One day I hitched a ride with my pastor, Dr. Gene Siekmann, from Fort Dodge to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He was going through Cedar Rapids to the Iowa City Hospital, which was about thirty miles further, to see a church member who recently had surgery. During the drive he told me his story.
Gene was born in southwest Africa, an area now called Namibia. His father was a Lutheran missionary from Barmen, Germany, and had gone to southwest Africa as a single man in 1909. He was required to learn the native language before he could bring his wife-to-be, Paula, to join him. She came about a year later, and they were married in the town of Windhoek.
Their first son, Hans, was born followed by Egon (later changed to Eugene, nickname Gene) in 1912. A baby girl, also named Paula, was born in 1914, but mother Paula died giving birth. Gene’s father, Reverend Fredrich Siekmann, was doing travelling mission work in the bush area and didn’t learn of his wife’s death until he returned home. The baby daughter was kept alive by a native wet nurse, who was also nursing her own baby. Those were difficult, sad and trying times. Pastor Siekmann met another lady from Germany who had come to that area to work. Their friendship evolved into a loving marriage, and three more children were born from this marriage.
In 1922 the Siekmann family moved from southwest Africa back to Germany. Those pre-Hitler times were a struggle. The family could barely support themselves on the small salary Pastor Siekmann was receiving for his part-time work at the Seminary in Barmen, where he had been trained.
What seemed like a hopeless tragedy at the time, resulted in some good news. They later realized this was God’s plan for their lives.
They heard that many couples in Holland were willing to accept a German child into their homes for about six weeks. They would feed the children and then send them back with food for their family. Hans (later called John) would not go, but Egon (Gene) was willing to go, along with a train car full of other German children. They went to Meppel, Holland.
A couple was at the station to pick up each child. Gene, now ten years old, had mixed emotions, but looked forward to the good meals. He went to school along with the Dutch children and found that their language, though some different from German, was quite understandable for him. When six weeks ended neither side of this arrangement really wanted to terminate it.
As a result, Gene stayed for a whole year and then rejoined his family in Barmen. His father had written a letter saying that the family was going to be sponsored by his wife’s three brothers to travel to the United States. The brothers had previously emigrated from Germany to America.
The family sailed to New York. Upon arrival they were then ushered to Ellis Island. They thought it would only be a day or so before they could continue their trip to Nebraska where their sponsors lived. The family planned to stay there until Pastor Siekmann could find a job in a German-speaking church.
There were very strict rules on Ellis Island. Those in charge tried to find minimal reasons to send people back from where they came. One of the Siekmann children walked in her sleep, another had a simple malady like a cold. Whatever the issue was, the authorities kept the family there for six weeks.
The females were separated from the males in the family. That was hard to explain to the children who needed the understanding and support of both parents. Ultimately they were released and were finally on the train headed for Columbus, Nebraska.
Gene’s father now needed to find a German-speaking church, and it just happened (God’s providence) there was an area meeting of Presbyterians being held in Columbus at that time. During the meeting it was announced that the German Presbyterian Church in Rensille, Minnesota, was seeking a pastor who could preach in German. Pastor Siekmann applied for the position and was selected. Several years later, after he learned more English, the family moved to a country Presbyterian Church near Lennox, South Dakota, where both English and German were being spoken.
Because they were now Presbyterians instead of Lutherans, Gene applied at the Presbyterian college in Dubuque, Iowa, and received both a work scholarship and a sports scholarship. After graduation he took masters courses at the University of Iowa. His first teaching job was in Denver, a small town near Waterloo, Iowa. There he taught subjects in his major field of science, as well as German. While there he also did some coaching. Two years later he took a teaching job in Naperville, Illinois. After a few years there, the President of the University of Dubuque contacted him and offered him the position of Director of Admissions, which he accepted.
World War II was rearing its ugly head at this time, and Gene felt he wanted to serve the country he had learned to love and appreciate. He left his position in Dubuque to join the Army. President Dale Welch assured him the university would use an interim in his place and his job would be there for him when he returned.
He went into the service and was stationed at Camp Richie, Maryland, located just outside of Washington, D.C. Before being shipped overseas, he was given a three-day pass. He hitchhiked to the nation’s capital and planned to go to the USO, (United Service Organization). The USO was founded in 1941 and provided morale and emotional support to members of the U. S. military. During World War II, the USO became the G.I.’s home away from home. Thus began a tradition of entertaining the troops that continues today.
It was raining, and to get out of the weather, Gene ducked into the doorway of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. Again God intervened in his life. He was not intending to go into the church; he was just escaping the weather on the way to the USO. Gene felt the large hand of Peter Marshall on his shoulder. Peter Marshall was pastor of the church and also Chaplain of the US Senate. Catherine Marshall continues the story in her book, A Man Called Peter.
“A soldier, who was stationed at Camp Ritchie, Maryland, hitchhiked to Washington while on a three-day pass. On a rainy Sunday he wandered into New York Avenue Church.” The soldier was Gene Siekmann.
“'It was for me, a period of particular spiritual darkness,’ the soldier said later. 'That Sunday morning God wakened me through Peter Marshall. There was in him a serenity and Christian charm that gripped me and strangely blessed me…He was a man of men…I thanked Dr. Marshall after the service. He invited me to come to see him in his study the next day, and I did. It ended up by my going home with him to spend the night. We rifled the icebox and talked earnestly into the early morning hours.'”
"This boy later decided to enter the ministry". 'That decision’, he said later, ‘dated back to the terrific spiritual impact Peter Marshall had on me that never-to be-forgotten night…'”
Gene said Peter Marshall wrote him several times while he was in the service in Australia, New Guinea, and Japan. Peter Marshal died in 1949. Catherine, Peter’s wife, wrote Gene a couple of times and sent Gene a small package which contained a copy of the book A Man Called Peter and Peter’s billfold, which had his name engraved on it. Gene kept them and treasured them, but says the influence of Peter Marshall on his life is the most treasured.
After three years in the service, Gene returned home to his job at the University of Dubuque. He had met his future wife, Sally, there before going to war. They were married upon his return. Both of their fathers were pastors and both officiated at the wedding. They were married more than sixty-five years and were blessed with two daughters and two sons.
After his experiences in the South Pacific, Gene felt the divine urging to go into the ministry. While a seminary student, he served the Presbyterian Church in Aplington, Iowa, and continued there for five years after graduation. He returned to the University of Dubuque to be Assistant to the President, which evolved into Vice President of Advancement.
After seven years in that position, Gene felt it was time to get back into the ministry. He was called to Marshall, Minnesota, and later to Fort Dodge, Iowa. This is where I met Gene, when he was the minister there at First Presbyterian Church. He baptized both of our children. His wife, Sally, directed choirs in most of his pastorate locations, as well as taught music in high schools. Even after retirement he served an interim time at a church in Brainerd, Minnesota for a year and a half. His story still does not end there.
After a visit and eventual move to Sun City, Arizona, God opened another door for Gene. A new, large church in Sun City was looking for two associate pastors. The Siekmann’s daughter, Paula, was a recent graduate of Fuller Seminary. She and her husband planned to move to Phoenix, where her husband had grown up. God led both Gene and Paula to become associates on the church’s staff. Additionally, Sally Siekmann became a part of the church’s music ministry, playing for two to three services each Sunday and involved in mid-week music in various ways. All three served together at that same church, Faith Presbyterian in Sun City! Gene lived to celebrate his 99th birthday in 2011 and passed in December of that year.