[Last updated: 3 February 2011]

OREN E. STEMBEL, SR. (1917 - 1989)

Oren was born in Wheatfield, Indiana, on January 5, 1917. His birth was never recorded in the Jasper County courthouse. Therefore, there is no birth certificate or official record of his birth (this caused problems when he was drafted into the Army during WWII). His father was Grover Stembel. His mother was Lulu Fern Dewey. Oren was their first child. When he was two, a sister, Elizabeth, was born.

At the time of Oren's birth, Grover and Fern lived about block east of the Stembel house where Sarah and George Oren lived. Later, after George and Sarah died, Grover's brother, Harry, lived there.(1)

It's hard to describe exactly where the Stembels lived in Wheatfield because there were no street numbers back then.

When Oren was four years old, his father died of Lethargic Encephalitis, an epidemic that swept the country for about two years in the early 1920s and then quickly faded, a medical mystery even to this day. Lethargic Encephalitis was sometimes called "sleeping sickness" because those who came down with it usually slipped into a coma. Those that didn't die were often left mentally retarded or severely disabled. Oren remembered his father coming home from work for lunch about two weeks before he died. He had a fever and mentioned that he didn't feel well. That is Oren's only clear memory of his father.

After Grover died, his widow, Fern, and her two children stayed on in their Wheatfield home for four years (1921 - 1925). Fern took in four teachers as boarders, and opened a hat shop with a friend.

Evidently there was bad blood between Grover's mother, Sarah - a widow herself - and Fern. According to family tradition Grover died before he had changed the beneficiary of his small life insurance policy from his mother to his new wife. When the insurance company paid off on the policy, Sarah took the check and intended to keep it. Grover's brother Harry was so incensed at his mother for not giving the check to Grover's widow that he locked his mother in the bathroom and refused to let her out until she finally agreed to give the check to Fern.(2) Harry always looked after Fern and her kids for the rest of his life. (In all fairness to Sarah, when she was widowed, her husband, though wealthy, left no will. His estate was never settled during her lifetime. She may have been feeling the financial pinch as well.)

Fern had a sister, Viola, who worked for the Artificial Ice Company in South Bend, Indiana, about 40 miles northeast of Wheatfield. She helped Fern get a job there. The job didn't pay well enough for Fern to be able to support herself and two children, so Oren and Betty went to live with Fern's father, Melvin Curtis Dewey, on his farm not far from Wheatfield. Oren and Betty lived with them from 1925 to 1929. When the depression hit, the Deweys lost their farm, and had to move to another farm near Kouts (Porter County).

About this time Fern changed jobs. Her new employer was the Furnas Ice Cream Company in South Bend. That same year the Borden Company bought the Furnas Company and Fern was transferred to their plant in Elkhart, 15 miles east of South Bend. The plant was located on the southeast corner of Baldwin and Cassopolis Streets. Fern was now making more money, so she sent for Oren and Betty. At first they lived in an apartment at 309 E. Crawford. In 1931 they moved to another apartment at 303 E. Crawford. Both were upstairs apartments. In 1933 they moved to 325 Sherman Street, then to an apartment on Jefferson Street, and then to an apartment on 322 E. Jackson Street (on the corner of Clark Street). These moves occurred in a relatively short period of time and must have been very disruptive.

On November 18, 1933, Fern married Earl Shigley. This was Earl's second marriage as well. Fern moved the family to Earl's house on Nappanee Street (north of Franklin Street). By this time both Oren and Betty were in high school.

Fern's marriage to Earl did not last long. Fern felt Earl favored his own kids over her kids, and didn't treat everyone equally. The marriage ended in divorce. After the divorce, Fern moved to 424 N. Main Street.

Around 1936, Fern joined her brother, Chet, and bought a grocery store at 1232 S. Main Street. The store was located on a street corner. It was a typical neighborhood store of that era, with the front door opening onto the sidewalk. Fern's house was attached to the rear of the store. Fern worked in the store.

By this time Oren had graduated from high school and was working for the Hossicks Bread Company as a deliveryman. He worked there until 1938 when he began working for the Wonder Bread Company.

Fern also worked for an ice cream parlor across the street. Wray's Ice Cream parlor was a popular meeting spot for young people and did brisk business.

About this time another family moved to Elkhart. Sue Hutchison and her mother, Francis, traveled from their home in Wisconsin because Sue's sister, Dorothy, was very ill and needed tending. Dorothy had moved to Elkhart earlier with her husband who had found work in Elkhart. While waiting for her sister to recover, Sue took a job at Wray's Ice Cream parlor where she met Fern.

Eventually Sue's sister recovered and her mother returned to Wisconsin. Sue felt her chances for work were better in Elkhart than in Wisconsin, so she decided to stay. Fern had an extra room in her house and offered it to Sue and her brother Bob, who had recently joined her. This is how Oren and Sue met.

On June 2, 1940, Betty married Howard Weideman in Elkhart. In 1941 Oren went away to Kansas City to the National School of Aeronautics where he earned a degree in Aeronautical Engineering. In August of that year he took a job at the Allison Engine Company in Indianapolis.

On December 14, 1941, a week after Pearl Harbor, Fern married Fred Berkey (1886-1967) in Elkhart. This was Fred's second marriage. His first wife had died.

Around this time, Oren and Sue's relationship turned serious. They married on April 11, 1942, in Elkhart. They spent their honeymoon night in Richmond, Indiana, and then drove to Dayton the next day where they stayed with their friends, Carl and Virginia Johnson. I believe Carl and Oren went to high school together. After a one day visit, they drove to Indianapolis where they got an apartment at 28th and Meridian Street.

Oren continued to work at Allison until October of that year when he moved to Xenia, Ohio, and began work at the Wright-Paterson experimental engine plant. By this time the war was heating up, and Oren was drafted into the Army. He was sworn in on December 26, 1942. He was sent to Camp Perry for basic training, but was soon transferred to Miami Beach for the remainder of his basic training. In March of 1943 he was sent to Amarillo, Texas, where he attended aircraft engine school.

In the summer of 1943 Oren completed his classes in Amarillo, and was transferred to Greenwood, Mississippi, where he began training on BT-17s (the T stood for "Trainer"). In Greenwood, Sue was allowed to join Oren, but a week after she arrived, Oren was transferred to Montgomery, Alabama, where he began training on B-24s. Sue moved with him, and they spent a pleasant few months there together.

Not surprisingly, in the spring of 1944 Oren was again transferred. This time he was ordered to return to Amarillo. Sue followed, driving Oren's 1940 Mercury to Amarillo with some other servicemen's wives. That fall, Oren was directed to report to Lowrey Air Base in Denver for his initial training on B-29s, the plane he would eventually crew on over the Pacific.

Sue was now pregnant, but she accompanied Oren to Denver where she found the combination of pregnancy and altitude almost unbearable. She finally had to move back to Wisconsin to live with her mother. Her child (Oren, Jr....this writer) was born in Elkhorn, Wisconsin, in May, 1945.

At the time of his son's birth, Oren was completing final training on B-29s in Geneva, Nebraska. Oren was allowed a weekend pass to visit Sue and his new son in Wisconsin. According to Sue he hitched rides to Wisconsin and she was overwhelmed with relief when she looked out her window and saw him swing down from the cab of a semi-tractor who had picked him up and taken him on the final leg of his brief trip home.

Soon after his return to Geneva, he and his crew picked up their B-29 in Lincoln, Nebraska, and flew it to the Marianna Islands in the Pacific. This was where they would be stationed for the duration of the war. From there they conducted bombing raids on Japan.

Oren flew as part of the 16th Bomber Group, 15th Squadron, Crew no. 13, based on the island of Guam. They participated in a number of bombing runs over Japan, especially Tokyo, during the summer of 1945. These runs were both tedious and dangerous. On one mission, Oren bent down to pick up a manual from his pack just as a Japanese round penetrated the skin of the aircraft where Oren's head had been moments earlier!

After the war was over, Oren and Sue moved back to the Elkhart area, living for a while in a trailer park in Mishawaka (on U.S. 20) in 1946-7. While living in the trailer park, their second child, Robert Dewey, was born (1946). In 1948 they purchased a small home at 1705 Superior Street in Elkhart where their third child, Deanna Lynn, was born in 1951.

Oren's sister, Betty and her husband Howard, were living on Manor Street at this time, just two blocks from Oren and Sue's Superior Street home. However, soon after Deanna was born, they moved to a new house they built east of Elkhart on the St. Joseph River, where they still reside. About the same time Fern and Fred moved to Pensacola, Florida, after Fred retired from the railroad. They rented out the ground floor of their Main Street house, but kept the second floor so they could return to Elkhart for a few months every summer.

In 1952, Oren and Sue realized that with three kids, they had outgrown their house on Superior street and moved to a larger house across town at 617 Prospect Street (Elkhart). Oren and Sue had two more children, Michael Lon, born in 1954, and James Ivan, born in 1956.

Oren began working as a salesman for the Kreamo Bakery Company soon after returning from the war. He continued working for them through the 60s. At one point Kreamo embarked on an innovative training program by sending select salesmen to nearby Notre Dame University for business training. Oren was one of those chosen.

Besides Oren's full-time job at Kreamo, he started an insurance agency in the middle 1950's. He initially sold auto insurance, but later added life insurance as well. In the late 1960s Oren purchased a shoe store on a heavily traveled highway near Mishawaka. He operated the shoe store, and ran his insurance agency from an office at the rear of the store. He eventually sold the store and his insurance agency and retired.

Oren suffered a heart attack and died on October 1, 1989. He and Sue were visiting their son, Michael and his family, in Bremen, Indiana, at the time.

Sue continued to live in their Prospect Street home until she retired as a paraprofessional teacher's aide in 1994 (at the age of 75!), a job she had taken after their kids were in school. Not long after she retired, she sold the Prospect Street house and moved to a smaller house on her son, Michael's, farm in Bremen. She died of cancer on June 18, 2001, three days after her 82 birthday. She and Oren are buried next to each other in the Sugar Grove Church's Cemetery, southeast of Elkhart.

Betty and Howard still live in Elkhart and on June 2, 2010, they celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary.


1. I remember visiting Harry in Wheatfield when I was young. He had a board game called "Uncle Remus" which he played with us. He also wore a hearing aid which he once put up to my ear so I could get an idea what a hearing aid was like. Unfortunately, at that particular time all I heard was a sharp whistle, evidently caused by feedback. Until I was well into my 30s, I thought the purpose of hearing aids was to put a loud whistle in your ear...and for the life of me I couldn't figure out how a sharp whistle in the ear helped someone hear better.

2. This was told to me by Clara Stembel, Oscar Stembel's wife, in 1983.

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