When I was a teenager my mom wouldn’t let me ride in cars with another teen driving. She never said why. I could go to an activity at school with my friends — if she drove. Was it because they were teens? Or was it because she felt more in control if she drove? About a year before my mom died, I interviewed her about her life. I then printed her story and made copies for our family. There are many more questions I wish I asked, but the stories I have will have to suffice.
So, back to riding in a car. When my mom was 16 years old, she was in an automobile accident that has become a legend story in the family. Let me set it up so you know all the players.
Dorothy Tomich Nothum – my mom, age 16
Pauline Vrazsity Tomich – my grandmother, age 35
Walter Tomich – my mom’s uncle, my grandmother’s brother-in-law, age 24
Anna Pavkov (Park/Parks/Parker) Tomich – Walter’s bride, age 20
Pauline Tomich – my mom’s aunt, and sister to Walter, age 16
Walter was a young man who owned a beautiful 1935 Ford Tudor 2 door sedan. He was engaged to a young lady, Anna Pavkov from Akron, Ohio. He met her through their church. From everything I read, Anna also went by Anna Parker or Anna Park. She had “Americanized” her last name, which many immigrants did to blend in. Sometime around 1933, Anna’s parents moved with nine of the youngest of their 15 children from Akron to a farm in Union City, Pennsylvania.
My mother’s family were members of the Apostolic Christian Church (Nazarene) which was a small European based denomination. Many of the people who attended this church were Serbian, Czechoslovakian, Romanian, Hungarian, and German. The churches were small and the people traveled around the country for church events, where many met their future spouses.
Walter married Anna on June 9, 1935, in Union City, Pennsylvania. The Tomich family who lived in and around St. Louis, Missouri, Madison and Granite City, Illinois, traveled to Pennsylvania for the wedding.
As was the tradition of this church, they attended the Sunday morning church service. The congregation probably sat segregated—the men on one side of the aisle and the women on the other side. Many times the worship service was performed in several languages, always English, and then one of the languages of the above nationalities. Many of these church members were recent immigrants to America.
When the long worship service was over, the bride and groom would come to the front of the church for the wedding ceremony. Back in those days, they did not have attendants, nor did they wear wedding dresses. The brides wore a nice dress or suit. (One of this church’s beliefs was about not looking vain).
After the ceremony, everyone was invited back to the home of the bride’s family for a reception. The wedding reception was a bit different than what we see today. They had a hymn sing and food. It was more like a fellowship dinner. There was never any alcohol served. They probably had fried chicken and a few ethnic delights.
Now the story gets a bit murky. Walter wants to go back home after the long day of celebrating. The people who attended from the midwest had taken several cars to the wedding. Walter had driven Pauline, Dorothy, and young Pauline to Pennsylvania. So, returning to the St. Louis area, they would ride back with Walter and his bride, Anna.
Okay, let’s stop here for a second. Yes, today that would never happen. The bride and groom would not bring anyone on a long road trip with them after the wedding. This was a different time and a different culture. Did they like bringing the relatives on the return trip? Who knows, but that is what they did.
People at the wedding tried to encourage them to stay until Monday to drive home, but everyone was ready to go home, and I am sure Walter and Anna were looking forward to going home to start their married life alone. They left Union City, Pennsylvania early evening.
Walter started the trip driving south through Pennsylvania but soon became tired. Dorothy took over the wheel, driving through the hills of southern Ohio. About 1:00 a.m., Walter said he was well rested and could take over the driving. They were approaching Zanesville, Ohio, so Dorothy pulled over at a diner, and she, and the two Paulines went inside for some pie and coffee. Walter and Anna stayed in the car while they dined (no surprise there)!
A short while later, the three emerged from the diner, and Walter was ready and rested to continue the drive. Anna, the bride, sat next to him in the front seat, and Pauline (my grandmother) sat next to her by the front passenger door. Behind Walter, in the back seat, was a large stack of wedding gifts, young Pauline in the center, and Dorothy at the rear right passenger door. They traveled a few miles out of Zanesville, going through Brownsville, Ohio, when they struck a truck as they came over the crest of a hill. The truck landed on the westbound side of the highway. The Ford flipped over six times before it landed on its side. Walter, young Pauline, and Dorothy were thrown from the car. Anna and the older Pauline were still in the car.
Some passers-by flipped the car back upright. The truck had actually demolished 2/3 of the car. Walter and Pauline were laying on the side of the road—both of them had perished. Anna was alive, but barely—she died few hours later. The older Pauline (my grandmother) and Dorothy (my mom) had only minor injuries. They stayed the night in a Zanesville hospital.
My grandfather, David Tomich, husband of Pauline was traveling back from the wedding in a different car with his two youngest children, and had taken a different route through Ohio (probably going through northern Ohio). There was no way to contact him until he arrived home in St. Louis. A family from the church living in Akron, Ohio, picked up Pauline and Dorothy, and brought them to their home until my grandfather could get them. The hosts’ name was Mr. and Mrs. Baitz. They owned a meat packing plant and lived in a large beautiful home. Before they left for home with my grandfather, there was a funeral service in Akron where many of Anna Pavkov Tomich’s family lived. The bodies where shipped to Granite City, Illinois, where they held a large funeral, and were buried in St. John’s Cemetery.
What effect did this have on my mom? Over the years, we knew the story of the accident that took three young people’s lives. Mom had a scrap book with newspaper articles of the accident. She had the order of worship for the Granite City funeral service and the funeral brochure from the mortuary. She had a small photo album that contained photos of the wedding reception and the damaged automobile. What we didn’t have for years was what she experienced—what she felt and how she and her mom coped with being in such a tragedy. Even her telling the story to me in early 1995, it was told in a matter-of-fact manner, although she did describe what she saw and heard that I have not put in this story (may be too gory for some to read). She told the story with no special inflection in her voice, no tears, no voice cracking—just the facts.
I know this had to affected her greatly. The young Pauline, her aunt who was the same age as she, was her best friend. She saw her dear family die before her eyes.
When we are young, we don’t realize the things that happened to our parents that affect how they respond to life. I am glad I got to hear the story from my mom. I used to think she was overprotective in my teen years. She saw tragedy in her teen years. She knew how quickly and unexpectedly life could be taken away. I am grateful for my mom. I am sorry she had to endure such a traumatic event in her life. I know it made an impact.
What did/do you not understand about your parents? Could something in their past have influenced how they responded? If they are still with you, get their stories while you can. Listen to them with an open heart. You may learn something new about them and yourself.