Otto Dingeldein, June 1986. (Fred Lynch ~ Southeast Missourian archive)
Last month, friend Steve Schaffner was honored by the Arts Council of Southeast Missouri for his "artistic enrichment of the community." The talented fiddler was given the annual Otto F. Dingeldein Award. It was well deserved.
Along with Steve, I've known several others who have been given this award, including Wendy Rust, Marjorie Suedekum, Dr. Dan Cotner, Dr. James Parker and, my mentor, Judith Ann Crow.
But the news of Schaffner's honor made me wonder how many people remember the man for whom the award was named and who was its first recipient in 1975.
That took me into the Missourian's files, where I found an article about Otto Dingeldein's history and his views on liberty, as well as his obituary from 1991.
Published June 29, 1986, in the Southeast Missourian:
Otto Dingeldein recalls his first days in America. (Fred Lynch ~ Southeast Missourian archive)
GERMAN IMMIGRANT APPRECIATES LIFE AND LIBERTY AS NATURALIZED CITIZEN
By PATTY GAMMA
Missourian Staff Writer
Defining liberty, and appreciating its qualities, Otto Dingeldein says, is almost impossible if one has not experienced life without it.
To Dingeldein, a German immigrant who came to this country in 1927, freedom, liberty and life in these United States, should be cherished and honored by more than the sometimes artificial displays of flag waving and patriotic hoopla.
At 80 years old, he spends his days in his Cape Girardeau home perfecting his English, practicing scales on his piano, reading and exercising on the patio of his home.
Otto Dingeldein prefers a quiet loyalty, a thoughtful appreciation of freedom, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. A U.S. citizen since 1952, Dingeldein recently recounted his adventures traveling to these shores, to start life in a land that he hoped held for him opportunities to be productive in his craft as a metalsmith, and as a human being.
He was 21 years old, and without his father's blessing, young Otto packed his belongings and boarded the USS Washington for what was supposed to be a 10-day voyage to Hoboken, New Jersey. He said the trip took 12 days instead, and was not a pleasant experience for any of the travelers.
"Gaining entry into the U.S. was quite difficult to arrange," Dingeldein recalled. "You went on a big waiting list with the U.S. counselor. You had to prove that you had a clear police record, a health certificate, and you needed two citizens to take responsibility for you, to guarantee that if you became financially troubled, the U.S. would not be liable for you."
Dingeldein left an economic depression in Germany to find opportunity in the U.S.
"I traveled the lowest class on the USS Washington," he said of his journey. "The trip was very much delayed because of fog. We ran out of wash water, and we were very hungry. Our ship lay in the New York harbor for two days without moving because of the very heavy fog.
"I remember the sound of the foghorn echoing throughout the harbor. It was very eerie and put us all on edge."
The uncertainty of whether he would be allowed to enter this country haunted young Otto as he disembarked in Hoboken and took his place in the long customs waiting line. He said those immigrants who were "questionable" were sent from the line he stood in to other customs stations, one of those stationed at Ellis Island.
Otto's brother, Carl, was waiting at the dock to greet him. And as his brother escorted him through the streets of New York, Dingeldein said that the sites of the city, with its crowded streets and fast-talking citizens, surprised and amazed him.
"Everything was very, very strange," he remembered. "Particularly the English that I heard. I thought I knew English. But in Germany you learned the high English (the type of English spoken in Britain. These people were speaking very fast and I had difficulty understanding them."
For a few weeks, Dingeldein was ushered through the city by a former customs agent to acquaint him with his new surroundings. He said it was a gay time in New York City, a time of prohibition, speakeasies and carefree living. It was the climax of the era of the "Roaring Twenties," and good times came cheap.
"It looked to me like the whole town was singing," Dingeldein said. "For 25 cents, you could go to the theater for four hours of movies and vaudeville. On Sundays, we would sometimes splurge and go to the Italian restaurant and we would have a five- or six-course deluxe meal."
What really struck the immigrant, though, were the attitudes of the people, and their freedom.
"When we came to Central Park," he said, "I remember that I was just shocked. People were walking on the grass all around. In Germany you didn't do things like this.
"Here, in the United States, everything that is not forbidden, is allowed. In Germany, nothing is allowed. Life in Germany was very regulated by social custom and expectations."
The "openness of social contacts in America," was another aspect of our culture that was shocking to Dingeldein. In Germany, he said, customs and culture dictated more stilted interactions between people. To Dingeldein this open society represented the ultimate liberty and freedom.
"Three years later, I went back to Germany," he said, "and I saw in Germany the little houses and nice little gardens. I actually felt oppressed and restricted. It think that is when it came to me, the differences between the countries."
He returned to Germany because of the Great Depression. When he returned to the U.S., two years later, times were still tough. Dingeldein went to Chicago to be with his brother Carl again and opened a craft studio. "If you were willing to work for a little bit of money, you could get work," he said.
From Chicago, he went to St. Louis, opening a studio for his metal-smithing work, and also contributing to the People's Art Center located in a predominately Black neighborhood there.
"My idea at that time," he said of the philosophy of those who operated the center, "was that the differences between races could be best bridged if the minority would come to understand the values that may be created through crafts.
"This started in 1950. It involved people in bringing out their desire to use abilities to form something they considered beautiful. This too was the objective when we started the (Christian) Arts Council in Cape Girardeau."
Dingeldein poses with one of his sculptures. (Fred Lynch ~ Southeast Missourian archive
He moved to Cape Girardeau in 1959, opening another studio, attending classes at Southeast Missouri State University, and involving himself in civic organizations.
Dingeldein said that the local art council was formed not for entertainment, but for attainment. Through prompting creative inclinations, as a stage prompter reminds an actor of his lines, self-worth and esteem may be realized, he said.
He is proud of his work with the local council and the art center he inspired in St. Louis. He is proud of the results of those endeavors, the former students who testify to the "prompting" he gave them, by leading productive lives now.
"This was the opportunity here," he said of the nation that allowed such endeavors. "I don't think that in Germany it (the Art Council) would have flourished. In America we still have retained something that allows these.
"Liberty is very difficult to understand unless you have lived with restraints. I don't think the American people understand the marvelous opportunities they have."
Published Friday, March 22, 1991, in the Southeast Missourian:
DINGELDEIN, FOUNDER OF LOCAL ARTS COUNCIL, DIES
Otto F. Dingeldein, a well-known silversmith and supporter of the arts, died Thursday. He was 84 years old.
According to friends, Dingeldein's life centered on advancement of the arts, through his own craft and by generating community interest in all the arts.
Dingeldein, 1836 Westridge, came from a family of silversmiths dating back to the mid-1800s. His career spanned more than a half century.
Dingeldein founded the Christian Arts Council here in 1963. This organization evolved into today's Southeast Missouri Council on the Arts.
Beverly Strohmeyer, executive director of the arts council, explained that Dingeldein was instrumental in keeping the council active for nearly 30 years.
"We call him the founder of our organization," Strohmeyer said. "If it weren't for him, the organization probably would not still be around.
"We are the oldest arts council in the state," she said. "We are even older than the state organization. And Missouri's Arts Council is the second oldest in the nation.
"We've been around a long time, and most of it is due to Otto's leadership," she said.
In 1975 he became the first recipient of the council's art achievement award which was named for him – the Otto F. Dingeldein Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts.
The award recognizes men and women whose artistic achievements have made considerable impact on the cultural enrichment of the community.
Dingeldein also started the annual craft fairs that are now major fund-raising events for the arts council.
"He was a craftsman," Strohmeyer explained. "The first one (craft fair) was in 1971, and it was a demonstrating craft fair only. That's what Otto wanted – to get people to come out, watch others do crafts and then get involved."
His goal to encourage participation in the arts is still part of the arts council's mission statement.
Strohmeyer said the current council hopes to bring back the festival nature of the craft fair starting next year. "We hope to include other things besides just the crafts – music, visual arts, demonstrations – I'm sorry Otto will not be around to see it."
Dr. Dan Cotner, a friend of Dingeldein's, was an early member of the arts council. He joined during the second year of the organization.
"(Dingeldein) was a great one for philosophical discussion," Cotner said. "Groups would gather just to talk about various subjects – arts and philosophy.
"He loved to talk," Cotner said. "I often thought it was Otto's organization and we came to listen to him."
Cotner hopes to sponsor an arts program in a local church to honor Dingeldein. "Maybe something like we did years ago with religious poetry, music, dance and banners," Cotner said. "I think that would be nice. That's the way it started."
Lloyd Ervin, owner of Ervin's Metalsmith, worked with Dingeldein as a high school student learning the silversmith trade. Eventually Ervin purchased Dingeldein's business on Themis Street.
"There are not too many silversmiths left," Ervin said.
"I worked with the man, so I had a different view of him," he said. "He did a lot of designing for churches, Lutheran and Catholic mostly. He mostly did special things like altar-ware and chalices, which were specially designed."
Cape Girardeau photographer and artist Jim Haman also worked with Dingeldein and Ervin.
"I got to know (Dingeldein) a few years ago when we went into partnership," Haman said. "We had a lot of pleasure creating jewelry and communion-ware together.
"He was very good and I enjoyed working with him. We're all going to miss him."
Dingeldein was born June 15, 1906, in Hanau, Germany, son of August E. and Margarett Kurz Dingeldein. He and the former Emily Barrett were married July 29, 1950, in St. Louis. She died Aug. 17, 1980. Dingeldein came to the United States in 1927.
Dingeldein and a brother, Carl, operated a craft studio in Chicago from 1934-36. He moved to St. Louis in 1936, where he opened a studio and contributed to the People's Art Center.
He moved to Cape in 1959, opened another studio and became involved in civic organizations.
In 1974 he was accepted as a member of the Guild of Religious Architecture in Washington, D.C.
A collection of more than 10,000 pieces of the Dingeldein family's work was acquired by The Historic New Orleans Collection, a museum and research center in New Orleans. Included are several of his own pieces.
A collection of his works is also on permanent display at the Jefferson Memorial Museum in St. Louis, part of the Missouri Historical Society in Forest Park.
Dingeldein's work has also been exhibited in St. Louis; Salzburg, Austria; Chicago; San Francisco; and Memphis.
The Cape River Heritage Museum displayed works of the silversmith from March to December 1987. The Cape Girardeau Public Library hosted an exhibit in 1988, which included photos and sketches representing his work since the 1930s.
Dingeldein also held workshops in St. Louis, Columbia and Birmingham, Michigan, and gave lectures in Chicago and Springfield, Illinois, Washington, D.C., and Hanau.
He published eight books, with the most recent being the "Notebook of Silversmith Otto Dingeldein" in 1985.
He served as president of the Gateway Craftsmen Council in St. Louis in 1961; was director three years and vice president two years of the American Society for Church Architecture, and served as president and director of the Southeast Missouri Council on the Arts.
Before coming to the United States, Dingeldein attended Staatliche Zeichenakademie craft school in Hanau, and then took business training at a grain brokerage house in Frankfurt. In the U.S. he attended Washington University in St. Louis, Southeast Missouri State University and Cranbrook Academy of Arts in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.
Funeral arrangements were incomplete Thursday at Lorberg Memorial Funeral Chapel in Cape Girardeau.
You will find a gallery of photographs of Otto Dingeldein here.