Pat Ham volunteer survived Nazi GermanyPublished 9:37pm Thursday, January 17, 2013
Schools should be safe places, but Ursula Gustav was wary way before the “heartbreaking” massacre Dec. 14 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.
Of course, the three-day-a-week Patrick Hamilton Elementary School third-grade volunteer’s outlook is colored by surviving the bombing of her school in Bremen, Germany, while in kindergarten.
Inquisitive children ask about burns on her wrists and one on her forehead.
Gustav discourages deeper discussion by changing the subject.
She wears her hair in bangs to conceal the scar, so as to not “feel as ugly as a month-old turd. But you can reverse that unpleasantness with children by telling them not to play with matches. It’s not something I broadcast. Dusseldorf and Bremen were hit the hardest.”
Besides the bombing, surviving Nazi Germany meant her father and grandfather hanging for their political beliefs.
Gustav, who celebrated her birthday on New Year’s Day, wrote her first letter to the editor in 2010 after hearing Jeff Robinson’s choir at the April 15 senior citizens luncheon about the “five-star treatment” and “angelic voices.” Feb. 27 will be her third anniversary in Dowagiac, coming from Berrien County.
She also lived in Noblesville, Ind., near Indianapolis.
“I love music,” the only child said. “I regret not being able to play an instrument. I attempted piano one time, but I was not disciplined enough to finish what I started. My mother remarried, and I have a beautiful sister. I don’t even call her my half-sister. She lives in Berrien Springs and worked for a doctor for many years.”
Gustav has a daughter, Heidi, and a son, Paul, and two grandchildren, Adam and Jesse.
When Gustav lived near St. Joseph High School, she worked for 20 years for Farmers and Merchants Bank. “I loved working with the public. You get to know a lot of people.
“I worked at North Lincoln School in St. Joseph, where I was introduced to special education. At that time, we were mainstreaming students to Morton in Benton Harbor and I fell hopelessly in love because I saw the great needs when you had abused children with cigarette burns. A gorgeous Caucasian child, Linda, asked the principal to wake up her mommy, who had overdosed on drugs and adult beverages. I worked at Morton 11 years. We tell our children school is a safe place. Sometimes I have to turn off Bill O’Reilly and the local news because it breaks my heart.”
Gustav, who also reads all the area newspapers, bustles around Gloria Staten’s classroom, greeting everyone she encounters by name.
She eschews nicknames and inserts mister or missus in front of even familiar faces she calls by first name.
“I spent Christmas Day with the Statens, Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus,” the U.S. citizen who wears a flag pin every day said. “I came to America from Germany in the late ’50s.”
She works with third-graders at Patrick Hamilton after encountering Judy Bussler while walking her dog on Prairie Ronde. On the days she doesn’t volunteer at school, Ursula reads to patients or visits friends at The Timbers of Cass County. Bussler retired, but Gustav felt “honored” to continue on with Mrs. Gloria.
Mr. Jerry, Santa himself, told her, “It’s genuine that you love children. That’s something you can’t pretend.”
She addresses people that way because “in Europe, teachers are so honored, you don’t call anyone by their first name. If (retired middle school principal Mike) Frazier was still here, I’d be over there in his German class. I’m here Monday, Wednesday and Friday unless there’s a field trip on a Tuesday or Thursday. I love the zoo. A field trip is how I met Steve” (Arseneau), Dowagiac Area History Museum director.
“I went to the COA with Judy Bussler. I walked in and saw that mural (of Kitty Litter creator Ed Lowe) and I thought, he’s so handsome it’s a sin. I thought it was Kenny Rogers.”
One of her favorite sayings is by Henry Ford: “Don’t find fault, find remedy.”