1923 - 2008, Santa Barbara
May 26, 1923 January 25, 2008
My mother Nina Gaddis was one of those larger than life characters that make writing something this final, difficult. Nina was a blend of contrasting qualities that kept some people laughing, others comforted, and a few running for cover. She had an exceptional personality which touched and brightened many lives throughout her long, unusual, and eventful life. Nina's life story spanned two countries against the historical backdrop of the major world events in which she lived. Her story can be described in four chapters. The first chapter was growing up in Czechoslovakia before, during and just after World War II. The second was meeting and marrying my father Colonel John Gaddis, United States Army, then moving to America. The third was raising me while she and my father adjusted to civilian life. The fourth chapter was widowhood and creating the life she wanted here.
Nina Maria Plocek was born in Prague, the beautiful cathedral spired capital of what is now known as the Czech Republic. She was an only child who grew up privileged in a family who appreciated art, opera, classical music and good manners. Her parents found Nina to be headstrong and mischievous, tethering her with an array of exasperated governesses and tutors. As a teenager growing up pre World War II Europe, Nina was fond of the French, especially singer Edith Piaf. She also liked American films and music, watching Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire glide across the cinema screen and dancing to Benny Goodman with her friends. She hoped some day to visit their glamorous modern country. As fate would have it, history conspired to make my mother's wish come true through the agency of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and her future husband.
Nina's world changed dramatically when the German Army came goose-stepping into Prague followed by seven terrifying years of occupation. She felt helpless as a number of her teachers, friends, and classmates were arrested and deported to concentration camps or worse. When the war swung in favor of the allies, into Prague rolled the victorious Red Army, their tanks rumbling through the cobblestone streets of the city, taking strategic positions along the way. This later would become one of their favorite ways of introducing themselves to the locals of other neighboring countries. In 1945 though, the Soviet Army was welcomed, albeit nervously, by the Czechs who had been hoping for the Americans to arrive instead. Fortunately, the American Sixth Army was close. None the less, Nina was almost raped by a drunken Russian soldier who was summarily shot by his apologetic, but equally drunk superior officer. In 1968, while visiting her parents still living in Prague, Nina sadly witnessed Russian tanks again pouring into her beloved city, this time unwelcome, as they crushed the Czechs first serious bid for freedom from the Soviet domination. This event was to be known as the Prague Spring.
Chapter two of my mother's life began when she met my father, Colonel John W. Gaddis at a ball in Prague, which city fathers hastily organized to get some American presence in their city. My parents' favorite song was "Sentimental Journey." Their courtship lasted about a year, before history changed yet again. The 'liberating' Soviet Army received word from Marshall Joseph Stalin, that they'd be staying on a little longer, which ended up being fifty years. As the Iron Curtain was being prepared to drop on Eastern Europe, my mother and father bid farewell to her concerned parents and goodbye to her homeland, promising that she'd soon return for a visit. This would take ten years to happen, during which time the communists would confiscate much of her family's wealth and property. Nina also didn't know then that the dashing West Pointer she had just married had a penchant for hard drinking, which was to cause her considerable embarrassment and grief. However she was now an officer's wife and would remain so for the next ten years until my father retired in 1956.
Basic training for Nina consisted of navigating the uncharted social reefs, while establishing her niche in the pecking order of the other officer's wives. Even though she was fluent in English, Nina encountered prejudice from some American officers' wives for being a 'foreigner'! Over time, my mother was able to disarm and befriend most of these women, some of whom became life-long friends, while raising me and trying to do some damage control over my fathers' drinking. There were, however, some consolations which included being stationed in the Presidios of Monterey and San Francisco. We were also briefly stationed in Santa Barbara when my father became Regimental Commander at the time of the Korean War. Three years after returning from Korea, my father retired from the Army.
My mother's life began to improve at the beginning of chapter three with my father's decision to work for the County Assessors Office at the Santa Barbara Courthouse. Her transition into civilian life went smoothly. Always and avid exerciser (principally swimming and later on walking) Nina started teaching unique pre-Pilates-like stretching classes at the YMCA and these became enormously popular. From there, she moved on to teaching physical education at Marymount and Crane schools. I'm told by some of her former students that she was an enthusiastic, though strict, no-nonsense coach. Nina still had her coaching whistle attached to her keychain. Even after she quit teaching, remaining physically fit was fundamental to her life, ironically, so was her cigarette smoking which she started as a teenager.
In her late thirties and early forties, Nina was invited by some friends to lend them a hand in local politics. My mother jumped in with her characteristic untiring energy and drive. Over the ensuing years, in a variety of campaigns, she helped to elect future judges, mayors, and city council members. During that time she also was a patron for the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.
My father's death in 1977 was a watershed year for my mother and the beginning of chapter four. Though she grieved his positive qualities, she gained the freedom to remain happily independent for the rest of her life. Nina was able to indulge her passion for swimming by joining the Coral Casino, followed many years later by membership in the Santa Barbara Athletic Club. Her self discipline, spunk, and sheer physical determination were inspirational, especially as Nina got into her eighties. Her vivacious personality, casual elegant style and genuine interest in other's lives made her a favorite cheerful presence wherever she went. Meanwhile, Nina found new purpose in her life with several worthy projects, beginning with joining the steering committee to bring Hospice to Santa Barbara. She was instrumental in getting funding and other support for the Santa Barbara Homeless Coalition. She always had a soft spot for the downtrodden, invisible and under served elements in our community, still making donations and direct relief drops to the homeless till she could no longer drive.
This is perhaps a good time to mention Nina's fondness for dogs, and specifically boxers. Her love for this particular breed lasted thirty five years. Each of the five boxers she owned during that time provided perfect companionship for Nina. My mother's routine fell into place. In the morning she would swim at the Corel Casino, and then take her boxer for a walk along the neighboring Butterfly Lane Beach. In the mid-afternoon, she'd walk the dog again, often at Westmont College or along Mountain Drive. She was such a familiar and predictable sight that you could set you clock by it. When her last boxer needed to be put down at her home a couple of summers ago, it was a sad event for us all, hitting Nina particularly hard. She swore off ever owning another dog. Not too long afterward her unassailable strength began to falter, leading her to temporary hospitalization where in December 2006, she was diagnosed with emphysema. Soon after returning home she was back on her feet, dismissing her doctors advice to quit smoking and ease up on the exercising.
We're well into chapter four and within sight of Nina's finishing line. In addition to her country, her marriage, raising me, swimming at her clubs, supporting worthy local causes, and walking her boxers over hill and dale, Nina took great joy in having close friends. She particularly enjoyed their visits up to her charming home on the Riviera overlooking city and sea. Hospitality was a very important custom for my mother all through her life. There, in her spacious living room next to the large fireplace, surrounded by her favorite paintings, and family heirlooms, Nina would uncork a bottle of her favorite wine, set down a couple of platters loaded with Pate, caviar, rye bread, and baguettes. She'd loved to initiate conversation, becoming a gracious compassionate sounding board, steering her honored guests into their souls.
My mother possessed a special gift for empathizing with other people's problems, usually leaving her own far in the background. She mothered a lot of people, and campaigned for a number of noble causes during her unusual life. She truly cherished all the expressions of love, gratitude, and acknowledgement she received throughout her long and active life. I hope that she now can finally rest, if only for a while knowing her, allowing our love and heartfelt appreciation to carry her peacefully home.
Many thanks to all of Nina's friends and neighbors past and present; especially to, Dr Michael Fisher, Tranquilla, the Petersons, the Richards, Hospice, Visiting Nurses staff and my strong and constant wife; who sustained both me and my mother throughout her passing. Please send donations in my mother's memory to Boxer Rescue, Santa Barbara Hospice and Visiting Nurses, and the Center for Diabetic Research.