and evinced a singled-minded pursuit of higher education for their children, even in the DP camps of war-ravaged Germany. Springfield’s Lithuanian Saturday school was a direct outgrowth. And one remarkable man who helped organize the school, my father’s friend Joseph (Juozas) Koncius, embodied the quest for education like no one else.
Neither one of countless immigrant professionals reduced to manual labor by insurmountable language barriers, nor a young child just starting school, Joe was in the midst of his high school education in Silales, Lithuania when World War II intervened. Somehow, he managed to complete his gymnasium studies as a displaced person in Eichstätt, Germany in 1946. Joe then went on to study philosophy and pedagogy at Eichstätt College. And, with other Lithuanian students in Eichstätt, he edited a chronicle called “Ukonas” before immigrating to Springfield in 1949.
In Springfield, Joe was one of several single men living in apartments owned by Sam Lapinski, Jr. on or near East Washington St. That’s when 25-year-old Joe somehow met my still-single 30-year-old father Vince, and the two pal-ed around in Dad’s car. Already fluent in Lithuanian, French, German, and Russian, Joe doubtless impressed Dad with his dream of being admitted to a U.S. college to become a language teacher. But first he had to learn still another language—English.
In the meantime, Joe put his new pedagogy skills to work for the first time by helping the Uzgiris family organize Springfield’s Lithuanian Saturday school. From about 1950 to 1957, Violeta remembers attending the school at the Uzgiris home every Saturday morning from 9 a.m. to noon, along with Rimgaile (daughter of August) Paulionis, as well as young Egidijus, Sarunas, and O’Tilija Uzgiris. Older Uzgiris brother Vytas taught, in addition to teachers Joe Koncius and Stase Sidlauskas (whose sons Audrys and Jonas Sidlauskas also attended the school) and a single man, Mr. Spetyla. Violeta remembers studying the history of Lithuania along with Lithuanian grammar, reading and writing.
In the early 1950s, Joe achieved his dream and was admitted to the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana, where he graduated in 1956 with a master’s degree in education and a certification to teach the French language. Already qualified in German, after further study Joe earned the necessary certification also to teach Russian. Then from 1956-1987, he made his career teaching French, German, and Russian at Riverside-Brookfield High School in the Chicago area, and heading the school’s Foreign Languages Department.
Even after Joe’s death in Lemont, Ill. on Sept. 10 this year, his dedication to education continued with a request for memorial donations to Child’s Gate to Learning, a charity supporting education in Lithuania. Joe also lived his life-long Lithuanian patriotism in service to numerous Lithuanian-American organizations, serving as secretary of the Lithuanian Foundation and media/publicity chair for the Lithuanian Opera in Chicago.
In 1989 he spearheaded a relief fund to rebuild the Catholic church in his hometown of Kaltinenu, Lithuania, after it burned. He also participated in a dental charity called the Lithuanian Fund for Healthy Teeth. And from 1956, he was a member of the Lithuanian Newcomers (Ateitininkai) society, where he held the honorary position of Kestutis and various posts on the board of directors. Joe captured his own life experiences in a memoir entitled, A Journey into a Secret Country.
Undoubtedly, his most enduring legacy is his impact as a teacher on thousands of language students, beginning, I am honored to say, here in Springfield. Joe, his surviving wife Giedre Teresa (Kizlauskaite); daughters Maria Bereckis and Ruta Salkliene; grandchildren Benjamin, Hanna, Ina and Sigita; great-granddaughter Matija; and nephews Arunas Koncius and Alfonsas Vitkevicius, would surely be proud to know how some of Joe’s first language students here in Springfield realized their own educational potential.
Vytas Uzgiris graduated from the U. of I. and became an M.D.; Sarunas Uzgiris also graduated from the U. of I. in mechanical engineering, went on to get his Ph.D. and become a university professor; Egidijus Uzgiris graduated U. of I. in engineering with highest academic honors, his name inscribed in the university’s Bronze Tablet for posterity; and finally, O’Tilija, the youngest and only girl, graduated from the U. of I. in Russian, which was in demand at the time, as Chinese is today. She earned her master’s degree and started work as a translator for the Chicago library system.
Dedicated to the memory of my father’s unforgettable friend, a gifted teacher who prevailed over great adversity to realize his dreams.