Newly graduated cousins’ roots stretch deep and wide
By Susan Frick Carlman firstname.lastname@example.org June 2, 2012 3:44PM
Wendy Mahren earned her Bachelor's degree in economics and finance. May 22, 2012 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media
Updated: July 6, 2012 8:46AM
X marked the spot — 166 years ago.
The story began with a guy named Xavier, an Alsatian who braved the long journey across the Atlantic with his family to set down roots in the fertile prairie west of Chicago.
He came with some savings in hand, paying cash for the first tract of land he purchased northeast of Naperville. Family records show the 120 acres on which he settled in 1846 with his wife, the former Therese Roth, and their six kids cost him $1,137. It was the start of something big, rather akin to the ripple effect of a pebble dropped into a pond.
This spring, nearly three dozen of Xavier Drendel’s descendents received their high school diplomas at sites scattered across the country. Among them are eight who trace their ancestry to his great-grandson, Andrew Drendel. Of those, seven cousins were honored in commencement ceremonies in or near Naperville, five of them in District 203.
Hunter Drendel, Xavier’s great-great-great-great granddaughter, long ago discovered her friends would cut her some slack when a family function trumped an activity with them. They understood the ties that bind the extended family.
“They’d say, ‘Oh, she’s a Drendel, let her go,’” said Hunter, freshly graduated from Naperville North High School. “It’s kind of added a deeper meaning to it.”
Her cousin, Courtney Coates, appreciates the connections as well.
“A lot of my friends aren’t as close with their families. It’s weird to not put your family first, but they don’t get it,” said Courtney, who graduated from Naperville Central, along with cousin Jeremy Kuhn on the same day when Hunter and cousins Tim Davis and Peter Brancaleon walked in their ceremony at North.
Thicker than water
The family fabric has a pretty tight weave to it. Batavia resident Gilbert Drendel, who grew up in Naperville, made note of it six decades ago and related as much in comments he added to the genealogical tome, “Harvest of the Ages: The Xavier Drendel and Therese Roth Family,” published in 1995:
“When I began dating my future wife, Carol Oswald, in 1953, my mother-in-law said she was afraid to talk about me because I was related to almost everyone in town,” wrote the family-tree editor, whom the family calls Gib.
That perception lives on, according to Jeremy Kuhn, who was asked what it means to occupy a branch of the Drendel tree.
“I haven’t thought about the topic much, but when I do think about it, I think about how everywhere I turn in this town, I know someone or someone knows one of my cousins or relatives,” he wrote in an email. “It gives me the sense that our family and extended family has done so much for this town because I hear nothing but good things.”
It was Ginny Drendel who planted the current tree, etching the many branches on a white bed sheet sometime around 1960.
After Ginny passed away in 1975 and the committee of family members helping Gilbert set to work, it became clear that the sheet was much too small.
Sharon Drendel, a member of the working group, recalls that the genealogic resources at the library in the Mormon church proved a helpful starting place.
“The first time we ran across a Drendel, it was, ‘I found one! I found one!’” said Sharon, Hunter and Courtney’s grandmother.
Her late husband Gene, a District 203 administrator who began working for the school system as a teacher in 1963, also was among those who served on the committee. The discoveries flowed one after another as the work went on.
“We recognized that a family’s history is a gradually changing continuum,” Gilbert wrote in the book forward.
Eventually, Sharon said, the list of family members grew to 3,020 — and that was in 2006, when the 558-page book was revised.
The family reunions held every few years prove interesting. A gathering in 1994, before the book came out and shortly after this year’s graduates were born, drew 534 kin.
“We had people from Reno, Nevada, people from Florida,” Sharon said.
The most recent event, in 2006 at the Kendall County Fairgrounds, brought in nearly as many relatives. There’s a photo from that day, but it sheds little light on who’s who.
“You can’t see who anybody is, there are so many,” she said.
The marriages celebrated within the family fold since the mid-1800s have brought in threads of assorted other familiar local names: Feldott and Gartner and Schwartz and Sprague and Wehrli, to name a few.
“They’re all intertwined,” Sharon said.
The book relates that the Wehrli-Drendel link traces to Mary Wehrli, also of Alsatian roots, whose people arrived three years after Xavier. Mary wed farmer Joseph Drendel II, Andrew’s father and Xavier’s grandson, in the spring of 1888 — a busy time for her hardworking groom. Their honeymoon trip to Niagara Falls wound up being postponed until their 50th anniversary.
“I had to get out in the field the next day and plow,” the book quotes Joseph reflecting on his wedding. “It was time to get the oats in.”
The connections among the local clans had begun two generations earlier, during Xavier and Therese’s first days as a new family in town.
Because there was no Catholic church yet established in DuPage County, a building committee was formed for St. Raphael Church, the predecessor to Ss. Peter and Paul. Along with Xavier, the founders included early settlers in the Egerman, Ory, Riedy, Schwartz, Wehrli and Winckler families.
Although some have died too soon, the family is blessed with impressive longevity. Joseph Drendel II lived until just shy of his 104th birthday, not long after his doctor insisted he cut back to just three cigars a day. His sister, Kate, lived to be 107.
An appreciation of their good stock and interwoven threads also appears to be a blessing to those with Drendel blood in their veins.
“There are so many people in the family and yet it’s like every one of us is friends,” Tim Davis observed in his response to what it’s like to be a Drendel.
Sharon, who hosts Sunday dinners and parties celebrating every birthday in her branch of the tree, knows it’s unlikely the fabric will retain its tight weave forever. The town is changing, and she knows the family dynamic will probably follow suit. But maybe not.
“I just marvel at how these people stay so close together,” she said.
That’s precisely what appeals to Hunter and Courtney when they ponder what it means to occupy a branch of the tree.
“You hear people talk about how much this town has changed, but they haven’t been here to see it,” Courtney said. “That’s one thing that’s different about being part of this family.”
Her cousin also recognizes the certain something that separates her and her relatives from other people who have made Naperville their home.
“It’s different — not in a good or a bad way. It’s just not normal. There’s so much behind us,” Hunter said. “To think you can trace your family back to almost the beginning, you’re setting your roots really deep.”
Mom finishes college while working two jobs, putting three kids through college
Wendy Mahren of St. Charles recently graduated from Southern New Hampshire University without once having set foot on campus.
Not only is Mahren among the growing number of people earning diplomas online, but she also is a 58-year-old married mother of three grown children, who works a full-time and a part-time job.
“I did it for myself, for my family and to show I am still viable with a lot to contribute,” Mahren said of her business degree in finance with an emphasis on economics.
Mahren started college 10 years ago, when her oldest daughter, Kaite, now 27, enrolled at Elgin Community College. The timing was such that she had just started a new job with Chase Card Services in Elgin in the fraud department, and the company assists with paying for classes related to work.
For about 25 years, Mahren and her sister Holly (Wiedmeyer) had been helping run the family businesses, Mack’s Golden Pheasant in Elmhurst and then Mack’s Silver Pheasant in St. Charles.
“We were third generation restaurant people, but in October, 1999 we decided to close the business,” Mahren said.
For a time, Mahren worked with her husband, Jim, “a concrete guy,” building custom homes throughout the Fox River Valley. That endeavor ended after the dot-com bubble burst, then the aftermath of 9-11, both of which contributed to the collapse of the high-end market.
So her husband took a job at a construction supply house, and Mahren started at Chase.
“We always made it clear to our three kids that they would be going to college. I regretted not going, though I did go to the college of hard knocks,” Mahren said.
Her night shift made it possible to take classes at ECC during the day, just like her daughter.
“I had a bright yellow Honda Prelude, and (as a prank) Kaite would move the car while I was in class without telling me. It took me about a month to figure out what she was doing,” Mahren recalled.
Mahren took three-and-a-half years to get an associate’s degree, while Kaite headed to Northern Illinois University for a bachelor’s in education, then a master’s at the University of Dayton, the city in which she now teaches English at a middle school.
Mahren took a break from her studies, and about four years ago she started a new position as a risk and control analyst on the day shift. Around the same time, the recession started, and her husband lost his job.
So, to help make ends meet, Mahren took her part-time job, which she still has and which now involves selling shoes about 14 hours a week at the Carson’s in St. Charles. She also decided to get her bachelor’s degree.
“I knew a bricks and mortar school would be out of the question. So I researched online universities, ruled out the for-profit schools, and found Southern New Hampshire,” she said.
The program is set up with classes offered in intensified 8-week sessions, with work including reading, writing papers, required participation in online message boards, and even virtual group projects.
“For those, I often found it was best to pick up the phone to call and to delegate responsibilities,” Mahren said. “If you can’t type and don’t have good writing skills, this type of program wouldn’t be for you.”
Mahren found calculus the toughest subject to master online. For help in certain subjects she would turn to online lectures available through the university, YouTube tutorials and even her kids.
With so much on her plate, texting and Skype helped Mahren keep in touch with her family. Studying sometimes involved reading aloud on trips to visit Kaite in Dayton, daughter Sherlyn (now 25 and working as a financial analyst in Costa Rica) up at Marquette in Milwaukee and to see son James (now 22) in Chicago, where he has a year to go on his accountancy degree.
“I always brought my laptop. A nice thing about online university is you can literally take your class anywhere,” Mahren said.
During a good portion of this time frame, Mahren’s husband was out of work for three-and-a-half years before landing a job last August driving a school bus for children with special needs.
It took Mahren three-and-a-half years to finish her program this May at SNHU, where she graduated summa cum laude, despite having a self-diagnosed case of senioritis. Now she is thinking about pursuing an MBA.
“It’s like I tell my kids: Learn something new every day. Do your best. And I love you,” Mahren said.