Delores Kavirt grew up in Springfield, the daughter of a miner and bootlegger with an ocean-going background. Delores’ father William Bernard Kavirt (Kavish or Kavishia) was born in Lithuania in 1893. In 1932, after seven children and nine years of marriage, he deserted his family, apparently for the freedom to go back to light, wind, and spray–instead of the dark, subterranean world of mining–as his successful bootlegging business was about to expire.
I would also guess that the strains of the Great Depression had their own impact on the staying power of this husband and father– even if the impending demise of Prohibition and the illegal alcohol trade in 1933 was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back. “My dad left us for reasons unknown and for a destination we never determined when we were all still quite young,” Delores recalled. “He wanted to take my brother Willie with him. But my mother made it quite clear that he was not going to do that, throwing a pot of boiling hot water at him to drive home her point.”
Women Handicapped in Marriage, Divorce
So far, I have not written about the deleterious impact of the harsh mining life on marital formation and duration among first-wave Lithuanian immigrants and their offspring. The story of Delores (“Dolly”) Kavirt’s parents demonstrates that marriage was perhaps first and foremost an economic alliance–until it was a liability.
Getting married was many times easier than getting a divorce, making desertion a ready alternative for husbands, but leaving wives with many children and little English in severe economic distress. Such women seem to have had the choice either of going it alone under the conditions of desertion or, if they could locate their AWOL husbands, securing a costly and difficult legal divorce —and afterwards, if they could stomach it–another marriage.
Lithuanian gender relations of the time also handicapped women both in marriage and divorce. Men learned at least broken English in the mines. However, girls and women not allowed to stray beyond the cloistered world of home, church and a domestic position in a private home became fiancées, wives and mothers who did not speak or read much English, and who knew little of the ways of men–or the world.
Seeking Two Divorces at Once
A March 1, 1933 article in the Illinois State Journal shows Delores’ mother Bernice (Mazika) Kavirt making the case that in 1923, when she was an inexperienced and uneducated 19-year-old Lithuanian girl, William Kavirt tricked her into marrying him after her previous marriage (at age 16 or 17?) ended in desertion. In an unusual twist that likely occasioned newspaper coverage, Bernice was making her case not for just one divorce, but two.
After William Kavirt deserted her in 1932, perhaps it was necessary, in order to receive food aid for her children, to be a divorced rather than a twice-deserted woman whose latter husband, at least, could be considered financially responsible under the law, even if he was AWOL and contributed no support.
It is also true that shedding herself of all legal marital relationship would have freed Bernice to marry again. However, she does not appear to have re-married until 1947, well after she had struggled through raising her five surviving children alone through the trough of the Great Depression. The odds of finding a man who would raise another man’s five children in hard times were probably so long that they made re-marriage impossible.
Anna (Sleveski) Mazika with her granddaughter Lillian Kavirt. Circa 1930.
It couldn’t have been easy to publicly expose her dual-marriage, dual-divorce predicament by going to court, particularly after the brutal death of her mother Anna as a pedestrian hit by a car the same year husband William deserted the family in 1932. (All this, after Bernice’s infant son Edward died at two months of age in 1931).
By 1933, Bernice (Bertha) was in court in separate suits. One was for $10,000 in damages for her mother’s wrongful death. The other was for dual-divorce, making quite believable her claim of having suffered a nervous breakdown in 1932 after encountering her missing husband on the street, only to have him thumb his nose at her and her demand either to come home and resume his family responsibilities or give her a divorce.
The passage below from the March 1 1933 Journal article hints that, in addition to breaking Bernice’s nerves, William may also have forced her hand by threatening to publicly expose the fact of her dual marriages if she tried to sue him for divorce.
“Mrs. Kavirt met Kavirt on the street here after his desertion and informed him that she would file a divorce bill if he did not return to their home and their five children at 1025 N. 14th Street. Kavirt ridiculed that plan, and revealed that they had never been legally married because her first husband had never secured a divorce.”
Victim of Marital Manipulation?
Bernice (Mazika) Kavirt was born in Hazelton or Minersville, Pennsylvania in 1901 or 1904, the daughter of Michael and Anna (Sleveski) Mazika, both born in Lithuania. Twice married by age 19, was this barely educated young woman the victim of marriage manipulation, as she pleaded in her divorce suit? Or had she known or guessed when she married for the second time, to William Kavirt, that she was not legally severed from her first husband, Alfred Platukas, despite what she described as Kavirt’s assurances to the contrary? (These were given, Bernice testified, after Kavirt made a show of traveling to Pennsylvania for several weeks to ascertain her first husband’s whereabouts, then returning to report that Platukas had secured a divorce from Bernice in Detroit.)
We will never know for sure what young Bernice knew or chose to overlook. What is certain is that even if she had tried to make legal marriage work in her favor, it had not, resulting in two desertions, various costly legal knots to untie, seven live births and five surviving children in just nine years, plus sole financial responsibility for her children at age 29. Platukas and Kavirt, meanwhile, had been able to enter, then abandon marriages that became too burdensome for them.
Bernice’s daughter Delores was the youngest of the five Kavirt siblings who grew up first on North 14th Street, then in a stone bungalow on Griffiths Avenue near Peoria Road. Two other children, including (the aforementioned Edward and) Alice, who was only four when she died, had both perished by the time their father left. Delores recalled: “After Dad left, Momma had to rely on public relief and cleaning homes. I was still too young to be left at home, so she had to take me wherever she needed to go.”
Saved by Jewish Kindness
“Momma used to tell the story of how, growing up in Pennsylvania, she had also tagged along with her Lithuanian immigrant mother Anna, cleaning the homes of well-to-do members of the Pennsylvania Jewish community. Then, as a single mother of five,” Delores recalled, “my mother experienced the same consideration by members of the Springfield Jewish community.
“I can remember walking downtown with Momma to the public relief office and then taking our food stamps to Cohen’s and other grocery stores. The purchase of candy with food stamps was forbidden, and my mother abided by that. However, quite often, the storekeepers would hand me a small bag of free candy as I exited.
“At about the same time, the authorities wanted to split up our family because they thought our Momma couldn’t adequately care for all of us. But with the help of a local attorney named Templeton, whom I think was Jewish, Momma was able to resist that action and keep us all together with her under one roof. For the help of that attorney and those previously mentioned acts of kindness by Jewish homeowners and storekeepers, I hold those of the Jewish faith in high regard,” Delores said.
According to Delores’ nephew Glenn Manning, Bernice Kavirt also struck a care-giving deal to keep a roof over her children’s heads. It was after husband William left that the family moved from North 14th Street to the aforementioned stone house on Griffiths Ave., which was owned by John Yuscius. Elderly and infirm, John let Bernice and her children live with him in exchange for Bernice’s care.
Grandmother Anna Hit by Car
Maternal grandmother Anna Mazika had moved from Pennsylvania to live with her daughter Bernice, and probably, care for the children while husband William was still with the family. But one Saturday in 1932, according to the Illinois State Journal, while Anna was walking home from confession at St. Vincent de Paul Church, she was struck and killed, as she was crossing 9th St. at Enos Ave, by the car of a man from Ft. Wayne, Ind., who was reported in the Journal to have been traveling more than 55 mph.
According to Delores, “Anna’s spiritual needs were attended on the spot by Fr. Yunker (St. Vincent’s pastor).” The newspaper reported that Bernice (Bertha) sued the driver for $10,000, but I could find no follow-up article giving the result of that suit. According to the Journal, a coroner’s jury created the opening for a civil suit by rendering an “open verdict,” neither blaming nor exonerating the driver.
Bringing up Baby (Hooch)
During Prohibition, which included the entire term of the Mazika-Kavirt marriage, William Kavirt and a brother who lived nearby bootlegged together from the Kavirt home on North 14th. “They were known for producing some very good rye whiskey,” Delores said. “My mother was tasked with transporting the product of their labors from our house to our uncle’s house on North 9th Street, sometimes using a baby stroller as cover – the ‘hooch’ hidden under a blanket.”
In addition, according to Delores’ nephew Glenn, “William and Bernice used to keep a rabbit hutch out back. Some whiskey customers would bring over their rabbits for breeding as a cover for picking up whiskey.” Delores recalled: “Because of this business relationship between Dad and our uncle, as my siblings and I grew into young adults, we turned to our uncle’s family for answers about our father. But they always claimed no knowledge of his whereabouts.”
Horses and Houses
“As a grade schooler,” Delores recalled, “I fell in love with horses. It helped that there was a sale barn only a couple of blocks from our home on Griffiths Avenue. I didn’t care as much about extracurricular school functions and dating as I did for caring for and riding horses. I showed horses occasionally but enjoyed simply riding them more. So when my husband and I built our first home in the country in 1969, I had my own horse for a while, ‘Amigo.’
Around the corner from the Griffiths Ave. home, on Peoria Road, Delores recalls a row of stores that included a Piggly Wiggly grocery. Near neighbors were the Malinski and Stankavich families, including five Stankavich sisters: Nellie, Vickie, Fritzi, Eleanor and Martha—and a brother named Stanley. Delores married Edward (Eddie) Lomprez in 1948 at St. Patrick’s Church. He worked in the construction trades most of his life, eventually retiring from UIS. Together, the couple built three and a half homes, not counting the first place they lived: a remodeled chicken coop in Eddie’s Grandma’s large backyard in Clear Lake Village (called the “Dogpatch.”)
Delores and Eddie’s second house was “garage home” that they built on a lot given by Eddie’s dad. After Eddie was drafted into the Korean War and returned, Delores recalled, “We caught a lucky break and were able to construct our first, real home as the result of bad luck suffered by my only brother and favorite sibling, Willie.”
Tragedy Befalls ‘Wild’ Willie
A St. James Trade School football and basketball star, Willie also had survived his service in World War II and returned to working multiple shifts at Pillsbury Mill. Delores had loaned Willie some money so that he could build himself a home. “For reasons we never knew, the home under construction burned to the ground in the spring of 1954. Willie, 27, was uninsured and lost his desire to rebuild. He insisted I take the title to his lot as repayment for his loan. I resisted that and encouraged Willie to rebuild. However, he refused, and I ended up with a nice lot–and a basement full of debris from the fire, which Eddie and I cleared by hand.”
Delores recalls her only brother’s wild side. “He liked to stay out late and gamble. I’d bug him from time to time about marrying and settling down. He always said, ‘No, my lifestyle now would just make some woman miserable…I’ll wait.’ “By then, several of my nieces and nephews had been born. Willie referred to them all as ‘little corned beef and cabbages.’
“Although he seemed to like the little ones and may have ended up a father someday, tragedy struck early one morning, only a few months after the fire that destroyed Willie’s home. He and a friend drove their car into the path of a truck and were pronounced dead at the scene. It was such a horrible accident that it was not even possible to determine who had been driving.”
The Illinois State Journal reported the accident occurred at Route 4 and old U.S. Route 66, at the northwest corner of the Illinois State Fairgrounds. The trailer-truck dragged Willie and his friend’s car 150 feet into a ditch, where the the cab of the truck shot up, then crashed down on top of the car. The August 25, 1954 Journal article reports, “It required nearly two hours for three wreckers to lift the truck from the car and extricate the bodies.” Although the truck driver reported the car ran a stop sign, he was cited for speeding.
Five Acres near Rochester
Delores (Kavirt) Lomprez is now the last of her siblings: Lillian (husband Joe Trello), Alice (husband Al McKenzie) and Bernice (husband Albert Manning). Lillian lived on North 22nd Street, worked at Sangamo Electric and retired from the cafeteria at St. Aloysius School. She had one child, Phillip. Alice worked at The Springfield Shoe Factory and had one child, Allen Wayne. Bernice worked at Memorial Medical Center and had four children: Alice, Glenn, Elaine and Bryan. Delores worked at Sangamo Electric and retired from the cafeteria at Rochester Schools.
“Up until the time Eddie died, we enjoyed a large vegetable garden, raising chickens and maintaining five acres at our second rural home. (Nephew Glenn Manning also says the rural spread included a woodworking shop, a grape arbor and a working windmill.) My husband and I never had children, but we did have the pleasure of many visits, including being summer hosts for our nieces and nephews, mostly on the Lithuanian side of the family.
“Momma (Bernice Mazika Kavirt) lost her eyesight due to diabetes, so later on in life she came to live with Eddie and me. She had her own room in our ranch-style house and got along quite well by feel. In our second careers, Eddie and I worked opposite shifts, which allowed one of us to be at home with Momma most of the time.”
As for the Lithuanian-American twice-deserted wife and mother who struggled to take care of her children alone and prevented them from being adopted out during the Great Depression, Delores says, “To this day, I wear a necklace with a pewter angel to remind me of my dear Momma. She is one of my angels.”
Rick Dunham said:
Wow! Pretty fascinating!! great tragic story.
Bob Colantino said:
Dear Sandy- Just a note to thank you for your tireless effort and labor of love as the “historian” for the Lithuanian-American community of Springfield.I enjoy very much your articles and the prose in which you write. They are both interesting and informative. I am sure I speak for manypeers in expressing our appreciation for your commitment to keeping the Lithuanian-American heritage in Springfield alive. Again, thank you!
Absorbing post! Real life is truly stranger than fiction. Keep up the impressive work!
GeorgeAnn Madison said:
Excellent writing. Heartbreaking to read but informative as always. Thank you.