Family Histories

Life of Henry R. Swierenga and Anna Dykstra

[Written by Robert P. Swierenga. Henry was his paternal uncle, youngest of Robert's father John R. Swierenga, January 1995]

            Henry R. Swierenga was born on July 16, 1924 in the family home at 1404 Kedvale Avenue and was baptized a few weeks later at the Douglas Park Christian Reformed Church by the Reverend John O. Vos.  Henry, known as Hank, graduated from the nearby Timothy Christian School on Tripp Avenue in 1938 and attended Chicago Christian High School in Engelwood until age 16.  He participated fully in the life of the school and church, including Sunday school, Catechism (beginning in the 5th grade), and Young Men's Society.  In 1934, when he was 10 years old, the family moved to 1539 South 59th Court in Cicero, where Henry spent the next twenty years.  He professed his faith publicly in 1943 and joined the Second Christian Reformed Church of Cicero.

            The Second World War affected Henry greatly.  In March 1943 the 18 year old was drafted and assigned to the U.S. Army Signal Corps in the South Pacific theater. His unit, the 96th Infantry, was attached to the Navy and participated with the Marines in the "island-hop" toward Japan by freeing, in order, New Britain (1943), New Guinea (1943), the Philippine Islands at Leyte (1944), Luzon (1945), and Okinawa (1945).  He was a radio operator in a five-man team, whose job was to direct offshore naval bombardments by radio from a foxhole at the front lines.  The big naval guns would "soften" the beachhead and perimeter up to 3 miles inland, firing usually at night, and then the marine assault troops would secure the beach, with the signalmen at their heels.

            In August 1945 Henry's unit prepared at Manila for the invasion of Japan, but the A-bomb ended the war just in time.  Henry was overjoyed with the news of the super bomb striking Hiroshima and Nagasaki, followed quickly by Japan's unconditional surrender on September 7th.  Now he would not have to invade the Japanese homeland, which U.S. military authorities expected would bring 1 million allied casualties.  In December his unit was sent home and the ship arrived in San Francisco Christmas Day of 1945.  Soon Henry boarded a troop train for Chicago and his anxious parents and family thanked God and celebrated with a big party.

            During the war letters from home kept Henry's spirits up.  He devised a code system to outwit the military censors in order to tell the family his whereabouts. "The grass is green," and "weeds are growing high here," etc., were the phrases he used. 

            After the Army mustered him out, in late January 1946 Henry went to work driving a truck for his brother John at Excel Motor Service, joining brother Ralph and brother-in-law Paul Tuitman.  His beginning pay was $7 per day, $35 per week, and he drove a 1937 Ford.  The job brought some grief.  A year into the work, Henry collided with another truck and damaged his vehicle, but thankfully he was unhurt.  John had Ruby Chevrolet repair the truck for $174.  The check stub of Feb. 26, 1947 bears John's notation: "New Front & Fender, Radiator & Lights for Smashup of Hank with P.I.E. truck."       

            In the next years Henry lived at home and enjoyed life.  He put his melodious first tenor voice to use in the church choir, Knickerbocker Male Chorus (a group of west side CRC men), and the Alumni choir of Chicago Christian High School, directed by James Baar.  With his first car, a 1950 Dodge with fluid drive trans- mission, he and his cousin and close friend, Henry "Hank" Dykhuis, he scouted Chicago-area Christian Reformed churches for interesting young women.  Henry traveled as far as Kalamazoo, MI for a steady date, setting a record among his friends for long distance dating.

            Around 1950 he met Anna Dykstra at the Evergreen Park CRC and after a courtship of two years they were married on June 27, 1952 at her church.  A note on Hank's pay stub that week stated: "4 days work. Took off Friday to get married."  Anna, known as Ann, was the youngest of 8 children of John Dykstra and Anna Stuevenwoldt, both of whom were born in the Netherlands.  Following a honeymoon in the Smokey Mountains National Park and surrounding area, the newlyweds lived briefly with Henry's mother in Cicero until finding a flat at 1221 S. Lombard Avenue.  After three months they moved again to a flat at 1625 S. 50th Avenue, which was walking distance from Ann's new job at the Western Electric Company's Hawthorne plant. 

            Meanwhile Henry continued to deliver general freight for Excel Motor, driving a two-ton truck mainly on Chicago's north side and Loop areas.  But in April, 1953 he decided to leave the rat race of driving on the congested city streets for residential construction work.  He would learn a skilled trade.  His father-in-law, a successful cement contractor, hired him as a laborer for the summer months, after which he worked six months for his brother-in-law, Sid Talsma, also a cement mason.  But the work was too strenuous, so Mr. Dykstra suggested carpentry, a completely unfamiliar craft.  Dykstra used his influence to get Henry hired as a "rough" carpenter, framing in houses and nailing flooring.  Experienced carpenters gave him "on the job" training and soon he was even doing trimming.  Since Henry was too old for the normal seven-year union apprenticeship program, Mr. Dykstra used his influence to get him into the carpenter's union as a journeyman without being an apprentice.  He did pass the easier test required for a "cement carpenter," however.

            Henry did carpentry for many years, building homes on the booming far south side of the city.  In 1974, the Chicago Housing Authority hired him as a carpenter to maintain high-rise public apartments on the near south side.  This was a steady job with good benefits, but the environment was depressing and even dangerous.  Once Henry was mugged in a hallway and required hospitalization for a brain concussion.  Some tools were stolen too.  In 1986 he retired from the CHA at age 62, and filled his time doing small carpentry jobs and driving cars at a large auto auction.

            Within months of the time in 1954 that Henry learned carpentry, he and Ann decided to build their own home on a lot in Broadview at 2249 S. 25th Avenue.  Ann's father financed the construction of the small three-bedroom brick bungalow with a side drive and one-car garage.  This was the first of five homes Henry built for the family; John Dykstra's firm did the cement work each time.  The second home was built in 1956 at 10139 The Strand in Westchester.  With his "sweat equity" and his father-in-law's financial backing, the couple parlayed the profits from each home into larger and fancier ones with lower mortgages.  There was a price to be paid, however, in the long hours of evening and weekend work and the frequent uprooting.  During the construction of the Westchester house in 1956, a scaffold collapsed and Henry suffered a compound leg fracture.  His nephew, Bob, who was helping him, managed to jump clear unhurt and went for help.  After an ambulance ride and surgery, Henry faced many months of convalescence and rehabilitation.

            The new homes were needed to accommodate a growing family.  Between 1957 and 1964 Henry and Ann adopted three children, the first two from ECWA (Evangelical Children's Welfare Association) of Chicago, and the last from Bethany Christian Services of Grand Rapids.  Six week old David Alan came in November, 1957, bringing great joy to the couple after five years of marriage.  He was born in Chicago on October 17.  Two years later Donna Lynn, also Chicago-born on September 11, 1959, came at six days old.  This necessitated building a third house, a bi-level, at 10339 Devonshire Lane in Westchester.  They lived there one year and then built another bi-level next door at 10341 Devonshire.  In April 1964 Mark Henry joined the young family one week before his second birthday.  Mark was born April 14, 1962 in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  A week after Mark came, the Swierengas moved again to another new home Henry built in Elmhurst at 929 Euclid Avenue where they lived three years.

            The church and extended families provided the spiritual anchor for Henry and Ann.  Initially they participated in the life of the Warren Park Christian Reformed Church of Cicero, Henry's mother congregation, but in 1954 after moving to Broadview they transferred to the Bellwood CRC.  This small congregation began as a mission outreach and every member had to put "their shoulder to the wheel."  Henry and Ann joined the choir and frequently sang duets in the worship services.  Henry also served in the church council as a deacon.  Ten years later, in 1964, the Bellwood congregation relocated to Elmhurst, which was to become the new center of the west side Dutch Reformed community.  The Elmhurst CRC grew rapidly as more and more families moved from the "old neighborhood" of Cicero-Berwyn-Oak Park, and Henry and Ann continued to be active in societies and the music ministry.  David, Donna, and Mark continued to attend Timothy Christian Elementary School in Cicero, traveling by school bus.

            In 1968 the family made a major decision.  They moved some fifty miles south of Chicago to the rural community of Chebanse eight miles south of Kankakee, which the freeway system (Interstate 57) was bringing into the orbit of the expanding city.  With a partner, Bob Fischer, they bought a twenty-acre plot of farmland, including a brick farmhouse for their home, and began developing a mobile home park in their "spare time."  They laid out roads and pads for the homes, put in a water and sanitary system, and sold new mobile homes.  Henry, meanwhile, continued to commute into the city for his carpentry job with the Chicago Housing Authority.  Ann managed the park day to day, collecting the rents, keeping the books, and selling units.

            For continuity in their religious life, the family transferred to the Momence Christian Reformed Church, a farming congregation some twenty-five miles northeast, where Henry soon was elected elder for a three-year term on the church council.  The children were enrolled in a Lutheran school in Chebanse.

            For eleven years, Henry and Ann and Bob Fischer developed the park until they had 22 pads rented.  But in 1979 both Henry and Bob developed health problems.  Fischer had a major heart attack and six months later Henry had surgery for colon cancer, which left him unable to work for six months.  This necessitated selling the mobile home park and moving back into the city in 1980.  The Swierengas lived for two months in a flat in a three-unit apartment building they had inherited from Grandpa John Dykstra, which they were in the process of selling.  They then bought a ranch style, three-bedroom home at 12801 Central Avenue in Crestwood, but they had to delay moving because Henry was hospitalized for back surgery.  They transferred their church membership to the Calvin Christian Reformed Church of Oak Lawn and Henry was again elected an elder.  He returned to work at the CHA until retiring at age 62.  Ann worked full time managing the office of her brother's cement contracting company, which he took over from their father, until she too retired in 1994.

            Henry and Ann resided on Central Avenue until 1995, when a serious problem with Henry's heart dictated that they sell their home to end the chores of home ownership. They replaced it with a condo a few blocks away at 5119 Rivercrest Court, also in Crestwood. Their lives revolve around children and grandchildren. David married on September 20, 1988 in Kankakee to Brenda Lemenger and has a daughter, Corla Ann.  David snd Brenda are divorced.  Donna married Craig Brave at Momence Christian Reformed Church on May 19, 1979, and they live in Evansville, Indiana with their three children, Brendon Lee, Amanda Lynn, and Matthew Robert.  Mark married Kimberly Huizenga in the South Holland Christian Reformed Church on March 8, 1987 and they make their home in South Holland.

            Henry and Ann testify to God's goodness in their lives and that of their family.  They have faced many trials, including Henry's successful recovery from cancer.  In 1972 David, age 15, and Donna, age 13, who were passengers in the front seat of a car driven by David's older friend, were involved in a nearly fatal traffic accident near Kankakee, when another car ran a stop sign on a country road.  Donna's face struck the dash and mirror and the braces on her teeth caused severe facial injuries. David also suffered dental and facial injuries, and a broken ankle that required reconstructive surgery.  Both recovered fully.

            Henry suffered from heart problems in later years, but kept active, driving cars at a large auto auction and making deliveries for "Meals on Wheels." He died suddenly of a massive aneurism of the aorta on April 17, 1998 in their condo in Crestwood. The funeral service was held in the Calvin Christian Reformed Church on April 21, followed by interment at Chapel Hill Gardens South.

            Some six months later, Ann Swierenga married Ralph Evenhouse in the Calvin CRC in Oak Lawn. Ralph was a long-time friend of she and Henry, who had earlier lost his wife in death. The newlyweds reside in Ann's condo in Crestwood.

Written by Robert Swierenga, January, 1995, revised 2002