Happy Birthday Shoe Box Baby

88 years ago today was a typical cold wet day in Chicago, Illinois. A young couple was enjoying the day with their one two year old son making preparations for the Holidays and the arrival of their second child just after the New Year. It was a regular 1926 Saturday in the drafty north side three flat. The young couple living on the second floor while two other families lived above and below.

Without any warning, and six weeks before her due date, the young mother went into labor. Fear descended over the apartment and her husband sprinted to the doctor’s office in search of assistance. Their first child was born in the apartment without complications almost two years earlier. The house was not an issue. But this; six weeks premature was not good.

The midwife arrived and not long after a doctor arrived to assist in the delivery. The contractions intensified and after just a short time, the baby boy was delivered successfully…six weeks early and less than four pounds. The midwife and nurse took care of the immediate needs of the newborn while the doctor attended the mother.

The issues were clear. A premature baby in a cold one bedroom apartment. The baby’s respiration a critical element in his survival. Keeping the infant warm was first priority. The father came to the kitchen with a shoe box lined with a blanket. The warmest place in the apartment was near the motor on the top of the refrigerator. When the baby was clean and wrapped in new blankets the care givers helped mom attempt to get the new baby to nurse. When the doctor and all involved were satisfied that the situation was stable they encouraged the parents to keep a close eye on the boy throughout the night and to watch for any breathing difficulties. The doctor left instructions on how to be reached and headed home. The midwife wrapped the baby and carefully placed the shoe box near the refrigerator and they prayed the night would go well.

In 1926 there were no new born nurseries; new born intensive care units. No incubators or billirubin lights. No twenty four hour care or intravenous feeding tubes. This night it was a 3 pound baby in a blanket lined shoe box and a mom in the next room ready to nurse if all went well. Making it through the night…well…might need a miracle.

December 14th came and went and the little boy fought for life. Two weeks later he celebrated his first Christmas with mom and dad and older brother. A short time later grew out of the shoe box and into a small bed he shared with his older brother. As spring approached the little shoe box boy was healthy and on track with all the other children his age.

The couple made a move to a larger apartment on Higgins Ave and it would become the home for nine more children over the coming years. The family would later refer to it as the Russian Hotel. The shoe box boy and his older brother were extremely close as the years went by. The father worked long hard hours to care for the brood. Weekends were for sleep. The local bar provided repose from the grind of work and family and as the years passed, the alcohol became a stable to help manage life.

In the neighborhood lived a man with a wooden leg, (not named Smith) who would walk the neighborhood on Sundays and pick up kids and take them to Sunday School at the local church he attended. The Shoe box baby and four of his brothers and sisters attended regularly. The message of Jesus birth at Christmas, and his death Easter became familiar to the children. It became a foundation for the shoe box boy that would carry him throughout his life.

Tragically during the Second World War the older brother was killed in action. Angry and broken, the shoe box boy joined the army just as the war ended and served in Germany as a peace keeper during the restoration.

Upon returning home from the war and without an education he went to work to help care for himself and family. Not long after, he met a young lady at a gathering of the local youth group from the church he attended. That first meeting moved to romance and marriage.     He was determined like many of the families of the 1950s to provide and care for his family better than he had experienced. His work ethic was stellar. He missed only three days of work in 50 years. He purchased his own home and was blessed with two children. He committed to being a part of a local church and along with his children never missed a Sunday service for his whole life. He and his wife modeled the intent and purpose of marriage and family. Nor perfect…committed…and it provided a foundation for his children to do the same for their children and grandchildren.

Life is a journey. Death comes to all. After a courageous battle with cancer death came to the shoe box baby. A near miraculous birth. A difficult childhood. A committed family man. He lived a life of integrity and compassion. He was a life time friend to everyone he met. He filled every room with joy. He left a legacy that will live on in his children and grandchildren. He pointed all to the Savior. His faith was strong and true. He was a man, a husband, a father, a citizen, a champion. And he was my dad.

Dad would be 88 today. Were he here today he would spend some time with you and then tell you “to go straight home”. Just a few minutes with him would never leave you the same.

Happy Birthday Dad. I miss you. I look forward to being with you and smiling again.
Love you…Bill


Dad Billy and JudyDad 29Dad and JuleeDad and JaimeeDad 40Dad and Bill and JillDad Bill Judy

About Bill Harbeck

Founder and Director of Holding on to Hope Ministries. A non-profit work that helps survivors of childhood sexual abuse unveil their past and begin the healing process. Author of the book Shattered; One Man's Journey from Childhood Sexual Abuse
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