Jerry Jirak (born Vladimír Jirák)
Jerry Jirak was born in Prague. His parents owned a restaurant and tavern in the city’s Old Town, which the Jirak family lived above. Jerry’s father died when he was four, and his mother died 12 years later, leaving Jerry and his sister Alena to fend for themselves. Jerry says that his sister became a seamstress while he worked as a waiter in Prague’s Café Fenix among other locations. During WWII, Jerry studied at hotel school in Prague. He says he learned 850 words of basic English as part of his training. An enthusiastic Boy Scout as a child, Jerry became involved in the movement again after it was reestablished in liberated Czechoslovakia in 1945. He worked at the movement’s headquarters in Prague and traveled to France in 1947 to attend the annual Scouting Jamboree. It was at this event that he got to know Clarence Beebe, the head of the Scouts’ Drum and Bugle Corps in Madison, Wisconsin. Twelve years later, Mr. Beebe was to become Jerry’s sponsor to the United States.
Jerry left Czechoslovakia just after the Communist takeover in March 1948, during the first few weeks of his military service which he was summoned to do in Sokolov, near the West German border. Jerry says that he and a friend asked for leave to visit the dentist and in fact took a train to the border, which they crossed overnight. After a few days at a refugee camp in Regensburg, Jerry was sent to France, where he gained a job in a steel factory near Nancy after being turned down in his bid to become a farm hand. He says that work at the factory was hard, and that laborers were undernourished; he once got in trouble for stealing cherries from a nearby orchard in a bid to assuage his hunger. Jerry decided to flee the factory and apply for a visa to the United States; he could only do this by returning to Germany, which he did after a stint working in construction in Luxembourg.
Jerry says that back in Germany, however, he was told at the American Consulate that his chances of getting to the United States were slim. He opted to emigrate to Australia instead and arrived in Sydney in December 1950. His first job was in Melbourne, at a factory owned by Heinz, where he made ketchup and tomato soup. After nine years in Melbourne Jerry was sponsored by his old scouting contact Mr. Beebe to come to Madison, Wisconsin. He spent a short time working in a hospital kitchen in the city before coming to Chicago, where some of his acquaintances told him he would receive better pay. Jerry has lived in the western suburbs of Chicago ever since. Over the years he has become involved in a number of Czech organizations in the city, including the Czechoslovak National Council of America. He has presented the Czechoslovak Radio Hour on Chicago’s WCEV every Sunday for almost the past 30 years. He has two children.
Jerry explains the provenance of his nickname
“I went to the Boy Scouts, I was a Boy Scout since I was about 12 or 13 years old and that’s where they gave me the name Jerry. It was, in those days everything was dominated by Western culture and the Americans, and American books, and we named each other by American-sounding names which were kind of exotically attractive for us. So one guy’s name was Jim, the other was John – these were unusual names for Czechs – and they gave me the name of Jerry, I don’t know why.”
Jerry came to the United States in 1959, but originally met his sponsor in 1947
“I was able to travel for the Boy Scout Jamboree in France – that France is my fate! Of course, this time it was legal. And at the jamboree I was attracted to a musical group which we would call here a drum and bugle corps. That was a very unusual type of music we Czechs didn’t know. And we were really crazy about it. So, we went to all their performances at the jamboree and I met the executive director who was very friendly and was exchanging his address with almost anybody, including me. His name was Clarence Beebe. He was from Madison, Wisconsin, and this was Madison Scouts Drum and Bugle Corps, at one time a very prominent and very good bugle corps in the Midwest here.”
Jerry says the food was insufficient at the French steel factory he worked at
“I was so hungry at supper, because I didn’t have no money or nothing, that I went to a local orchard where there were cherry trees. And I stuffed myself with cherries one day. And I went the second night… and until the owner caught me. The owner was threatening me that he would go to the police. So I was kind of crying to him and said ‘I’m a refugee, I’m hungry, I have nothing, please don’t take me to the police, I will pay you for what I ate from my first pay check,’ which I did. He was very gracious to me. He owned a bakery and he even gave me a job. He had a lot of stale bread and I had to make breadcrumbs out of it. Of course, that was with a manual mill, because nothing was electric there.”
Jerry’s first job in Australia was at a Heinz factory
“In January, that’s the high season for tomatoes. And tomatoes have to be worked right away. So they shipped these by huge trucks everyday to this factory. They had little cases of tomatoes and they put it on a belt and the belt tipped them out into water to be washed. And that’s where I was standing, to make sure that the case goes onto the other belt. And I was wet, of course, I had a big rubber apron.
“The tomatoes went back there to be worked on by the women. They were trying to get the problems out of them before they went into the machine to be worked on. It was not too bad except I was on the night shift.”
For nearly 30 years, Jerry has presented Chicago’s Czechoslovak Radio Hour
“Since I am active in my radio, I try to play music that people like, mainly folk music and brass bands and stuff like this. Of course, that applies mostly to the older Czechs. The younger Czechs, they grow [up] with American music mostly, you know. They won’t probably even listen to my radio because to them I am too old fashioned. But I have a lot of followers amongst the older Czech-Americans, and they like it because this is the only, besides their own CDs… On Sunday morning, they can have breakfast with me at 9:00.”
Category: Chicago, Oral History