By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
INDEPENDENCE — She was born just after the start of World War I when Kansas City was centered around downtown, the Northeast and West Bottoms, and a bit south to 55th Street.
Julia Kohlberg has seen a century of changes — geographical, political, industrial, education, civil and women’s rights, transportation and technology, family and faith, and wars. For 64 years she has been a faithful member of St. Mary’s Parish in Independence and, in her honor, the parish plans a reception following the 5 p.m., Mass, on Sept. 13.
The daughter of Belgian immigrants, Julia was born Sept. 15, 1914, in Kansas City. She lived in the Northeast part of town, just a short walk from Assumption Church (now St. Anthony’s) at Third and Benton. The family walked to daily Mass at Assumption, then home for breakfast. Then Julia and her older brother would walk to Assumption School.
Elementary school education was pretty basic. “We learned the three Rs, Reading, Writing, and ‘Rithmetic,” Julia recalled. Girls learned sewing, cooking, washing and ironing, darning, crochet or knitting and how to manage a home from their mothers. Boys learned how to take care of horses and later, automobiles under their fathers’ watchful eyes. Boys also found jobs outside the home, including selling newspapers, shining shoes or stocking or sweeping neighborhood grocers, soda fountains or druggists.
When Julia and her brother came home from school and finished their chores, homework and dinner, “we would go outside to play. There were gas lights on the streets; the lamp lighter came around at dusk and lit them. Then we would play under the gas lights. We played hide and seek, games like that. At 9 p.m. sharp, a whistle blew; I think it was from the Armor Meat plant in the West Bottoms. When it blew, we knew it was time to go home. Everyone scattered.”
It was a calm time, she remembered. “You knew everybody in your neighborhood. People were much closer than they are now. And we walked everywhere. I was at least 10 maybe even 12 or 13 when my dad bought his first car. He worked at the Ford plant in Leeds, so of course it was a Ford. I believe it was a Model T. Even then we still walked or rode the street car or the trolleybus (an electric bus that ran on tires and received its electricity from overhead wires).
“Back then we had no electricity,” Julia said, “So we washed our clothes in two big tubs. One tub was for washing with a washboard, and the other one was for rinsing.”
No electricity also meant no refrigeration. “We had an ice box in the kitchen to keep food cold,” she said. “Every day the ice man would come. His ice wagon was drawn by two horses. Ice came in 100 lb. blocks, which wouldn’t fit in our ice box, so the iceman would chop the big block in to 25 or 50 pound blocks. I never could figure out how he knew exactly where to dig in with the ice pick. Ice chips would fly off the blocks and we kids would grab the chips to suck on or put in a bag to take home.” She added that every day a marked card was placed in the window facing the street so the ice man knew how much ice was needed that day.
Julia and her brother graduated from Assumption School. At Northeast High School there were other things to learn, including typing, algebra and geometry, and history. Julia’s brother was a swimmer, but Julia wasn’t interested in sports. She graduated from high school at 16 and enrolled at Central College of Business downtown at 8th and Wyandotte to learn key punch operations. Two years later she began working for Riss Trucking as a key punch operator.
“During the Depression,” she recalled, “if you had a job you were lucky! We weren’t rich, I guess you would call us middle class, but my dad always had a job, working for Ford. My brother was able to go to college. He graduated from Kansas State University with a degree in engineering. He was a civil engineer for many years.”
In the spring of 1935, an ad appeared in the Kansas City newspaper to recruit key punch operators for the brand new Social Security Administration. Julia, then age 20, boarded a train for Baltimore, Maryland. She got the job.
After a couple of years working for the Social Security Administration, Julia returned home and was hired by the state government to operate a key punch machine in the unemployment division. Julia again boarded a train and moved to Jefferson City.
She lived at a boarding house. Several Missouri Pacific railroad workers took their meals there. One evening, the men were joking around and one of them teased the other to ask Julia for a date. “He was betting I wouldn’t go. I did,” Al Kohlberg said.
Julia and Al Kohlberg “knew each other a couple of years” before they married. They returned to Kansas City and were married by Father Michael J. Lyons at Assumption Church in 1941.
Al was employed by the Missouri Pacific Railroad as a signal installer and maintainer. The job would keep him on the road for a year or more. Julia packed a steamer trunk with their possessions and traveled with her husband. Wherever Al was called to work, Julia went also.
In 1950, the Kohlbergs settled in Independence, buying about an acre of land at Highways 291 and 24 on the eastern edge of town. Al continued working for the railroad while Julia grew fruit trees and vegetables. She also raised chickens and turkeys.
They joined St. Mary Parish, and within a short time, Julia became active in parish life. She joined the Altar Society.
Over the years she joined the quilters, stitching layettes for newborns served by the outreach committee. She made flannel kimonos with matching blankets, and crocheted baby blankets. As an Altar Society member she made purificators and other altar linens and priestly vestments. She also learned how to launder and starch the linens and vestments, which served her well when she began working as sacristan. She served as sacristan for more than 25 years, overseeing and training assistants, caring for the altar linens, vestments and candles, and setting up the church for funerals. Julia retired from service as sacristan about 2007.
Al died in 1979. Not long after his death, Julia donated a 31-piece, ceramic Nativity set to the parish, one that had been in her home for years. The camels’ leads were made from the leather straps on Al’s knee-high work boots. It’s still in use at St. Mary’s during the Christmas season.
She moved to The Groves on Truman Road a while back, and lives in her own apartment. She drove her own car, a Ford Focus, until she was 93.
Julia still attends Mass at St. Mary’s every Sunday. Friends from the parish pick her up and bring her home after Mass. She enjoys watching TV, especially EWTN, with its daily Rosary, Mass and Litany of the Saints. Friends stop by to see her, and a nephew and niece-in-law stay in touch.
Looking back over a century of life, Julia said “We, America, have come a long way. Industries and cities have grown. We’ve lived through wars, and we’re still going.”
She recently received a card from President and Mrs. Obama congratulating her on her 100th birthday. In part the card said, “Your generation has shown the courage to persevere through depression and war, and the vision to broaden our liberties through changing times.”
Oh yes, many changes. Julia’s favorites are modern busses (“they stop when the driver puts his foot on the brakes”) and the washing machine (“they do all the work for you”).
She offered this bit of wisdom to the young and not so young. “Keep the faith. Always keep the faith and you’ve got it made.”