|Birth: ||Jan. 24, 1926|
|Death: ||Jan. 31, 2007|
Frank was my uncle by marriage. The eulogy I delivered at his service is below his obituary.
Frank D. Bittner, 81, of Allentown, died January 31, 2007, in Cedarbrook Nursing Home, South Whitehall Twp. He was the husband of Janet R. (Romberger) Bittner, they were married for 56 years in June. He worked for the former Bittner-Hunsicker Co. wholesale dry goods store in Allentown, and then later became president of the company until retiring. Born in Allentown, he was the son of the late Paul F. and Marguerite (Kuhns) Bittner. He was a 1944 graduate of Mercersburg Academy and a 1950 graduate of Muhlenberg College. He was an Army veteran of World War II, serving in the calvary. He was a member of Christ Lutheran Church in Allentown. At the church, he was a past council member, member of the membership, evangelism, and social ministry committees, church coordinator for the Miller Blood Bank, usher team captain, and a member of the call committee to elect a senior pastor at the church. He was a former volunteer at Lehigh Valley Hospital. In 1951, he founded the Young Republicans of Lehigh County.
Survivors: Wife; daughters, Tracy L., and Katherine L. Bittner; four grandchildren.
Good morning. Thank you for coming here today for Frank David Bittner- our good friend, school chum, employer, church mate, uncle, grandpa, father and husband. That he was so many things to so many people says a lot about him. Each of us has our own unique perspectives and memories of Frank. I can only tell you about my wonderful, funny, smart and loving uncle.
It was only about a year ago that I stood at this very microphone to eulogize my father. It seems only right to think of the two of them together. My dad had two sisters, and Frank had no siblings. Though they differed often, they were brothers for each other in many ways. I cannot remember a time that I did not see them that way. My childhood memories of family get-togethers are full of the feeling of ping-pong, as Frank and my father traded snappy comebacks. I remember the presents, many from Frank's wholesale company, Bittner-Hunsicker -in red, white and black Hanes boxes- of socks and undies and t-shirts.
Did you know that Harold Stassen ran for president nine times between 1948 and 1992? I do, because Uncle Frank was a supporter. And I can remember one birthday my Dad got the familiar white box with the red and black lettering, but with added black marker proclaiming "Harold Stassen wears Haines."
I remember another birthday for my dad where Frank had gotten a sign with a vulture on it, and embellished it so that it read "Gil Romberger is an old buzzard. Happy Birthday anyways!" They enjoyed their one-upmanship, they more quietly shared their sorrows, but with my stouter Uncle Frank and my skinnier dad, they were always Laurel and Hardy, and embraced that inside joke. Those were our family get-togethers, with Bittners, and Rombergers, and Janet's sister Joyce's family, the Fenstermachers.
To me, Frank was my wild uncle, my cool uncle, and finally the one I could really talk with as I got older. But, oh, when I was little! One of my earliest memories is of being chased through the house and being backed into a corner, shrieking in fear with my cousins, cornered by a terrifyingly real wolf – my Uncle Frank, down on all fours, playing "wolf" with us as we often begged him to.
I can remember one day his presenting Tracy, Kathy and I with these really cool toothbrushes with brown and white marbleized, swirled handles. The kicker was when you ran them under the spigot, there was toothpaste embedded in the bristles, and when you brushed your teeth, it was chocolate. Who but Uncle Frank would find such a thing? I can remember him taking us down to Bittner-Hunsicker one day – to me, a cavernous, mysterious, huge place with a dinosaur of an elevator – and being allowed to pick out one dress from a special shipment. My first dress obtained without Mom's fashion sense, and I did ok. The tasteful pale-blue plaid frock with the Peter Pan collar is what I'm wearing in one of my school portraits, so Mom must have approved.
You appreciate different things about people as you both age, and so it was with Uncle Frank. He became my favorite correspondent for some of my college years. His letters were full of jokes and uncle-y advice and love, and unlike many of us, he did not shy away from speaking unattractive truths. He was the one I could write to about a fellow I dated at the time, when I was concerned that fellow may have had a problem with alcohol. I knew I would get a candid answer, and I did. But beyond advice, I remember his sly humor. He was an artist when it came to crossing things out, but leaving just enough so you'd be sure to read it. Thus, I'd get letters that would say, for example-
"I'm sure you'll do fine at the frat parties, because we all know what an overbearing (crossed out) hyper (crossed out) enthusiastic girl you are."
But one of his trademarks was things, cool things. Not in a shallow, materialistic way, but in a way which bespoke quality or wonderment. In one of his cutting edge purchases made during the time of the famous 1972 chess showdown between Bobby Fischer of the US and Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union, Uncle Frank got this wonderful early computerized chess game that talked. It was called "Boris" and was amazing to all of us. When you played your move, it would congratulate you on your cunning, or darkly say something in a thick accent more to the effect of "bad move, comrade". Frank was also the first of anyone we knew to get a Sony Betamax, the first of the widely available videocassette recorders.
And being a man of quality, he always looked so good. Beautiful overcoats. Good shoes. Classic suits. Distinctive ties. One I remember especially well. It was a posh navy blue silk with a small repeated gold pattern on it. You had to look very closely to see that it was a man in a raincoat with his back to you, with his arms flared wide open holding the coat, and underneath were the tiny letters "D.O.M." for "dirty old man". You see, being a man of humor and a man of quality are not mutually exclusive.
But what of that quality? Where did it come from? I realized in writing this what a shame it is that most of us only get to see our grandparents in their later years. I wish so much you four grandchildren, that you'd had the chance to know your grandpa when he was younger, and to have had more time to build great memories. Though you do not carry his name, by being raised by your moms, you will have some of him in you, by custom and because you're of his line.
So what about that line? How did we get this man of quality? Let's turn to Frank's father, Paul Bittner, president of Bittner Hunsicker and on the board of Merchants National Bank.
Let's go back to his father, another Frank D. Bittner, similarly interested in Bittner-Hunsicker, and a participant in the organization of three Lutheran congregations in Allentown. We are sitting here today in part, because our Frank's grandpa Frank was on the original building committee for Christ Lutheran.
Let's go back another generation to Elias Bittner who worked the family farm in Lowhill Township. He was hired out to a farm in New Jersey by his father, Jacob, because Jacob wanted him to learn to speak English, and only German was spoken out that way at the time. By the mid-1800's, Elias Bittner and Owen Hunsicker had a hotel and store in Weisenberg Township, and later Elias worked with Owen Hunsicker, Jr. to establish a dry goods company and grocery called Bittner and Hunsicker Brothers. Elias must have been quite something. In 1902, on December 3rd, Bittner-Hunsicker was struck by one of the most disastrous fires that ever visited Allentown. Elias must have stuck around until the bitter end to save goods or people, because he was struck by a collapsing wall which crushed his right arm and necessitated its amputation. Medicine being what it was back then, it good to be able to report that he lived another 9 years.
As an aside, I have to mention that my mother is an Ettinger, and her Ettinger clan originated in the very same area Elias was in before Allentown, Weisenberg Township. Elias Bittner married Mary A. Miller, daughter of George Miller and Mary Ettinger Miller. Weisenberg Township people stayed there a long time back then, and the odds are not huge at all that my mom's Ettingers and Frank's Bittners already knew each other. It bears noting too, that an ancestor of Frank's, Rosa Bittner, married a Henry Fenstermacher out that way as well, perhaps related to Frank's sister in law's husband. Who knows?
But back to our line of quality. Elias' dad was Jacob Bittner, born 1791, a farmer and miller. He was also overseer of the poor and school director for the township. Before Jacob was Andreas Michael Bittner who was 3 years old when he came to the U.S. with his parents Michael and Clara, and some siblings. Andreas Michael did not have an easy time in early life because his father died around the time he was 8. His mother Clara remarried some years later, so Andreas Michael was raised in the Holben family. Still, the early loss did not ruin him, as he went on to serve in the Revolutionary War for his new country. Got that girls? You can join Daughters of the American Revolution! Andreas Michael was a devout Lutheran, and a member of the building committee that built Weisenberg Church, which is just off Holben's Valley Road (remember the Holbens that raised Andreas?) – and is over 250 years old. I can't resist adding that my Ettinger mother is also descended -through her mom- from the Helfrichs, and Ziegel Union Church, the church of her ancestor, the Reverend Johannes Helfferich, was going up at the same time in Weisenberg Township, less than 8 miles away. I'm telling you, families were all connected in the past, and they will all be connected again in the future as sure as we Bittners, and Fenstermachers, and Rombergers, and Ettingers and Helfrichs sit here. Oh, and you know who unites us all? Our great-grandfather, William J. Dietrich of the Lehigh County Historical Society, the husband of our dear Nannie, Susan Mabel Schell Meckley Dietrich, who wrote some of the Lehigh County history I'm retelling today.
But back to young Andreas Michael Bittner, coming to the U.S. and losing his dad once they were here only five years.
Sadly, on the way here, Andreas Michael also lost a sister who died on the ship. The other sister, the survivor –and I say this smiling at Frank's daughter Kathy Louise Bittner- the surviving sister was Louisa. See? It all comes around.
So these are some of the people who made Frank a man of quality, who gave him his "essence". That essence is important because at the end, it's all we have. When it all goes away, all that's left is our essence.
Some of you know that in losing my dear dad, there was a battle within. He had multiple tiny strokes that took away many of his right perceptions. It left him sometimes confused or defensive, but still, the kernel of who he was survived. Though eventually he forgot a conversation almost instantly, though he could no longer walk or manage self-care, that core of him remained. It was what allowed him to wish my mother and me good night by always saying "Thank you for your good care." That was his essence.
Frank fought his own battle, a slightly different one but with devastating effects. I can remember when it started, hearing about the doctor visits and tests. He knew very well the path he had no choice but to take in his coming years. He spoke about it candidly, and we, his family, could see the changes, the softening of his voice, the hesitations in speech. I remember having a lovely, slow conversation with him at his home about feeding birds, as he had several birdfeeders in the yard. Also a bird enthusiast, I asked him what he brought in, and it utterly broke my heart as he fought to tell me the names of the breeds. You knew what was coming, and you knew he knew it too. The merciful passing of self-awareness had not yet happened, if indeed it ever really goes.
When such things happen, no one knows what to do. You don't know what to say. You don't know if by talking you might force a reminder of what is being lost. You don't know if you can stand to watch.
But remembering his essence- that of a man of quality, intelligence and humor- made it easy to visit him when he went to live at Cedarbrook nursing home. I can remember our clumsy, warm conversations. I can remember when he began sentences that could not be finished. I remember showing him pictures of family, and trips my husband and I took, where he would look intently, and not comment.
As the days passed and the words became fewer, the core of who he was still came through. Perhaps he knew me, perhaps not, but when you get a big smile, and when a man of a few words says "Well!" upon your arrival, you feel rather welcomed. There are fewer compliments that touched me as much as the day he looked at me candidly, and simply said "so pretty". I never felt more so. Even when words were gone for him, and I would talk mostly in a monologue, his social core asserted itself, and he would smile and whistle for me when I paused. As much as he could be, he was there, present, participating and loving.
That core is precious. In the end, it is what we have, and probably what we take with us when we die. But it's also what we leave behind in the minds and souls of others. I like to think of it on the "other side" too. I like thinking about my dad and Frank together, and hope they are… the two of them, unbent and unbroken, teasing the heck out of each other, Laurel and Hardy teamed up once more.
Because, you see, all those clans out in Weisenberg Township –the Bittners and Fenstermachers, the Helfrichs and Ettingers, later joined by the Rombergers, and their friends and their wider families- see, we really were all together before, and I have great confidence in our essences meeting in the next place, and that we will all be together again.
God bless you, Uncle Frank.
Paul F Bittner (1896 - 1974)
Marguerite I Kuhns Bittner (1896 - 1983)
Janet Fay Romberger Bittner (1929 - 2011)*
Plot: Ashes rest on the "old side" near the Farmer's Market, in his mother's Kuhns family lot
Created by: sr/ks
Record added: Feb 24, 2009
Find A Grave Memorial# 34168052