“Only Hussies Ask Boys to Dance!” – Part 2 of the Adele and Karel Bartos Story
Karel Bartos was born on May 7, 1908 in Chicago to Ambrose Bartos and Gabriela Adamik. Ambrose and Gabriela met and married in what is now Czechoslovakia and began their family there. Ambrose was a shoemaker, and Gabriela cared for their seven children. Otto, Denis, Honza and Jan were born in Czechoslovakia, though Honza died shortly after birth. The rest of the children: Karel, Hanna and Kamila were born in Chicago after the family immigrated there in 1914. Jan died at age fourteen of the flu epidemic, and Karel almost followed when he contracted diphtheria at age seven. Karel lived, but he was always weak, thin and sickly after that.
Because he was ill for such a long time, Karel did not start school until he was eight. He was bright, though, and eventually skipped two grades to catch up to where he should have been. Karel was interested in sports, particularly baseball, as he was too skinny for football, but also enjoyed reading and putting together model airplanes. He was so good at making them, in fact, that by the time he was in high school, he and a friend had begun building real, small airplanes from scrap that actually flew. Eventually they decided to build one to sell and began to advertise it. “Some farm kid in Michigan” offered to trade them two motorcycles—a Harley and an Indian—for it, which Karel and his friend willingly accepted. They spent the summer riding around on the motorcycles, but continued to build and fly planes, dreaming of being pilots someday and traveling the world.
Ambrose, however, had other ideas for Karel. For one thing, he saw flying airplanes as an expensive, silly past time, not a real career path forward. Ambrose still worked as a shoemaker and owned his own little shop on the city’s northwest side. He insisted that Karel finish high school, which he did, though he had to work full time, as well, to help support the family. When he graduated, Karel then went on to business college, at Ambrose’s insistence, to learn accounting. In the meantime, he got a job working for his brother, Denis, at the Continental and Commercial Bank downtown Chicago.
It was at the bank that he first met his future wife, Adele Janicek, in passing, when Denis stopped to talk to Adele’s friend, Martha. Karel was painfully shy and struggled to talk to anyone, much less girls. His siblings thought he was a lost cause when it came to love and romance and never expected him to marry at all. His mother, however, had not given up hope and thought that if he could just meet the right sort of girl, Karel would come out of his shell.
So when Gabriela noticed Adele Janicek at various functions in the neighborhood, her interest was piqued. Adele was bright and determined and funny and talkative and always seemed to be in the middle of things. She seemed the perfect girl for her Karel, if only she could think of a way to get him to talk to her.
As it happened, one night at a neighborhood dance, Gabriela saw her chance. She was thrilled when she noticed Adele talking with a friend of Karel’s, John Wesley. Gabriela pulled John aside as soon as she found him alone and begged him to ask Adele to ask Karel to dance. John told her that he did not think Adele would agree to that, but Gabriela urged him to try. She was delighted, then, when, a little bit later, she saw John and Adele approach Karel.
She was horrified, however, when Karel loudly rejected Adele’s offer to dance. Humiliated, she pushed him out onto the floor with Adele. Later, at home, Gabriela scolded him.
“But only hussies ask boys to dance!” Karel exclaimed and truly thought she would have been proud of him for rejecting an obviously loose woman. Gabriela was forced to explain that she had put John and Adele up to it, which then embarrassed Karel all the more. Gabriela continued to push Karel to ask Adele out, however, so that one day when he saw Adele at another dance—and tired of his mother’s nagging—he asked Adele if he could walk her home. She replied that no, she was walking home with John Wesley, but promised Karel that he could walk her home the next time. Adele kept her promise, and to his surprise, Karel found on the walk home, that he actually liked Adele. He shyly asked her out again, and then began to court her in earnest.
When he proposed to her a few months later, everyone was stunned that Adele—forward and driven and outgoing and popular—would accept the weak, shy, quiet Karel. Adele never explained herself to anyone, but chose Karel just the same. As it turned out, it was the beginning of a beautiful life together, though, like any, not without its share of troubles.
The year before Karel and Adele got married, not only did the stock market crash, but Adele’s father, Daniel, passed away at age forty-seven. His health had been bad for many years from working in the foundry, and eventually his heart just gave out. When Karel and Adele got married, then, they decided out of practicality to move in with her mother and her three brothers, all of whom were still at home. Thousands of people at the time were losing their jobs, especially in banks. Women were the first to be fired, as it was common thinking that their husbands or fathers would provide for them.
At the Continental and Commercial bank, however, such was not the case with Adele. She was naturally very fearful of losing her job, but Miss Kate Williams and indeed many of the bank officers really liked her. They also knew that not only Karel but all three of her brothers had lost their jobs and that she was the sole provider of the family. Thus, they kept her on. Karel and his brother, Denis, had left the bank the year before and were both working at an accounting firm when the market crashed and were both subsequently fired. Karel had been trying to finish his accounting degree by taking classes at night and continued to do so while he looked for another job. None was forthcoming, however.
Things continued this way for a long time with Adele providing for all of them. Officially, she worked in the statistics department at Continental, but she made it a point to help out as much as she could in every department. She was constantly doing people favors. It seemed to pay off, however, because not only did she manage to hold on to her job, but one day, one of the officers in the statistics department for whom she was taking dictation, kindly asked if Karel had yet found a job. When she said no, he told her he knew of an accounting position at Northern Illinois Coal Company that was coming open and that he would set up an interview the following week for Karel if he was interested. Adele was thrilled with this news, but when the officer told her later which day had been set up for the interview, she was crushed when she found out it was the same day Karel was scheduled to take the CPA exam. She dreaded telling the officer that Karel would not be able to interview, but when she did, he did some checking for her, and Northern Illinois agreed to see him the following week instead. When Karel did go in to interview with them, they were apparently impressed because he was offered the job immediately.
Things then began to look up for Adele and Karel. Her three brothers moved out of the house, having all gotten married themselves, leaving just Adele, Karel, and Renata in the original house that Daniel and Renata had purchased years ago. Before long, they decided to sell the house and buy a new one in Cicero. Just as the sale was going through, however, Northern Illinois Coal Company was bought out by a company in Kansas. The new company offered to relocate Karel and Adele, but Karel did not have a good feeling about it. He was afraid they would move to Kansas and then he might eventually be let go, so he resigned.
Karel thus started the job search process all over again and began to look through the classifieds. He was excited to come upon an ad for an accountant with United Airlines and applied. Adele, for her part, promptly went to the bank officers at Continental and informed them that Karel was applying for a job at United, which happened to be a major client at the bank. A few calls were then made to United, and Karel not only got an interview, but the job.
It was a dream come true for Karel to combine his job with his love of planes and his desire to see the world. It was then that Karel and Adele’s travels began. Because they could now get free tickets, they traveled all over the United States and the world any chance they got. They went to Europe at least ten times and often flew to New York just for the weekend to see the opera or the ballet, Adele’s own childhood dream fulfilled from the days of her friendship with Maria.
In 1945, things were going so well for Adele and Karel that Karel decided they should build a brand new house in Riverside. Adele was very against the idea, however, as she didn’t see the point in it. They had a nice house in Cicero, and she had no desire to move. Karel was determined, though, and Adele listened, as he so rarely had a strong opinion about anything. Finally, she gave in to Karel’s wish for two reasons. One, he had put up with her mother all those years, which had not always been easy, and Adele was grateful to him for it. Second, they had saved enough money that they wouldn’t need to get a mortgage, so in the end, they paid $32,000 in cash and built the new home. They lived there for forty years and retired in their sixties. Adele had worked at Continental for over forty years. On their 60th wedding anniversary, they flew to Europe and returned on the Concorde.
Even in their retirement, both Karel and Adele continued with social events and travel, but, Adele says, “old age has not been kind to us.” In the early 1990’s, Adele began to notice that Karel’s memory was becoming worse and worse and finally took him to a doctor, where he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Adele became very depressed about their prospects and had no one to turn to for help. They had never had children because, says Adele, “We were too busy living life!” All of Karel’s siblings had already died, as had all of Adele’s, except Emil. Adele thought that perhaps they should sell the house and move into an apartment, but Karel adamantly refused. His choice was to move into a Czech nursing home, where they could be cared for properly as they aged. Adele was reluctant to do this, but in the end agreed with what Karel wanted, as she knew it was probably his last sane request.
And so in 1992, Karel and Adele moved into a Czech nursing home in Chicago. Because of their long involvement in the community and a perhaps because of a large donation to the nursing home, they secured a large double room which overlooked the gardens and were allowed to bring as much of their own furniture from their home as would fit into their new space. As a result, their room resembles a tiny version of their home in Riverside, not that of an institution.
Adele, though she has her own health problems, is very involved in the nursing home and very devoted still to Karel, who sits patiently in a wheelchair, dressed impeccably each day by Adele, with his eyes closed. When roused, he gives a gentle answer, usually nonsensical, to whatever is asked and then closes his eyes again. Adele spends her days reading, sewing, writing letters, making telephone calls, and pushing Karel through the home, taking him to various activities with her. There is a part of Adele that seems a little sad, but she continually focuses on the positive. They make an interesting sight—Adele leading or pushing Karel through the halls—perhaps mirroring what their life together was in more ways than one.
On August 30, 1995, Adele and Karel celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary at the nursing home, with nephews, nieces, a few friends and the staff surrounding them and wishing them well. For better or worse, they are a lovely example of taking life’s “lemons” and making lemonade.
(Originally written September 1995)
If you liked this true story about the past, check out Michelle’s historical fiction/mystery series, set in the 1930s in Chicago: