The courage of Clemens Riebel
Minneola couple tell fascinating story of family hardship, endurance, love
By DavE Myers
Southwest Kansas Catholic
The couple in the elegantly framed photograph are dressed in their Sunday best, his bushy, curled mustache giving clue to his Russian heritage.
A century after this photo was taken, John Riebel, the grandson of the couple, sits in his Minneola home with his wife, Rita at his side. He is 95 and one of those lucky few individuals blessed with the sprightly demeanor of someone 30 years younger than himself.
“That’s Grandma and Grandpa,” he says, pointing to the portrait of the Russian couple in the large, oval frame (center, right). Then, after a pause, “They were put into a camp because they were Catholic.”
After the Bolshevik Revolution, Catholics were ruthlessly hunted down. Many were imprisoned, many others martyred.
Clemens, John’s father (and son of the man in the photo), escaped from the camp, and at age 19 snuck onto a boat and hid in the boiler room.
“If he’d have been caught, he’d have been killed,” Rita, John’s wife of 72 years, said.
Astoundingly, John’s father made it all the way to Canada, from where he eventually traveled to Kansas City.
“He rode a bicycle from Kansas City to Hays,” John said of his father. A photo of his father riding his bicycle recently sold for an unspecified but large amount at a family reunion fundraiser. (Their bi-annual family reunions are sizeable: John had 12 brothers and sisters; Rita had 11.)
“He used to send money home to Russia,” Rita said of her father-in-law. “Then Clemens’s brother in Russia sent word that he should stop sending money because their mother and father had starved to death in the camp.”
“He was working on the combine when he got the news,” John said. “That was the first time I saw him cry. None of the money he had sent ever reached them.”
John knows little of his grandparents--just a few facts jotted down in a family album, a couple of photos. Even their first names remain a mystery. Where the story of that chapter ends, another begins.
When John’s father, Clemens, lived in Canada, he fell off a bridge into a frozen lake. The story goes that this led to a disease that, over the years, caused Clemens to lose one arm, one leg, and one leg below the knee. Along his journey he married Anna, and the two had 12 children.
“They moved from Hays to Schoenchen, Kansas, where I was born,” John explained. “He did a lot of things with one arm. Even without limbs he was a good carpenter. He got around in a vehicle he made from a golf cart. He called it his doodlebugger.”
“He’d go down to the store in his doodlebugger and toot his horn,” Rita added with a smile, “and they’d come out and ask what he wanted. He’d tell them, and they’d go get it. He’d pay them and go home.
“He upended the cart one time. They found him underneath it. They picked him up and put him back in, and he drove home.”
While Clemens and his family worked another family’s (the Rooney’s) farm, three of John’s brothers were conscripted to fight in World War II; John stayed home to help with the farming.
“I graduated during the ‘Dirty 30s’,” John explained. “This was during the drought. I couldn’t find a job. I spent a year in Idaho, and I helped finish Clark County Lake in 1940. Then I went to work with my dad on the farm.
“We had no electricity, no telephones or indoor plumbing,” he added. “We finally got a radio and put a six-volt battery in it.”
“We used to listen on the radio to the inmates playing music,” Rita added. “They were actually singing and playing instruments. They were good!
“I had to cook for 12 men,” she added of her life with John on the Rooney’s farm. “I fed ’em; they didn’t argue.”
“I did!” Leon Riebel, John’s brother, said in answer to Rita’s admonition about not arguing over the food choice. “I still don’t like apricots. And she served ’em the whole summer! You’d think she’d run out!”
“We had an apricot tree,” Rita said with a laugh.
Sitting on a nearby couch at John and Rita’s home in Minneola was John’s brother and his wife, Elferyda, of Poland, visiting from Arizona to attend the 100th birthday of their sister in Wichita, Nov. 4.
Another page in a scrapbook is turned. Another surprise.
“That’s my grandmother and grandfather,” Rita says. “He was from Russia, too.” Fortunately, her father, also named John, didn’t have nearly so dramatic an exit from Russia. His name was John Dechant, and he was married to Isadora. Rita’s grandfather died when she was one year old. “His first wife died on the way over to America,” Rita said. “Isadora was his second wife.”
Four of John’s sisters became women Religious, serving as Most Precious Blood Sisters in Wichita. The oldest, Sister Florenzia, turned 101 three weeks ago. Sister Barbara is 95, and Sister Leona turned 100 on Nov. 4, a celebration that drew family from near and far. The fourth sister, Sister Winifred, has since died.
As noted in the Page 11 story about the Matrimony Anniversary Mass, at 72 years wed, Rita and John were the longest married couple to register for the Mass, but couldn’t attend when Rita became ill. The couple have six children: Linda, Dennis, Gloria, Steven, Judith and Terry, 14 grandchildren, and 25 great-grandchildren.
Rita noted that it was their religion that kept them together all these years, through the joys and the sometimes harsh difficulties that life renders.
Certainly they’ve had help though, un-named saints—mothers, fathers, grandpas and grandmas residing in heaven—urging them on with their prayers and example.