Inception

Today, we mostly believe that much of what we are and become is tied to our DNA. Besides physical traits, we arrive on this earth with a certain amount of hard wiring that will stay with us throughout our lives.

The software that assists our growth and maturity is our environment. The place or places where we are brought up, economic realities, the schools we attended, and the way our parents, relatives and friends related to us are extremely important in configuring our future lives from the DNA which we inherit.

Our traits and actions at every point in our lives are affected by both factors, but they are are also affected by the DNA of generations of people who have come before us. These atavistic tendencies are throwbacks from grandparents, great grandparents, and many unknown generations who passed on genes through bloodlines. These traits may include courage, physical strength or weakness, a predisposition for cancer, or a proclivity to music, art or science.

But a single trait does not make a person prosper or fail in life. One trait or gene may have dominance, but other traits hard wired in the DNA can either cancel or modify another tendency. A person who may inherit a trait towards psychopathic behavior from a father, may develop a kind and caring disposition from a saintly grandmother, great grandfather...or more distant relative.

For example, a person with a perfect ear for music, may find that he or she doesn't have the musical memory or discipline necessary to become a fine pianist. A person with a love of the piano, may find his or her career thwarted by hands too small to play the music of Franz Liszt, or by a more greatly consuming passion or desire for science.

Often parents get the blame or criticism for the bad behavior of a child, when in reality, they may be perfect parents for two or three other progeny, but have no effect in disciplining or teaching rules to one specific child.

As I explore the journey of my life at the age of 68, I marvel that I have survived as well as I have through all my decades on earth. At one time, I thought that I was perhaps the sole responsibility for any successes I might have had. Unfortunately, in those years I figured that since I had grown up in a dysfunctional household with little money or hope for a future, that I had, in a sense, grabbed myself up by the bootstraps and formed myself. I believed that, if not by destiny, my path to any success was due to a talent of mine that had been lacking in my parents. But more than talent, I know now that it was a will to survive that was my main ability.

As my will was one of the keys to survival, so was the legacy of the DNA distributed down through my grandmother, a woman I never cared for (she was hard, cold and indifferent to me as a child) , and the creativity given to me by my father and his predecessors.

Mary Short Woerner
Grandma Mary Short Woerner, my maternal grandmother, born in 1878, was an anomaly, in that being the oldest of three sisters of a poor Dutch immigrant family, she was the only one who married. My grandfather, who began his working life in a foundry, had at one point become a cab driver. Over the years the couple had four children, the oldest, Stanley, born in 1906, his brother Russell, born in 1908, my mother Marjorie born in 1913, and the youngest, Phyllis born in 1920.

From what I know, my grandfather must have worked constantly to earn enough money as a cab driver to provide private education for the two daughters; my mother attended Oak Lane Country Day school through High School, and Phyllis went to Friend Select in Philadelphia. All of the children were given piano lessons from an early age; Stanley becoming proficient in the classical repertoire, and my mother learning the jazz of the twenties and thirties. Stanley and Russell attended and graduated from the University of Textiles (now the American University); Marjorie graduated from the School of Design (now Moore College of Art), and my aunt went on to study horticulture at Temple's School of Horticulture.

I know that the dreams Grandmother Woerner had made real for her children took an enormous amount of discipline and hard work. My mother had said that "she was a great reader, but also took on carpentry, plumbing and whatever skills were necessary to run a household."

The one break for my grandparents was Sunday, when they attended church and my grandfather took the family for drives in the country.

George H. Rothacker, Sr.

On my other ancestral side, there was my father. He had grown up on the Main Line and attended private schools: Montgomery Country Day School; Penn Charter; and Stanton Military Academy. His father had descended from a family of brewers, who came to this country from Germany in the 1850s and had developed the first Lager Beer in the United states from their factory in Brewers Row in Philadelphia. His mother had been a Philadelphia socialite from an English family. Her mother even presented an American flag to Admiral Byrd to place on the North Pole at the culmination of his journey to the arctic circle.

By the time my father reached adulthood, his father had died, and the family's only source of income was a gas station on the road to Avalon. Because of his upbringing, his contacts were solid; many of the people he knew owned businesses, had inherited wealth, or were involved in financial enterprises.

My mother and father met in 1935; he was 23 and she was 21. Dad became one of my mother's beaus, enough so that she asked him to the dance that accompanied her graduation from art school. The two went their separate ways after that. He sold stocks, and she went to New York to try to make her way into the world of fashion illustration. Instead of working in fashion, she was forced to work as a shop girl, and finally returned to her parent's house in Philadelphia, to intern in the art departments of Gimbels, Lit Brothers and Wanamakers. By the late '30s, my father took a job for a friend serving as an oil director for the friend's drilling lease in Port Allegheny, Pennsylvania.

World War II

My father was one of the first to sign up. He was 30 years old and joined the army as a private. He always said that his training at Stanton would have entitled him to enter as a lieutenant, but I don't really think that this is true, since my father wasn't built for leadership.

He served in the infantry in the Gilbert Island and fought on several other islands in the South Pacific
George Rothacker, Jr., Peleliu, 1944

including Guam, Saipan and Peleliu. He wrote for "Time Out," the newspaper covering news of the Pacific, and held court in a hollowed out tree on Peleliu where he painted native girls, and portraits for his buddies. He had always had a knack for drawing, and throughout the war continued to send illustrated V-mails home to my mother, friends and family.

In 1945 he returned to Pennsylvania and back to the Allegheny Mountains where he resumed directorship of the oil and gas fields. His home was a "cabin" and a place to hang out at night.

In 1946, he invited my mother up to visit from Philadelphia. She found the living style fun and arty, so she wrote her parents that she was going to stay there. In April my parents were married in a small Episcopal church with just two witnesses.

"The Cabin," Port Allegheny, PA, 1946
With my mother beside my father, the “cabin” took on a new life. Trellises were added and a glass brick fireplace installed, and by July of 1947, when I was born, the "cabin" was transformed into a cute little ranch house.

For a time, my parents' lives were adventurous. My father supervised drilling operations and my mother took care of me and decorated her small home. From my mother's artistic viewpoint, her life gave sanction to her art school education. She learned to drive on mountain roads, lived a distance from any town, and had a classmate's nude painting hanging over the fireplace in the living room. No doubt, her Baptist mother was shocked when she visited, and friends looked at her as a wild and unpredictable rebel.
Mom and me, Port Allegheny, 1949

But as the oil fields dried up and  drilling operations slowed to a near halt, my father was forced to a reality. Sure this all was fun, like camping out, but that wasn't the life my mother or her son was meant for. The decision: to stay in Western Pennsylvania and take a job in town, or move the family back to Philadelphia. The tipping point was me. I was more than two years old and from my mother's standpoint, she couldn't bare the thought of me growing up a "local" in a backwater town. After all, though a cab driver's daughter, she had gone to school with the very rich...the Strawbridges...and others of  distinction. She had married a man from a Main Line family, and in her mind had ascended to the ranks of the privileged.

But for my father, the answer was not so easy.
Although he had friends and associates in Philadelphia, he had been in the Port Allegheny area since before the war, had spent four years in the Pacific, and then came home to the job he had left behind in the oil fields.

Penn Sheridan at 39th & Chestnut Street
Though I am not sure how it all transpired, our family did move back to Philadelphia early in 1950, and moved into a three room corner apartment at the Penn Sheridan Hotel on at 39th and Chestnut Street. I slept on a cot in the dining room, while they slept in a Murphy bed in the small living room. My mother took me to a small Episcopal Church, The Church of the Savior, a few blocks from the apartment building, and I spent time watching TV, going for walks with my mother and hanging out with Carl and Ernie, the bellhops and elevator men, the cigarette girl, and the black cleaning lady, Rhoda, I adored.

I have no idea of how my father got the money for the rent, food or anything else, but for the most part, I was a very happy child.

Then after Easter of 1951, we moved to a small house in Havertown on Lawrence Road. The development was one of those built after the war to meet the needs of returning servicemen and their families. I spent a very happy year there. My father built me a playhouse in back, my mother made me a witch's costume for Halloween, and I received a wind up train, a cowboy and Indian's stockade, and many other gifts for Christmas. The only awkward memory was of my father coming home drunk on occasion.

Me with Dad at Rohobeth Beach, 1952
The rent was probably too high, so we moved later in that year to an apartment in a home in Broomall. My mother enrolled me in Montgomery School at five, and started me on piano lessons on a rented piano she had installed in the living room. I enjoyed my school and my classmates into the second grade, when I was forced to leave do to lack of payment of tuition. Soon after my parents broke up for a time and I lived with my aunt in Glenside.

And then...

My parents got back together, and finally settled in Upper Darby. Until my early teens we lived an impoverished life in a transient neighborhood in Upper Darby. My father didn't work, and my mother worked part time in a card shop. The rent was always do and not quite paid; we relied on relatives for loans to get us through from week to week; and my father's drinking became more and more a problem. He was verbally abusive to my mother, and he couldn't find any job to suit him. His relationships with friends dried up, replaced by bar buddies he befriended at local taverns.

My mother went back to art and found a part-time job in Wanamaker's Art Department, and then a full-time job in Gimbels to sustain us. From fourth grade at Stonehurst Hill School, through Beverly Hills Junior High, Upper Darby High School, Temple Technical Institute and my first two jobs, I lived with my mother and transient father in Upper Darby, finally moving out and getting married at age 25 to live in Springfield.

But this isn't a story of my entire history. It is intended to be a road map of the processes of becoming, and the people, accidents, fortunes and raw ingredients that worked together to form me....and my art.

Click to Chapter 2: Talents