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The People's Voice: Be like Mike? That’s a loaded question

Dull moments scant in Austria native’s back story

Published: Saturday, April 12, 2014 1:15 a.m. CDT • Updated: Sunday, April 13, 2014 9:11 a.m. CDT
Caption
(Alex T. Paschal/apaschal@saukvalley.com)
Mike Nerstheimer (right) was among those in attendance when then-state Sen. Barack Obama visited the Rock Falls Community Center in 2005. While the president's approval rating has slipped, Nerstheimer, a devout Democrat, still calls Obama "the smartest guy we've had in that job in a long time."

Mike Nerstheimer has a lot of stuff. Literally. If you can persuade him to let you drop by his house (good luck with that, by the way), you would find stacks of electronics and more than 250 pairs of shoes.

He has fascinations, and calls himself a novice hoarder.

The native Austrian has a treasure trove of memories, from those of his family fleeing Nazi Germany to meeting the love of his life – it took him only three tries.

He’s got a lot of beefs. In fact, that’s how I met Mike. He cornered SVM Opinion Page Editor Jim Dunn to unload about the “idiot” who botched the Mega Millions numbers that appeared in the edition that hit your doorstep (or Web browser) the morning after the March 18 primary elections.

But when I called Mike to apologize, we spent about 30 seconds of our 1-hour conversation talking about my boneheaded mistake. I spent the next 59:30 realizing that Mike is one of the most fascinating folks in the Sauk Valley.

He relentlessly tried to persuade me to make this column about his vendetta with certain nonprofits, and the soulless machine that is big business. He even didn’t mince words when approaching his son-in-law, a General Motors executive, about the recent recall.

“He’s smart. Very smart,” Mike said. “But I said, That’s stupid. Just for the money. Just for the money. It’s only going to cost us a million, and only two people just died. Why are people so greedy?”

The other blanket question Mike posed that stuck with me?

“Everyone’s out to get someone else. Why is that?”

But in the rest of this space, I’m going to stick with the sunnier side of Mike, which is kind of a complicated place. He loves to give away his money to children, and I love the way he does it. Hear all about it in the latest People’s Voice podcast.

Mike says he’s given away more than 200 pairs of shoes in the past 5 years.

His sense of humor is extraordinary, albeit wrapped in sarcasm and punctuated by teeth-chattering when someone actually tries to get in a word edgewise. (You can actually hear the rhythmic clicking on the recording.)

Flight for a new life

While his McDonald’s breakfast crowd might question Mike’s memory, he rattles off long accounts from every passage of his life, even recalling the time leading up to his sister’s birth in 1943. Evidently a born skeptic, Mike was unimpressed when a gypsy used a ring on a string to predict the gender of his incoming sibling, flip-flopping each time the ring turned.

“A gypsy! Gonna forecast what she’s gonna have!” Mike said. “I just walked away.”

He remembers the first time he saw his father – that he was old enough to know who he was – after his dad was taken as a prisoner of war and held for about a year. He even remembers grabbing at his father’s cigarette so relentlessly that his pappy gave the toddler a puff. Despite the predictable coughing fit that ensued, Mike admits he used to smoke.

But it would’ve been hard to find a non-smoker among his fellow steel mill workers, or in the U.S. Army, with which he served for 3 years after his family immigrated to the states – Sterling, specifically, where he still lives.

Even the most staunch Christians with the strongest of command of I Corinthians 6:19 (hint, for those without a Bible handy: It’s the one about your body being a temple for the Holy Spirit) might have resorted to smoking if they faced the sort of knee-knocking threat Mike and Co. faced in 1962.

‘This is my country’

Mike says John F. Kennedy often called Nikita Khrushchev’s bluff. But as the Soviet leader insisted that warheads were pointed at American soldiers, Mike and his fellow medics stationed at Landstuhl in southwestern Germany, still had live rounds in their firearms. Usually, they were unloaded, simply to serve as a scare tactic.

They were on alert for 30 days, until a public address system finally alerted the Americans that the threat had subsided.

They were given leave, and, on his father’s urging, Mike took advantage and visited his uncle Eddie in the German town of Hattingen, along the Ruhr River and not far from Koln.

Mike vividly recalls being in the kitchen with his aunt when his uncle called him into the living room to watch on TV the surreal scene unfolding in Berlin.

“Tanks and trucks unloading, unloading barriers and putting up 50-gallon drums, anything to stop the people from coming,” Mike said of the beginning of the Berlin Wall. “That’s when they put it up little by little. I said, ‘Boy, I don’t know what’s going on.’”

He called his unit, which was not only curious where Mike was, but also was trying to locate its colonel, who would later be found drunk and at the tail end of a bit of a bender.

Fearing the worst, Mike returned to his unit, ending his leave early, and braced for the worst. But he once again was fortunate. While others weren’t so lucky, Mike’s service was not extended. He got to go home in January 1963.

The end of his service marked the end of a quiet fear that the United States would someday fight Germany again. Mike was more than willing to fight for his country, but feared the day he spotted a family face on the other side.

“If I’m over there and I’m shooting, and all of a sudden, somebody hollers, ‘Marian! Is that you?’” Mike – Marian is his Christian name – said. “‘Hi, Uncle Eddie!’ If I see that, I’m not gonna shoot them. I’d say, ‘Uncle, you’d better give up. I take you prisoner or you take me prisoner.’ I will not shoot one of my blood relatives. Otherwise, I’ll shoot anything. If I’m a traitor, so be it.”

That parlays nicely into a passage that I deleted from the podcast, but can sum up easily by saying that, during his 36 years working at the mill, co-workers of different nationalities insisted they would fight for their home country, should war break out.

That logic frustrates Mike.

“I’ll fight Germany. I’ll fight Romania,” Mike said. “What have they done for me? They’ve never done nothing for me. This is my country. That’s how I felt then, and that’s how I feel today.”

‘The best thing that ever happened to me’

This country, while it often brings out of Mike his favorite word, “idiot,” has consistently rewarded his hard work. And it’s given him some gifts, too, most notably Barbara Hibbard, whom he met in 1969, shortly after her husband died in a motorcycle wreck, and after she hadn’t left the house in 10 months as a result.

After two failed marriages, Mike was done running around. Done shooting pool. He wanted to be home, and he found the ultimate woman to make said home for her two daughters and, eventually, the daughter she and Mike had together.

“Barb was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said of the Arkansas native, who passed away in 2006. “She was a hillbilly, but she was the best. She was a good woman. She was a good woman and a good person. I talk about her, and I lose it.”

Further emphasizing Barbara’s sanctity is her daughter, Tammie, who, like Mike, can’t help but help those in need. If you haven’t been sold yet at this point, I’ll urge you again to check out the podcast at saukvalley.com. There simply isn’t enough room in this space to get across the complicated beauty of the story of Mike, and all those whose webs have overlapped his.

The great takeaway? Guys like me, who suffer from an acute case of Minnesota Nice, need guys like Mike, who are constantly on the front lines. Whether bemoaning Goodwill’s CEO taking a $2.5 million salary in 2013, questioning monstrous car manufacturers’ practices, or demanding an explanation (super-abridged) on why his lottery numbers were inaccurate, he’s earned some answers.

He votes. He puts his unchecked opinion out there. You know what? In a lot of ways, I need to try harder to be like Mike.

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