Immigrant Stories: ‘I had $7 in my pocket and didn’t speak English’
Immigrant Stories by Walter Gallacher appears on the fourth Tuesday of the month. Gallacher is a photojournalist and an independent radio producer. Anyone with an immigrant story to tell about themselves or relatives is invited to email email@example.com. To read past Immigrant Stories, go to www.immigrantcolorado.blogspot.com.
Michael Ohnmacht found his way to Colorado from Austria, where he continued his trade of stained glass. He tells his story to Walter Gallacher’s Immigrant Stories.
Ohnmacht: I was born in 1940, in Austria, but my dream was always to come to the United States. I remember watching the cowboy movies. I loved the open space of the countryside, and I always left the theater wanting to leave my narrow, little country.
I grew up in a family of intellectuals, and I was the only tradesman, so I always felt out of place. My father was undersecretary of education, my brother was a judge, one sister was a doctor and the other a professor and I was just a poor working guy. I was a rebel as a kid, so I think my mother wondered what she was going to do with me.
Gallacher: What memories do you have of growing up in the midst of the war?
Ohnmacht: We lived near a train station during the war, and the Americans were bombing, so whenever we heard their planes we ran to the bunkers. One time when we came back, our house was in half, and we had to move to the town where my father was born.
My father didn’t have to go to war because he had a heart condition, but in the last year when Germany was losing, every man had to go. That’s when my father went into hiding. He lived in the hayloft of a friend’s old barn and only came to visit us in the middle of the night.
That was really hard on my mother because she was left with five children to raise. Those times were tough. My mom used to make milk by mixing flour and water. It tasted awful but sometimes it was all we had. My father would always bring us eggs and butter from the farm when he came.
He never agreed with the war. In fact, when Hitler began his rise to power, my father secretly joined a resistance group, but the Nazis came on so fast there was nothing anyone could do.
When the war ended Austria was divided into four zones occupied by France, Britain, Russia or the United States. Our town was headquarters for the zone occupied by the Americans.
My mother was a teacher, and she was the only one in our town who spoke English, so she was the bridge between the mayor, the townspeople and the Americans. I can remember getting jeep rides, chocolate and chewing gum from the American soldiers.
Gallacher: What did your father do after the war?
Ohnmacht: He came out of hiding and went back to work, but that didn’t last long. He died of a heart attack in 1947. So I don’t have too many memories of him. My mother and my grandmother raised the five of us.
Gallacher: You said you were in a family of intellectuals. Were you made to feel that you didn’t measure up?
Ohnmacht: I was always acting out and breaking the rules, so I was a challenge for my mother. She didn’t know what to do with me, so when I was 14 she found a place in a monastery where they had a stained glass studio. This studio was well-known throughout central Europe. Artists would come from all over with their designs, and we would do the assembling.
Most of the boys in the monastery were there to study and eventually become monks, so when we got up in the morning they went to school, and I went to apprentice in the glass studio.
Gallacher: What was it like for you to leave school and your friends and go live in a monastery?
Ohnmacht: I missed my friends, my family and my soccer buddies. I felt like I was stuck in a very narrow and conservative existence. I ended up feeling like I had done something wrong and this was my punishment.
I worked all week in the glass studio and then my job on Saturday morning was to clean the workshop. I would finish about noon get on my bike and ride home. The trip usually took me three hours. I spent Saturday night and part of Sunday with the family and then biked back to the monastery before dark.
I hated to go back, and when I complained my mother would just say, “This is the way boys have to be. You need to be strong.” I think sometimes she forgot that I had a heart too. It wasn’t only about muscles.
Gallacher: Were there aspects of the monastic life that you enjoyed?
Ohnmacht: I got to meet some interesting people, like Frederick Sprick. He was a portrait artist who worked in the film industry in Hollywood. He told me about sketching Elizabeth Taylor and the other starlets. He always dressed like a cowboy and wore colorful shirts with fringe on the sleeves.
Frederick came to the monastery to retreat and find himself but being an artist he got interested in stained glass. He and I became friends, and we would go for walks, and he would always tell me stories about America. He told me about the desert and the mountains and the big cities, and his stories inspired me to make my dream come true.
Gallacher: Did you get to know any of the monks?
Ohnmacht: Yes, since I was a student, I was allowed to go into their living quarters, and it was there that I met one of the brothers. Just like me, he wasn’t happy being there. He told me stories of a woman he was in love with on the outside. He had me run errands for him because I was the only one who had access to the outside world.
One day I came to visit him and found him hanging. That was when I started to question the church. They knew he was struggling mentally, and they did nothing to help him.
Another monk started his own religion. He was writing a book about it, and he had me smuggle the pages of his manuscript out and take them to the printer. I was just this kid caught in the middle. I didn’t know what to do, so I did what he told me.
Finally after four years there, my family moved to Innsbruck, and my mom took me with them.
Gallacher: What did that feel like?
Ohnmacht: I was back in the world again living in a big city. I got a steady job, working in a renowned stained glass studio. We assembled work for artists all over the world. I began to earn money and make friends. Life was coming together for me.
I worked there for two years but I never gave up on the idea of going to America. I kept talking to my mom about it and she finally contacted a friend of my father who worked in the Austrian government. Two weeks later, I was interviewed, and shortly after that I got notification that I was free to travel to the United States.
I flew into New York’s Idlewild Airport in 1960 and then on to Louisville, Kentucky, where I had a job working in stained glass. I had $7 in my pocket, and I didn’t speak English.
My job in Louisville only paid $38 a week, and it didn’t take me long to realize I couldn’t live on that, so six months later I took a job in Milwaukee, but that job was more like factory work, and I never fit in there.
While I was there I met a guy who said he had been a ski instructor in Aspen, and he told me great stories of a beautiful mountain town.
That’s when I started writing the chamber of commerce in Aspen. Before long I was working at the Holiday House cooking breakfast and making beds in the morning and skiing in the afternoon for $5.
The next year, I got on the ski patrol at Buttermilk and worked construction in the summer.
Gallacher: Did you ever get back to stained glass?
Ohnmacht: In 1963, I met my wife, and we honeymooned in New York. At that time the Duval Studio was the most famous glass studio in the country, so we went for a tour. While we were there I got a chance to meet John-Jacques Duval and, over time, we became friends and business associates.
I came back from that visit, bought a suit and tie, and started making trips to Denver visiting architects on behalf of Duval Studio. I got lucky. The first office I visited in Boulder needed stained glass for a church they were building in Colorado Springs.
Gallacher: Things started to happen for you.
Ohnmacht: Yes, we moved into a house where I had a little workshop, and eventually I started my own business. I moved from being an assembler of other peoples’ work to being a designer. About that time there were a lot of big homes being built in Aspen by the rich and famous, and many of them commissioned me.
Glenn Frey, of the Eagles, hired me to design glass throughout his house. I charged him $18,000, which I thought was a lot of money until I found out the rug for his bedroom cost $38,000.
I never learned how to charge for my work, and I am a poor man because of it. These days, I live very cheaply in Brazil during the winter, and I stay here with my daughter and my son in the summer. Mass production has ruined the stained glass business. It is over for artists like me. But, then, everything changes. Everything changes.
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Never ending winter: Aspen Skiing Co. announced it will open 130 acres on Aspen Mountain for skiing and snowboarding from May 25 to 27.