Corrine Rommel holds her son, Duane. ‘Corrine’ was not always her name. This is her story, in her own words, presented at the Ladies Tea at Windsor Park Retirement Community a few weeks ago:
“I will start where I lived. I was born on a farm in Hebron, Illinois. I was born on February 5, 1931. My real name is Norella Wilma Clara Warfel. It was the Depression, so we were very poor. Every spring we had to move as we did not make enough money to pay the rent. We leased a farm.
My brother told me we had a large open wagon driven by our horses. Little children like myself could ride on the wagon. The older brothers and sisters had to walk alongside the cart. If something spooked the horses they would take off. Our furniture would spill off onto the ground. That made my brother laugh and laugh.
The farm house did not have electricity or plumbing. We had kerosene lamps and an outhouse. If we little ones had to go to the bathroom, my mother would put a white porcelain pot outside the kitchen door so the smell would not go into the kitchen. When we had a bath we had a large galvanized tub. Only two at a time could fit in it. When the water got too cool, they warmed it for the next ones. I don’t know how they did this.
There were 10 children. One brother died at age two of pneumonia. My mother was pregnant with her 11th child. My father took the boys on a fishing trip. While they were gone, I don’t know how long they were gone, my mother went into labor. My mother told my oldest sister, who was 13, to stay and help her. She told my sister Grace who was 8 years old to take the younger ones to the barn.
I don’t know what happened after that. I know our Dad deserted us for six months.
A neighbor or relative called the Lutheran orphanage in Addison, Illinois, and told them we were by ourselves. The oldest of us was 13 years old, and the youngest one was 2 years old. The home had a bus which picked us up.
The girls were on one big side, the boys were on the other side of this big building. We could only stay in the orphanage till we were 13 years old. My brothers were boarded out in nearby farms. My older sister was on a farm to help with the children there, and cook and clean.
We had our jobs to work in the orphanage like make our bed every day, change sheets on Saturday, and set the table where our whole family would eat together in the main dining room. We would be given a tablespoon of cod liver oil every day. I guess that was our vitamins. I did not like that.
I peeled potatoes when they told me to do it. I would put some of the raw potatoes in my pocket. When I went outside I would eat the raw potatoes. My job was also to clean the toilets and sinks in the bathroom. I didn’t like doing that so I would stand on top of the toilet so no one would find me. They did. So I would have to finish doing that, then iron pillow cases and wash down a long flight of stairs that led up to all our beds.
We went to school, single file; St. Paul’s Lutheran School. For church, we each got a penny to put in the offering. If we talked we had to stand in a corner through the whole church service.
We all had boxes connected against the wall where we were able to keep some of our things. I had a large comb which I was so proud of. For Christmas we all received one gift. I got paper dolls. That is what I kept in that box.
Our Father would come and see us once a year. He told the home he only wanted the boys. They told him NO. They said, you take all of them or none. He said “I don’t want any.”
My first foster home:
It was out in the country. I went to school there. The kids were mean to me. No one would be my friend as they knew I was from an orphanage. They would throw stones at me to and from school. I told the lady of the home where I was. She told me to fight my own battles.
The girl that sat in front of me had beautiful hair with long curls. I thought to myself, “I would like that.” So one Saturday morning, I took a comb and wound it up in my hair. The lady called me for breakfast. I could not get the comb out! So I cut my hair, and put the hair behind the sink in the bathroom. She found it when she was cleaning. She pulled me by my hair down the stairs and showed it to her husband. He beat me with a long razor strap. I cried, and told them I wanted to go back to the orphanage. I was happy to go back.
My second home:
My folks had the last name “Will.” They came to the orphanage to get me. It was 8 p.m. so I was tired because that is when the home had us go to bed. I did not want to go by my new ‘dad.’ I was afraid of him because of what happened with the first people.
The first thing my Mother did was she took me downtown on the train and bought me all new clothes.
On Sunday we all went to church. After the service, up in front of church I saw my sister Carol. I ran up to her and hugged her. We were in choir together. On Fridays I would see her at practice. My sister told me I was not to be with her. We could not march together down the aisle. So one Sunday morning her mother came to the choir room.
“Stay away from Carol!” she told me. That made me feel real bad. I cried. In their eyes, my folks did not ‘have money.’ My Dad was just a mailman. Also, my folks let me go to the movies, which they thought was a bad influence.
But they were wonderful people. The Lord really blessed me.”
“There’s more to your story,” Duane said to his Mother when he called her after she spoke at the tea. He had finished reading the hand written notes she had sent him. “This isn’t very long.”
“I don’t like talking in front of a lot of people,” his Mother answered.
We found a few family pictures that continue the story.
The Wills, the childless couple who adopted his Mother, gave Norella a new name, “Corrine Joyce.” She’s the one on the far left in the second row, in a school picture.
Despite being separated to different farms and homes, the sisters and brothers all settled in the Chicago area. They remained close; celebrating birthdays and holidays together. The Warfels still gather for family reunions each July.
Corrine was a bridesmaid at her sister Carol’s wedding, where she met Richard Rommel. They fell in love, and married in 1952. Duane was six months old when she and Richard bought the house at 625 N. Hamlin Avenue in Park Ridge, Illinois.
Duane’s sister Joyce was born in 1957. Brother Jeffrey in 1960. Jeffrey cradles their dachshund. Corrine loves dachshunds.
‘Norella’ moved a lot; Corrine stayed put. She lived at 625 for sixty years, before moving to lovely Windsor Park. From lonely orphan to the ‘wise woman’ of Proverbs 14:1, who ‘builds her home,’ Corrine’s greatest joy is when her family gets together. Duane’s Mother loves her kids, grandkids and 10 great grandchildren!
In 2016, granddaughter Janelle and husband Erik had a baby girl. To honor her grandmother Corrine, Janelle chose the name, “Norella.”
“Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow builds her nest and raises her young at a place near your altar, O LORD of Heaven’s Armies, my King and my God!” Psalm 84:3