Strauch & Son

John Louis Strauch remembers the most remarkable moment of his 101 years. It happened at 3 o'clock in the morning, Nov. 7, 1922.

In his Pigtown rowhouse, he heard the doctor upstairs call out, "It's a lanky boy."


The baby's first cry brought elation, Strauch said. "I couldn't wait to get to the office to hand out cigars and tell the guys."

Seventy-seven years have passed since John Strauch's only child, John George "Jack" Strauch, was born.


The son went off to college, then to war, became a manager at General Electric, moved three states away, married, raised four children, lost his wife to cancer, retired.

And came home.

The son never planned to spend his retirement sleeping on the daybed in his dad's living room at Charlestown, a retirement community in Catonsville.

It just happened this way. Happily. And why not?

Family always came first for the Strauchs. Why shouldn't it come last?

They've been together now for a decade, two independent widowers sharing a little apartment cluttered with a century of memories told in the hundreds of photographs and figurines that cover every surface.

Dominating their rich little landscape is an oval portrait of the woman who most influenced their lives: Elizabeth Diehlmann Strauch, John's wife for 75 years, Jack's doting and enterprising mother.

She died in 1996, but her lush African violets still grace the coffee table, and her Royal Doulton china dolls still rest in glass cabinets.


Above John's favorite corner of the sofa is a pair of porcelain macaws, a gift from Elizabeth's baby sister, Emma Savin, now 85.

Father and son share a deep reverence for Elizabeth, a woman, they say, of towering strength, with a keen business mind and the ability to lead any group she ever joined - especially her own family.

Elizabeth was the matriarch, the decision-maker; John the quiet, dependable father who never drank or smoked much, worked for the B & O Railroad 46 years and always came home on time.

Perhaps their secret to longevity is their refusal to dwell on the past.

Together, father and son are a walking advertisement for everlasting vitality.

John is a soft-spoken centenarian with an amazing memory who still files his own tax returns and plays rummy with his great-grandchildren.


Though he has trouble walking and says he can't write anymore, John still plays cards at several Charlestown clubs that he and Elizabeth helped form a decade ago.

And he is still so lucid that his advanced age is only apparent when he recounts his own oral history: As a boy in the early 1900s, he watched a teen-age George Herman Ruth Jr. pitch a baseball at St. Mary's Industrial School in Southwest Baltimore.

He found the future "Babe" exceptional.

Jack, the son, is an indefatigable septuagenarian who studies French and Spanish, babysits his grandchildren and goes country and western line dancing several nights a week with a lady friend.

A recent Friday night finds father and son; Emma Savin, Jack's beloved "Aunt Em"; and Jack's lady friend at a union hall near Baltimore-Washington International Airport with a couple hundred line-dancing fanatics.

Early in the evening, the dance captain introduces John to the crowd.


"John was born in 1898," says the captain to applause.

Jack spends most of the night on the dance floor, never seeming to lose his breath - and only taking breaks to make sure his dad keeps to his two-beer limit. John's blood thinners don't mix well with beer, his son warns.

Em sits happily with John, her favorite brother-in-law, ruminating about what a good soul Elizabeth was and wishing she could still jitterbug.

A reporter asks if she remembers anything about Jack's birth. She was 8 when her nephew was born.

"How old are you now?" John asks his sister-in-law.

"Eighty-five," she shouts over the country music twang.


"Well, then," he says emphatically, "You should remember."

When Jack is not dancing, he is watching over his dad's shoulder, making his doctors' appointments, forcing him to exercise his legs by walking to pick up Jack's lunch every day at Charlestown.

Recent news that John has a blocked artery in his neck prompted his son to make an appointment for a second test.

"I don't want to go," the old man says, pouting.

"Well, you're going," Jack says.

The test this week showed that one artery is indeed completely blocked, giving John a chance of a stroke any time from one to 20 years from now.""I'll be happy if it's 10," John said yesterday.


The news didn't surprise him. "I suspected it, so I prepared myself for it. If there's nothing that can be done, there's no use worrying about it," he says.

"God has looked out for me. I certainly didn't do anything to live this long."

John and Jack's living room is a microcosm of their previous homes. Each has a card table that serves as his "office," stacked with bills, other mail, checkbooks, insurance policies.

When Jack came to Baltimore 10 years ago, he only planned a temporary stay in his parents' apartment, while he looked for a new house.

He had been living in Schenectady, N.Y., and had retired from GE in 1989 after 26 years. His wife, Dorothy Anne, had died of leukemia in 1974.

Jack's grown children had begun moving to Maryland.


"My mother said, 'Why don't you come down to Baltimore ... move in with us until you find something?'

"It was a temporary move and my mother said, 'Where do you want to sleep?' and I said, 'Well, there's only one place to sleep and it's there.' "

He pointed to the daybed by the window.

"I've been there ever since."

By then Jack's mother had begun to lose her hearing, and her health deteriorated from there.

"When she became hard of hearing, it became a tremendous weight on her," says Jack. "She became almost like an outcast in her own family. She couldn't hear a word they said and she would sit in these gatherings and be left out."


That was especially difficult for a self-taught woman with a fourth-grade education who ran her own business in the 1930s and became the head of such charitable organizations as the Eastern Star and Amaranth.

Her death left a void for both father and son.

"She was the only one John ever loved, believe me," says Emma.

The only time John's granddaughter, JoAnne Klimek, remembers seeing him cry was at his wife's funeral.

Finding family

John Strauch never took having a family for granted. In fact, he didn't have much of one until he was nearly grown.


His alcoholic father was mostly absent. His mother died when John was 3.

"I remember she was sick in bed. I asked her for a slice of bread and she said, 'We have no bread, we have crackers.'"

And he remembers her funeral in Loudon Cemetery. "I screamed that I was going to take the men [pallbearers] and put them down the hole. I was angry."

He visited her grave for about 50 years, but hasn't been back for almost half a century.

John was reared by a grandmother who died by the time he was 15. He had already dropped out of school to support himself, working as a busboy in the Fidelity & Deposit dining room at North Charles and Saratoga streets.

At 17 he asked the parents of a school chum, Allen Diehlmann, if he could live in their Pigtown rowhouse in Southwest Baltimore and pay them $4 a week as a boarder.


The Diehlmanns took him in and treated him like a son. They brought him into their musical family where he played harmony on mandolin during their evening soirees.

"I didn't find home until I moved in with them," John says.

And John found more than a home at the Diehlmanns'.

Five years after he moved in, he married Allen's younger sister, Elizabeth, on Sept. 2, 1920.

They moved across the street on Washington Boulevard where Jack was born two years later.

From then on, John spent his life giving his only child everything he never had.


Today, father and son share idyllic memories of their early lives at home on Washington Boulevard, a rowhouse with Elizabeth's beauty salon on the first floor that always welcomed neighbors.

It was a house, they both say, where voices were never raised and Jack never wanted for anything.

John delights in telling how his son wore out new shoes in just a few weeks - whether they were the most expensive he could find or the cheapest - because the boy played so hard in the alleys.

Their house was always filled with neighborhood children, lured there by baseball bats and gloves, basketballs and boxing gloves.

"Whatever they wanted, they came to our home for," says John.

"They devoted their lives to me," says Jack. "They gave me everything that I wanted."


"He was a good father and he was always there. I would come in at 7 or 8 o'clock at night and we would listen to a couple of shows and get my homework done.

"Then my mother would send my father out to get ice cream. And that continued on until I got into college," says Jack.

From his favorite place on the couch, John nods at the memory with a little smile of satisfaction.

"Every night, a pint of ice cream," the father exclaims at the thought of such indulgence.

"Every night," he repeats.