Louise “Lisel” Schaaf, who was documented as Illinois’ oldest resident, the oldest living person from Germany and the oldest living immigrant to the United States, has died at 113 years and 192 days old, according to a research group that verifies supercentenarians for Guinness World Records.
When she arrived in the United States on June 4, 1928, Walt Disney hadn’t unveiled Mickey Mouse. A gallon of gas cost roughly 21 cents. Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were playing baseball. And Amelia Earhart had nearly a decade of flying left before her plane disappeared in an attempt to circumnavigate the globe.
“She was a wonderful mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and great-great grandmother,” said her daughter Ruth Arend, 85. “She could always find the good in a person. All the kids called her Oma” — German for grandmother.
In 2018, WCIU’s The Jam asked the Norwood Park resident the reason for her longevity. She said she liked an occasional highball but had “absolutely no secret. I worked every day. I took care of whatever I could do.”
She grew up Louise Wilhemine Burkle in the German town of Dietlingen, near Stuttgart.
Mrs. Schaaf had a baptismal record from 1906 and multiple documents from throughout her life proving her age, according to Robert Young of the Gerontology Research Group, a verification source for Guinness World Records. The organization studies birth, baptism, census, immigration, marriage and voting records to help confirm the most long-lived known people around the world.
Mrs. Schaaf’s documents confirm she was the oldest person in Illinois and the oldest known living person born in Germany, Young said.
At the time of her death in April, the GRG also considered her the nation’s oldest living immigrant.
“There may be others claiming [to be] older, but they do not have proof,” Young said.
As a girl growing up in Germany, Mrs. Schaaf worked in her aunt’s watch factory, but times remained lean after the end of World War I, according to her son Henry Schaaf, 75.
She bought a ticket to America, traveling in steerage with a cousin on the S.S. Columbus oceanliner.
“Ten days on the water,” she told WCIU. “Once the boat stops, everything is OK now, the Statue of Liberty right in front of you.”
In a 2016 interview with WBBM-TV, she said, “I never in my life forget that sight.”
“Everybody talks about America and how much money you can make,” she told WCIU, remembering how she cleaned houses and took care of children. “Those were the bad times when I came in 1928. No jobs. You work for $8 or $9 a week. See, in those years, you couldn’t hardly save any money.”
A cousin in Chicago sent her the money to come to the Midwest. Back then, the city teemed with new immigrants from Germany. There were German-language church services and German newspapers and lots of German restaurants, butcher shops and delis.
There also were many German athletic organizations. That’s how she met her husband. She liked to say she first saw Erwin Schaaf “on the soccer field.” He was a starter for the Schwaben Athletic Club soccer team, still in operation out of Buffalo Grove.
They were married on April 24, 1931.
“They got $25 for wedding presents,” her son said. “She put it in the bank. And, a week or two later the bank went under” because of the Great Depression.
She remained philosophical, according to her children. A skilled baker, Mrs. Schaaf looked at things this way: “As long as I have flour, milk, eggs and butter, we are good.”
Her specialty, a braided holiday yeast bread called hefekranz, was studded with dried fruit, cherries and nuts.
Her husband worked in Bellwood at Chicago Rivet & Machine Co. In the 1930s, a lot of Americans didn’t own cars. During World War II, when gasoline was rationed, he and his co-workers carpooled.
“Everybody would meet at my parents’ house, and they all piled in” whichever car was available for the drive to the factory, the couple’s son said.
Mrs. Schaaf stayed home with her children when they were young. Later, she worked part-time packing chocolates at the Andes Candies shop at Damen and Lincoln avenues. She’d walk or take the bus because she never learned to drive.
“My dad wouldn’t teach her, just like he wouldn’t teach my sister,” Henry Schaaf said.
She knew how to stretch a dollar and cook in bulk. On Sundays, she made meals for Erwin Schaaf’s hungry soccer team.
She also worked as a cook at the Hapsburg Inn on River Road in Des Plaines, where her husband moonlighted as a bartender. Her specialty was chicken dinners.
“When she’d come home,” her daughter said, “she’d smell like chicken.”
The Schaafs raised their family in a house near Belmont and California avenues before moving to Norwood Park in 1959.
Mrs. Schaaf didn’t return to Germany until 1952 — a gap of 24 years. Her relatives in Germany treasured the regular care packages that she sent, especially after World War II ended. She mailed them tobacco, coffee, toilet paper and other treats and necessities.
“A lot of my cousins to this day remember that,” her son said.
Toward the end of her life, she lost some vision to macular degeneration. But she could still detect if her son wasn’t mixing the flour properly when he helped her make apple cake. If dissatisfied with his technique, he said, “She whacked the table with her hand.”
At the time of her death, “She was waiting for her ninth great-grandchild,” he said.
The baby was born about a week later.
In addition to her children, Mrs. Schaaf is survived by four grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren and nine great-great grandchildren. A memorial service will be held at a later date.