Dede and I met recently on the second floor porch of her home in Saint Paul, overlooking the backyard. She spends as much time as she can on that porch, in the quiet, fresh air, free of mosquitoes, having all the amenities of life within reach.
She enjoys having the three children all living in the Cities, and in turn, her grandchildren nearby. It seems that not much can surpass the joy of a grandmother hosting her family together for dinner every Sunday night, and for the Jewish holidays.
We’ve really done a lot to this porch over the years. I used to just have netting up here, but my kids said I looked like the Queen of the Nile, so the only solution was to screen it in.
Where did you grow up?
We moved into this house when I was two. We lived downstairs when I was growing up, but now my son lives downstairs and I live upstairs.
Our family lived in an apartment further down on Goodrich when I was born. Then my folks and grandparents rented this duplex, and a few years after we moved in, the owner wanted to sell it. My mother thought it would be a wonderful investment, and so they bought it. Of course my father didn’t want to, my father never wanted to buy anything. Or do anything. Everything was just fine the way it was. My mother was much more a business person than my dad was. Much more aggressive.
Years later our neighbor offered us the house next store, another duplex. They were practically giving it away. But my dad wouldn’t hear of it.
Can you describe your family growing up?
My parents were Mike and Dorothy Zidel, and I have two younger brothers. My dad was a dentist. And my mother, much to her dismay, was a housewife. It was not her choosing. She didn’t want to be a housewife. She wanted to be in the working world. She was in the stock brokerage business before she met my father, and the man she worked for wanted her to stay so badly that he offered to pay for childcare when I was born, if she would keep working. But my father said absolutely no, his wife wouldn’t work. I don’t know if he thought it would be a reflection on him as a provider. But my mother was a terrific businesswoman. It was sad, because not only could they have had childcare, but my grandma lived with us! My mother did as much as she could anyway. She just wasn’t domestic.
What do you know about their families?
My mother’s mother’s family came from Sweden. Some of the siblings were born in Sweden, but my grandmother was born here. My mother’s father’s family were all born in this country – in New York, and then they came here.
On my dad’s side, his parents were both born in Lithuania. I thought I understood the background, but then I started doing some research. Some records say that my grandfather came over when he was 12. But then other papers say that he saved up money and had his wife come over. So he would have been much older. I have no idea. The whole thing has me completely baffled.
But it is fascinating. I bought a program to download the information I have, because I do have a fair amount. But I don’t know how to download the information. I’ll have to find a teenager to come in and do it for me.
Did you have a Jewish upbringing?
Uh uh. My parents belonged nowhere. My dad did not want anything to do with any religion or temples. But we went to Seders at my grandparents, my dad’s parents, and things like that.
And on my mother’s side, when my grandfather married my grandmother his parents sat Shiva for him, because she wasn’t Jewish. So my mother didn’t know her father’s parents, until she was maybe 10, 11 years old. And then I guess they finally decided that it wasn’t the worst thing in the world. And my grandma was a very lovely, charming woman. Though she didn’t fit into his family particularly well. She was very tall, and stately, and blond. And he was very short, and dark. I have a family picture in the house, of the huge Harris family, and she’s probably the tallest one in the whole picture.
So how did you form your Jewish identity?
When I grew up, I had somewhat of a Jewish identity but I lived in both worlds, and for some reason when I got to high school, at Central, I just hung around with Jewish kids. Why it happened? With my parents, I could have dated anybody I wanted, and my friends were dying to date gentile boys. And I didn’t. It was really kind of strange, somehow a gravitational thing, I don’t know.
Were you active in high school?
Not a lot, unfortunately, as I look back. My friends and I didn’t get involved in high school. It wasn’t until my senior year that I got involved with the theater, and was in the class play. It was so much fun, and I so regretted that I hadn’t done it before. I was in “I Remember Mama”. I was Dagmar, the little girl, the daughter. And it was just tons of fun. And all of a sudden you realize, I could have been doing this all along.
But we had a Jewish sorority when we were in high school, it had been going on for a number of years. It wasn’t sanctioned by the school, but there were two Jewish sororities. There was Perdettes and there was Teds. And we always considered Teds for the kids that didn’t get into Perdettes.
How did you meet Bob?
I don’t know how it all transpired. Bob asked me out. I think it was for his 18th birthday. He was a senior and I was fifteen, a sophomore in high school. Then he graduated, and I was at Central for two more years.
First he went to Macalester. And he loved it there, and he was doing beautifully, in school and sports. He made the golf team at Macalester, even though he had always run track in high school, in fact he was the city track champion. When he got to Macalester, he had a friend from high school that was a very good golfer, and he taught Bob golf.
Anyway, Harvey Mackay was absolutely determined to have Bob come to the University and join Phi Eps (Phi Epsilon Pi fraternity). Because they needed athletes for their intramural teams at the U. And he hounded Bob day and night, and he was very, very persistent.
So Bob transferred over and spent another three years at the University, but he didn’t take anything significant. His dad was in the lumber business, but he didn’t take any classes that might help in that. He was on the Minneapolis campus, and God forbid you should go to the farm campus.
What did he graduate with, what degree?
Ah! A degree in I don’t know what! I can’t even remember. It might have been history.
From there, he went to work for Federal Lumber, with his dad, then he and Cal Smith started a garage building business together, for a while, but it was really hard, and that ended.
Then he went to work in the brokerage business for Jerry Bratter. In the early 60s the local brokerage business was just booming. There was no basis for it. But it was just roaring. And he was making lots of money. And I don’t know if our marriage could have lasted, because he was such a big shot, I couldn’t stand it. Then I had Denise, at just about the time the whole bottom fell out of the brokerage business, and he was without a job. And now he’s got a child.
So he went to work for Lamar Inc., which his uncle owned. They made hair products, and for a year he was on the road as a salesman, but he hated that. So he was in sales service until he retired. They got bought out by Dow, and he was offered early retirement. Then he worked for Marvy’s for a while, a couple days a week.
How about you, what did you do after high school?
I went to the University, to the School of Dental Hygiene. At that time you could do it in two years, although it was really hard. Most of the girls got some college experience before they went in, and got some of the basic courses out of the way. But I did it all together, which was a bit much. I don’t know why I was in such a hurry to get out of college, but I was.
So Bob and I ended up graduating the same year. He was on a four year program, and mine was two.
Then we got married in December, after we graduated. We were married at Mount Zion, by Rabbi Plaut. But he wasn’t going to marry me at first. He thought I should go through conversion. And my mother-in-law almost killed him! She was very determined that I was going to marry Bob. Bob didn’t wine and dine me, but his mother did. She was very intent on it. And she was great. She really was. She did everything in her power to make my life easier, and better. And she was really super to me.
What did you do after college?
I started working for my father as a hygienist. I loved doing the lab work. I loved making gold crowns. Loved doing that. In fact, I still have crowns in my mouth that I made. I only worked for him for a couple days a week, once my kids were born.
I remember the University had an infamous lab instructor – Dr. Hall. He was a young instructor when my dad was in school, and by the time I got there he was the head of the lab for both the dentists and the hygienists. So we would carve these crowns out of wax, and he had this dummy head, and you would position the crown in this head and he would then slam! the jaws together. And if you hadn’t made it correctly, the crown would just smash! He greatly enjoyed watching the anguish of our reaction to him slamming the jaws.
Did your kids grow up at Mount Zion?
All of our kids went through Sunday School there, and the boys had their bar mitzvah’s, and they were all confirmed at Mount Zion. But now they all have very little to do with Judaism. Or any religion for that matter.
But I think if you ask some of my grandkids, they might tell you they think they’re Jewish. The only affiliation they have with religion, is because I have them here for all the holidays. And they love the holidays. I don’t know if it’s the holidays or the food, but they participate.
We have a Seder. In fact, my little nine year old grandson read the Four Questions this year, in Hebrew! I was so surprised, I couldn’t believe he could do it! So they associate in that way.
And you remain active at Temple.
I am on the Board, but this is my last year. I was on the Board once before, but it was very short lived. I started on the Board, and then Mayor Latimer appointed me to the Human Rights Commission of St. Paul. They met the same exact night. So I had to make a decision, and I decided that I would join the Commission.
So I resigned the Temple Board after just a few months, and you know I felt bad, so when they called me three years ago and asked me if I would be on the Board, I felt so guilty about having dropped off the first time, I decided I’d better fulfill the obligation this time. Because I didn’t want to have it hanging over my conscience anymore. Enough is enough.
But the Human Rights Commission was very interesting. We wrote the first code to include gays and lesbians. It was extremely controversial. And listening to the people talk at hearings. It was so hard to hear the stories, and the different positions. And you couldn’t really respond, you just wanted to scream! It was very, very hard to sit and listen to some of that.
You had mentioned hosting for the holidays. I assume you are a good cook?
Yes. My kids come for dinner every Sunday night, and if I made noodle kugel every Sunday night my grandchildren would be thrilled! But I don’t. And they love latkes. But I don’t make them, except for Hanukah. You have to save some traditions.
I’ve just always enjoyed cooking. I make potato knishes every Wednesday morning at the Sholom Home. And we freeze them and sell them, especially at the High Holidays. They’ve been doing that since the old Sholom Home. It started with the residents, as a way to get them involved. And then they expanded it to become a fundraising piece for the auxiliary.
I actually remember that, when the old Sholom was across the street from the fairgrounds, they would sell knishes from a stand out in front during the Fair.
Yes, we sell quite a few of them. Several hundred dozen for the High Holidays. We send out an order form. We make two sizes, the smaller hors d’oeuvres size and the larger size.
Before we break, I remember you telling me once about the John Dillinger story.
On March 31, 1934, St Paul police knocked on the door of apartment 303 at the Lincoln Court Apartments (93 S Lexington Parkway), just around the corner from what later became Dede’s home. Inside the apartment were John Dillinger and his girlfriend. Though Dillinger was shot in the melee that ensued, the couple was able to escape through an unguarded back door into the alley.
It was in that apartment right over there. And the getaway car was parked two doors down, on this side of the alley. That garage. And the girlfriend pulled the car out, and they got away.
And right across the street was the Billy Hamm kidnapping. He had dropped off his daughter at the Summit School down the block, which is now called SPA/SS. And Ma Barker and the Karpis boys kidnapped him right in front of the house.
We get bus tours all the time. I’ll be out front working in the garden and see a big, big, sightseeing bus coming down the street, on one of those gangster tours. Especially on the weekends. It’s kind of funny. They stop and explain, then they pull around and they stop again on Lexington, in front of Dillinger’s apartment, right in the middle of the road.
With all this being just a couple short blocks away from Grand Avenue, do you remember that much as a kid?
Oh yeah! The Lexington was there, but it wasn’t as big as it is now. There was Treacy’s drugstore on that corner, next to the Lex. I remember they had a soda fountain. Then the Lex bought it and expanded the restaurant to take up the whole corner.
And across the street, toward the middle of the block there was a movie theatre, the Uptown theatre, where we went to Saturday matinees for 12 cents. Now it’s a parking lot.
A photo and interesting story of the theater can be found here.
Beyond that there was a little hamburger joint called the Alamo. It was just a counter, with this guy wearing a white hat behind it. And they served hamburgers, and they had chili.
And where the Blockbuster’s was, which is now an eye clinic, that was a gas station, Radke’s Standard station.
But the Uptowner restaurant has been there since I was a kid. In fact, in my freshman year of high school a friend of mine and I would walk home from Central, and we’d stop there and get French fries. And then I realized I couldn’t do that anymore, that was not a good idea. But it was always a treat when I was a kid. I took dancing lessons when I was younger, and after a recital, we’d go to the Uptowner for a banana split.
So one final question, I’ve always wondered how you came to be known as Dede?
I don’t know. My family did not call me Dede, because my grandmother did not think that was at all dignified for a young woman. I don’t know when I started being known as Dede, but I can’t remember when I wasn’t. Though if anybody called the house and asked for Dede, and my grandmother answered the phone, she corrected them. “Do you mean Diane?”
Were you named after a relative?
I think I was named after a record, there was a song around the time was I was born called Diane. I’ve heard the record, but all I remember is the line (singing) “My Diane”.
DIANE (Erno Rapee / Lew Pollack)
I’m in heaven when I see you smile;
Smile for me, my Diane.
And though ev’rything’s dark all the while
I can see you, Diane.
You have lighted the road leading home;
Pray for me when you can.
But no matter wherever I roam,
Smile for me, my Diane.
On that, we wrapped up. Going back into the house I now noticed that the back door to her flat was a frosted glass door that had originally led to her father’s dental office.
It happened to catch her brother’s eye several years ago, as the door to an apartment he once passed by. They inquired, eventually bought it, and stored it away, until years later when Dede had her porch built, creating an opening specifically sized to accommodate that door.