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Resident shares story of immigration

Published 12:00am Friday, July 4, 2014

Andalusia resident Walter Duebelt has strong feelings about today’s Fourth of July holiday. Namely, pride.

“I’m very proud,” Duebelt says. “I’m proud to be an American.”

And while that sentiment is surely shared by millions who feel lucky to have born in the U.S., Duebelt became a citizen in the same way as many of the men and women who built America – immigration.

Duebelt was born in Hamburg, Germany, and was 10 years old when World War II ended, leaving ash and rubble as the setting for most of his childhood memories.

“Hitler did one thing,” Duebelt said. “All of the kids, when the heavy bombing started, he sent them out of big cities. He sent us to France, so I wasn’t in Hamburg during the bombing.”

But, after the war, Duebelt said he found himself with a mother working to support himself and his two brothers, and a father who was rarely home. As a young man, he said he studied the culinary arts and eventually joined the Merchant Marine.

“I saw Canada; I saw America; I saw South America, all because of these cargo ships,” Duebelt said. “Housing at that time, about 1959, was an issue in Germany. So, I wanted to go to the States, but I had to have $10,000. That’s a lot of money. I didn’t have it, but I could get into Canada.”

Duebelt said he spent about five years in Montreal, before an opportunity to work in the United States presented itself.

“Just before they had the World’s Fair there, I left,” he said. “I had a friend that went to the States and he wanted me as a chef, so I went and we opened a Holiday Inn.”

Duebelt said he initially found himself in Massachusetts, just outside Boston, but was soon working as a chef in Ohio.

“(My friend) went down to Niles, Ohio, and opened another Holiday Inn, so I went down,” he said.

While Duebelt was finally in America and working steadily, he said it was another job opportunity that served as a reminder that World War II was still a fresh memory for many people, even in 1964 America.

“After about nine months, I think, (my friend) left,” he said. “And the manager of a Jewish country club – I wanted to work for them – he asked me because I’m German, he asked me if I had a problem with Jewish people. I said ‘No. Why would I?’”

Duebelt said he landed the job at a Jewish country club in Ohio, with no idea it would ultimately lead him to the love of his life – and to Andalusia.

“We met there,” he said of his wife, Andalusia native Paula Sue, who was then a music student waiting tables part time.

“They would make a lot of jokes about him being German,” Paula Sue said of the patrons at the country club. But Duebelt said his nationality was never truly an issue.

“Everyone was very nice to me,” he said. “They were the nicest people.”

“They were incredibly kind,” Paula Sue agreed.

Within two years of meeting, the young American student and the German chef were married and soon relocated to Covington County, where Duebelt spent years as the chef manager at the Andalusia Country Club, before retiring.

In 1982, Duebelt became an American citizen, for maybe the most American of reasons.

“He had a green card and he already had all of the privileges and rights of an American, except that he couldn’t vote,” Paula Sue said. “And he wanted to vote. His back may be killing him and keeping him down, but you can bet he’s going to find a way to get out to vote when it’s time.”

In the years since becoming a citizen, Duebelt said he has seen one of his two sons from a previous marriage graduate from Andalusia High School and has even opened his home to several German exchange students. One of them, Paula Sue said, was living with the Duebelts when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. It was an emotional day, the couple agreed.

Currently, Duebelt is enjoying retirement and says he hopes to visit family in Germany again sometime in the near future. But today, like most Americans, he will celebrate his country’s birthday with his family in the States.

“When I became an American citizen, I had to give up my German citizenship,” he said. “But I don’t consider Germany my home anymore. I’m proud to be an American.”

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