Citizen Story Project: Rich Stolz

Rich Stolz, executive director of OneAmerica, describes his family’s immigration from Germany and South Korea.

Who was the first (or one of the first) family members to become a U.S. citizen?
My father’s father.

Where did they immigrate from?

What did they do to earn a living once they arrived in the U.S.?
My grandfather worked as a machinist in Detroit. He came to the United States seeking economic opportunity because he was struggling to make a living in Germany following the First World War.

Did they have family members already in the U.S. or were they the first in their family to immigrate?
My grandfather was the first family member to immigrate to the United States in my family. He eventually married my grandmother, a Lutheran Nun, who also lived in Michigan. My father was born an American citizen not long after that.

What were their struggles?
They were working class, and from what I’ve been told, language was an issue. I understand that my grandmother, who I never met, never learned English.

What were their successes?
Eventually, they found their way into a modest middle class lifestyle. Their greatest success was my father, who eventually went to college and joined the US Navy.

What is your favorite story about them or another ancestor?
The story I think of most often happened on my mother’s side of the family.  Her family came from northern Korea, and during the Korean War, my mother’s mother managed to escape to South Korea on a transport ship with four children in tow, including my mother, who was her youngest, on her back. As the war raged on, my mother’s family lived in a refugee camp on an island south of Korea.

During that time, I understand that my great-grandmother and an uncle passed away from lack of food and disease. But after the war, my grandmother eventually settled in Seoul, where she worked as a seamstress and successfully raised her four children.

What family traditions did your ancestors pass down to you?
The traditions that meant most to my family were carried by my mother. While most of my peers growing up celebrated the usual list of American holidays, Lunar New Year and the Harvest Moon Festival carried special weight in my home as a child. There weren’t many Koreans where I grew up that we were connected to, so I didn’t fully understand the significance of either holiday as a child, but these were special days with special meals my mother celebrated with me.

How does your family celebrate holidays like Flag Day, July 4th and Veterans Day?
Like most other kids, as a child the 4th of July was really about the fireworks. As I’ve grown older, I’ve learned the significance of these dates.  On the 4th of July, we celebrate the birth of the United States, but also how the nation has continued to evolve to fully embrace the promise of democracy.

What is one way Seattleites can help new citizens feel welcome?
There are many ways to help new citizens feel welcome. Perhaps the most meaningful thing Seattleites can do is volunteer, either to help legal permanent residents to apply for citizenship through the Washington New Americans program, or to work with community-based organizations like OneAmerica to be present at the citizenship Oath Ceremony and to help register new citizens to vote.