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  • Writer's pictureTeresa Nguyen

Finding My Father

The Story of Marlene Rogers

Interview by Teresa Nguyen

February, 2023

Marlene Rogers

My Mother’s Story


My Oma and Opa were German. My mother, Elfriede, was born in Germany and so was I.

My grandmother, Theresa, had died when my mother was three years old. At age 14, my grandfather kicked my mom out of the house, because she did not get along with his new wife, her stepmother. So, she ended up in an orphanage, helping take care of the babies.

Oma and Opa Staudt, Marlene's grandparents

Then, when my mother was 17, she was drafted into the Nazi Navy. She was a spotter on the Denmark and Germany border because she had good night vision and could see the bombers coming over.


Elfriede was a child, really, and said that she was just following what everybody else was doing and what she was told, even though she knew what Hitler stood for. She had been indoctrinated into all the politics and the antisemitism. She carried that with her all her life.


During the defeat of Germany, my mother was brought to a British military base as a prisoner of war. She was interrogated and debriefed and was not found to have any military secrets or important information. So, she was hired as a maid on the base for the military officers. She was called Ellen, and went by that name in her future.


During that time, in 1945, the Germans were starving. My mother’s family, who lived a distance from the base, was in need of food. They had planted a garden, but didn’t have the harvested food yet.


So, my mother got to know a British officer in the mess hall and she purchased food on the black market from him. On her days off, she would take the train, which took a couple of hours, and bring the food back to her family.


"Friede" and Thomas - forbidden love between a German and a Brit

Ellen and the mess hall officer, Thomas Picken, got to know each other more and more and found themselves falling in love. He was the highest-ranking British officer in the mess hall and was also a cook. My mother always loved to cook, too. It was a definitely a taboo relationship between enemy sides, so they had to meet in secret. He called her Friede, and was the only one who ever called her that.


They decided to secretly marry, as he would not get a military marriage. Later in ’45, she got pregnant with me. Around that time, he was scheduled to be sent back to England. He wanted her to come with him, but she couldn’t get clearance. He sent her letters and said he would send her money for a ticket as soon as I was born.

Ellen and baby Marlene

Plans Derailed


In the meantime, his sisters, who were very anti-German, told that the only way they would welcome his wife was if the baby looked like him. Well, my mother found out about it and, being a very stubborn woman, she resented that.


Meanwhile, the marriage to Thomas, a British officer, was annulled and she got notification of that.

1950 - Ellen with little Marlene and baby Jackie

She was transferred from the British base to the American base and met my stepfather, Harold Hanson, an American. She made up her mind that any future children would be raised American.


Even though my birth father had sent the money for her to come to England, she used it to set herself up to go to America.


She wasn’t going to take her children to England where she wasn’t welcomed.


She ended up marrying Harold, the American. Together they had a stillborn baby, and later had another child, my sister Jackie, who was born in Germany.


In 1950, Harold returned to the United States. He got all the paperwork done for me, and embraced me as his own child, making sure I could take his last name.


On April 7th of 1950, we landed in New York and made our way to Tomah, Wisconsin, where Harold’s parents lived. That was the beginning. All in all, they had eleven children.


Not everyone in the family knows this history.


Finding My Father


My stepfather had thrown out everything that my mother had kept about my birth father, but my mother had memorized an address in England.


So, after I was married and started my family history, I sent a letter to that address. It was then “returned to sender”. After the internet came about, my husband found ten Thomas Pickens in telephone listings in England. I sent a letter to all the addresses.


Letter from Marlene's birth father, Thomas Picken

About three or four weeks later, I got a call at 5 o’clock in the morning. It was my birth father’s son, asking me questions about who I was to make sure I was the right person.


Then, my father came on the line. He said, “Marlene, my little Marlene.” And we cried.


Thomas had a daughter, which he told me about during that first call. They’d had a trip planned to go to Germany and find out what had happened to me. He thought I was lost.


A photo sent to Marlene of Thomas Picken at the Tower of London, about 1953

I gave my mother his phone number and they did talk on the phone. Her third husband had died by then. But they didn’t connect the way Thomas wanted.


She was kind of cold saying things like, “It’s all in the past." and "That life is over.”


There always was a part of her that was hardened because her childhood was really rough, so that affected much of who she was.


It took until my forties before I found my real father and built a relationship with him. It was so wonderful! It was a gateway to my past.


Here, all this time, he had wondered about me and missed me. And I had even named my son, Tom, after my birth father.


After that, my father sent me letters and photos, even birthday cards and little things until he died. He sent me our genealogy, things he knew about his family, to help me complete my own research.


One of the photos of him and his grandson reveals the family genes, as his grandson looks just like my son Tom!



When my father passed away, his daughter, Pearl, wrote to me in the year 2000. She said in her letter that they did not want to stay in touch with me. She felt that her dad, Thomas, spoke of me and my mother so much, that it was upsetting.



I did send a letter back to Pearl thanking her and said I wouldn’t bother her, as requested.


My Family’s Story


After my sister, Mom and I came to America, we settled in Tomah, Wisconsin, with Harold. But when we were young, we lived in New Lisbon on a hobby farm. My mother had a garden and canned all the time.

Marlene

My stepfather was a lineman on the railroad and was gone during the week and home on the weekend. We worked hard, especially the older children.


We had chickens, rabbits and lots of kids. I had to hang dozens of diapers on the lines, butchered chickens and helped mom with the canning among other chores. With helping take care of the younger children, I felt like an adult by age 11.


I attended grade school and middle school there through my first year of high school. Then, because a highway came through our area, we received compensation and we got a big house, as my mom had always wanted. It had many rooms and the girls lived upstairs and the boys lived downstairs. Later she remodeled the kitchen.


When I was 17, I was ready for my last year of high school, but that was when she and Harold were going to get a divorce. She had a strong dependency on me. I was the one she always went to when she had trouble. I had to drop out of school. She needed me to stay home and take care of the kids while she went to work and got her divorce. I also had a job. I worked nights and she worked days. I took care of the kids during the day.

Charles and Marlene at their high school prom

My stepfather had been abusive and had become an alcoholic. Because of this, we endured a lot of hardships, especially us older kids. It was a very challenging time in our lives.


Her next husband, Virgil, was a nice guy and loved my mother a lot. She needed that.


Life with Charles “Chuck”


I knew my husband in high school and we started going steady when we were both 16. I had a borrowed dress for high school prom, a size 6! I was a skinny girl.


He entered the Air Force and we married when we were 18, in 1965.


My mom was devastated. I was her main help and had taken care of all the younger siblings like a second mother.


They missed me, too. But I always went back to visit them every year, once or twice. I love them so much, in spite of the hardships we had as children. We keep in touch often.



We lived in upper Michigan first, while Chuck was in the Air Force, but when he was in Greenland, I went home to live with my mom to have my baby, Katrina. She has a variation of my mother’s middle name. Then I got my GED, around 1970.


Chuck and I moved to Wisconsin Rapids and joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. We had been going to several different churches. One day, when I was visiting Necedah, I ran into my priest, who told me flat out that I was excommunicated, because Chuck and I had married in a non-denominational church. That was the end of that!

I had done a lot of research on religion. I noticed there was no church with a prophet and disciples, such as Jesus had. This church was a fit for us, so when the young missionaries, who visited our home, told us about it, we joined the church. It centered us.


My second child came 4 years after Katrina. Joshua, was ten pounds and the two of us almost died. I don’t know why they didn’t do a C-Section. I told Chuck once, “If I ever see that doctor in the afterlife, I’m going to slap his face!” 17 months later, Charles Jr. was born, 17 months after that, Thomas was born.


Assistant Manager Marlene (right) at her Utah company

Career Life


During the times I was pregnant, I worked as a cook in restaurants.


After Thomas was born, there was a recession. We had some friends in Utah, so we moved out there where my husband took a job with an automotive company.


Five years after having Thomas, my daughter Natalie was born in Utah.


I took a job working for an integrated circuit company and worked my way up to Assistant Manager.


We lived in Utah for 14 years. But we missed family here in Wisconsin, so Chuck took a job in Madison at Kayser Ford. I stayed in Utah for a while to help shut down the factory and received a nice bonus for that. We then ended up in Middleton.


Chuck & Marlene

I worked for a mortgage company for several years. Then, I switched to SSM health as a Claims Adjuster for about 15 years. When highway 12 went through, we got enough money from that project to buy this house here in Evansville.


When COVID hit, I continued working from home. I retired from SSM in April of 2021.


Losing Chuck


Chuck and I had a bucket list; we were going to travel and do all sorts of things. But sadly, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in May of that same year, just after I retired. He had a couple of months left and had the chance to spend time and talk with all the kids and grandkids.


He didn’t last very long and passed on April 21st, 2021. I miss him so much. It’s like half of me is gone.


My husband was the family historian and helped me with my research. When we married, we married forever. We had our ups and downs, but we were best friends.

Marlene and her mother, Ellen

A Difference in Values


If we would ask, my mom would tell us things about her past.


We knew that my aunt, my mother’s sister, had been a nurse under the Nazi regime and she moved to Venezuela, to South America after the war, as many German military did.


My mother had a prejudice, but she was unaware of some of the Nazi practices at the time. She was also a bit of a drama queen, so I couldn’t always tell if something she’d said was exaggerated or biased.


When I joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, it brought everything into focus for me and Chuck. It’s the main part of my life. There’s no room for prejudice in the church.


Jesus himself was a Jew. I believe in The Gospel and that was His belief when He was on this earth. The Gospel transcends every culture, race, nationality, and language.


I know that because of the commandments, my husband and I will be together forever, even in the spirit world, as will my children.


My values come down to the basic teachings of Christ. Jesus loved ALL of the children.



Hobbies


I love painting. My mediums are oil on canvas, acrylic and chalk. It’s been several years since I’ve painted, though, because I developed a tremor. I’ve thought about trying new techniques in abstract art or even a Monet style of dabbing paint in spots.


I enjoy giving my paintings away to my kids and my grandkids.


Chuck and I also loved motorcycle riding and taking trips on the bike out west. We belonged to a national motorcycle group. In the early 2000s, Chuck developed arthritis in both of his hands, so he quit riding. He felt it was becoming unsafe for him to ride.


Marlene and the bike

I also do a lot of volunteer work for the church and I like attending community events as a supporter.


I enjoy reading a lot and watching old TV shows. When I was working, I couldn’t watch them, but now you can find these shows and I’m catching up! I also love to garden and can.

Chuck as Santa, bringing joy to the children

On the side, Chuck played Santa at Christmas parties. That was always fun for the kids.


Role Models & Special People


I was so close to my mother, even if she had her faults. I admired her toughness and her ability to pick herself up when things were down. She had a kind of tenacity and I hope I have that, too.


As far as a role models go, one of my friends, Ellen Thain, belongs to my church. She was the person who showed up when my husband was suffering and while I was helping take care of him along with the nurses of hospice. She loves me and shows it. She just held me up during that time.


Sandra Donner is another friend, who is like a sister. She is always there when I need her. I knew her before I moved to Evansville. She always said she “prayed me to Evansville” because she wanted us to be closer. We just care about each other and if she needs me, I’m there for her. She has a huge garden and she gives me lots of stuff because she knows I love to can.


Sandra and I go to our temple in Chicago every Friday that we can with 3 or 4 other friends to volunteer and participate in sacred ordinances. She has always encouraged me and helped me when I was down, especially after my husband died. She’s just a bright star in my life.


A family photo hanging on the wall (Marlene and Chuck on the left)

At the same time, my youngest daughter, Natalie, was here every minute, helping me prepare for her dad’s funeral and writing things down for me. My oldest daughter is living with me now. She moved in after my husband died.


I admire all my kids, they’re all strong. They get that from me, but also from their dad. He was quite a role model for them. All the children take after us in how they truly care for their families, their children, and want to raise their children right.


When Chuck and I first knew each other, he was just a boy. But he got stronger and stronger through the years. He knew what he wanted to do and went out and did it! He loved his kids so much. They were a treasure to him.


We have 14 grandchildren and four great grandchildren. It’s a big family and I love them all!


Special family reunion

Living in Evansville


I like the Evansville area. My oldest granddaughter is nearby. You can go to the store and talk to anybody, even if you don’t know them. You can ask people questions without hesitation. I go to the Community Center for events and everyone talks to everyone. Everybody’s so nice.


Like once, I was washing my friends’ clothes in the laundromat, because she and her husband were sick. Well, Mr. Helgeson, who owns the place and is a friend, reached in his pocket, took out some money and said, “I know it costs a lot to wash clothes, take this for them.”


The other day I was running errands. A guy got out of his truck, walked past me and just said, “Have a good new year!” I love that.


Secrets to a Good Life


Be friends with your spouse. We learned to not take each other for granted. Tell each other how you feel about them, as much as you can. Don’t just ignore each other. When you think of something you want to talk about, like memories from the past, do it!

Knowledge is important. Read as much as you can. Take as many educational courses as you can. I took a lot of classes when my company offered them and learned so much!


When your children are little, take special care of them and love them. When they get to be adults, just love them for who they are, for all of their characteristics and the love they give back.


They reflect everything their parents teach them, even when they’re older. Treasure that experience.



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