A few years back, a curious woman in Lincoln set out to find out more about the old house she loved.
Why were the walls so thick? Who were the people who’d lived in their sturdy two-story before the floors began to creak and Model Ts still roamed the streets of Lincoln? Had there ever been a garage?
Elle Stecher found answers and something better: She found Jack.
Jack Rokahr, an opera-loving World War II veteran who spoke five languages, explored the world, settled in California, loved his partner Ray and adored the house she now called home.
A house with leaded glass and pocket doors, radiator heat, built-in cabinets and basement walls as solid as a bunker. A house that had sailed past the century mark as grand as the Queen Mary.
His grandparents’ house.
“It was the ‘Sunday dinner house,’” Stecher said. “He didn’t grow up here, but he loved his grandparents and he loved this house. ”
Stecher is the marketing manager for a tech startup. She’s a mom. A 29-year-old with an eye for style. She calls herself a “bit of a serial researcher.”
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A few years after Stecher and her husband, Sam, moved into the house that Jack’s grandfather Ernest Rokahr built, she found a new research project.
She knew the builder’s name from a trove of papers left by a previous owner. She knew he’d made a name for himself building banks and courthouses.. She knew he’d built his own house – now her house – for $2,500 and “old material.”
And she knew there had to be more to know, so she started poking around the Internet.
A list of descendants popped up on an ancestry site. She found one Rokahr, born in 1922 without a death date. No way this guy is still alive, she thought.
But she searched the name and found it connected to a large donation at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Music Library. She rang the woman in charge, Anita Breckbill: Do you happen to know a Jack Rokahr?
Know him? How could she forget him?
“He was just an amazing person,” Breckbill said last week. “He had so many stories.”
Breckbill met the opera aficionado and Husker alum when he hauled 8,500 opera scores, posters, books and recordings worth more than a half-million dollars from his Southern California home to UNL in 2002 — filling a room at the music library, and then some.
Rokahr filled a room too, a tall man with a sleek head of white hair and a big personality.
“He was Mr. Enthusiasm,” Breckbill said. “He was alway pushing me to say the collection was the largest in the world.”
He wanted it to be important, she said. And it is.
Twenty years ago, the university hosted a reception for Rokahr; his nephews and nieces traveling across the country to celebrate with him. Afterward, Uncle Jack rented a trolley to take them on a tour of places his grandfather and father had built, including a big brick house at 24th and Euclid.
The same house that filled Stecher with wonder and led her to Breckbill’s office 17 years later.
“Elle was also an amazingly enthusiastic person,” the music librarian said. “It was two enthusiastic people colliding.”
The day she called, the music librarian assured Stecher that Rokahr would be thrilled to hear from her.
The proof? That first phone call to California lasted an hour.
Stecher woke the next morning to a long email from a happy man with happy memories to share.
“This will be a nice project for both of us,” Rokhar wrote. “I am delighted with this lovely event.”
An event that began with a simple search for information and ended with a pandemic, the birth of a baby boy called Jack and the passing of his beloved namesake.
The beginning of a friendship
For the next year, the pair traded dozens of emails and phone calls.
Phone dates, Rokahr called them.
“He just had so many fun stories about his life and about the house,” Stecher said. “It was such a treat to hear them.”
She soaked up the details of Rokahr’s cosmopolitan life. Tales of his travels for two international pharmaceutical companies. His wartime service in Europe, and the fluent French that saved him from the front lines. She learned about his brief marriage to Lillian, his French bride who remained a friend for always.
He told her how he came to love opera by listening to the radio on Saturdays. How he dug dandelions for a nickel an hour to earn money to buy “Carmen,” his first opera score – the start of a lifetime of collecting.
He told her how he found love with Ray Myles and of their 60 years together in California.
He shared memories of his grandparents’ house. Sunday dinners with German dishes his grandfather loved. Sitting on the staircase to eavesdrop on his aunts. The button under the dining room table to call the maid. Singing around the Christmas tree.
He told her where the garage once stood. The hard turn off Euclid to park Aunt Elsie’s 1928 Buick alongside the gardening tools and mower.
She told him about the remodeled bathrooms, the new patio, their “hillbilly” stock-tank swimming pool and their 3-year-old son, Ezra.
A few months into their correspondence, Stecher made plans to visit an old friend in Burbank. She asked her new friend if he was up for a visit, too.
He would be thrilled, Rokahr said. The day came and lunch at his swanky assisted-living facility, a block from the beach, was delightful.
Rokahr was delightful, too, and Stecher posed smiling with Rokahr and Ray, looking like a granddaughter sandwiched between her two grandpas.
And that’s what Rokahr became to her, Stecher said. A grandfather she’d never known.
And Rokahr grew ever fonder of the inquisitive woman, who’d settled in the house of his childhood memories.
“Dear Friend in Lincoln,” Rokahr wrote after her visit. “We had a lovely time together and we are still talking about it three days later … Thanks for loving Grandma and Grandpa’s home and taking such good care of it. YOU made me very happy.”
Time passed, and the sendoffs on his emails illustrated his affection:
Your friend, Jack…
Love to everyone at your house as always, Jack…
Ray joins me in sending our love…
Hugs to everyone at 1743 South 24th Street…
And Stecher always answered in kind: Sam and Ezra and I send our love to you both…
A home’s living legacy
Stecher could not have found a better tour guide to the past.
When Ed Zimmer was Lincoln’s historic preservation planner, he’d get regular inquiries from owners of old houses. “Often, they’re interested in early owners, sometimes they’re hoping for photos.”
Rokahr provided so much more.
The history of a home and its first family. The white picket fence. The big garden. Family weddings in the living room. Letters from Aunt Mary and Aunt Elsie, who never married and stayed in the big house until the 1970s, career women who left their own grand legacies.
And the bonus of Rokahr’s own amazing life.
A man so connected to the opera world that sometimes proprietors let him sing on the stages of empty opera houses.
Who once played the piano for the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson, the three of them belting out showtunes from “Oklahoma.”
Who peered into the windows of empty German homes after the war in search of grand pianos and sheet music.
Stecher worried what he’d think of her when he asked what kind of music she enjoyed: ’70s soft rock.
She still laughs at the look he gave her. “It was … unimpressed and slightly disappointed.”
They didn’t need music in common. He could love Puccini and she could love Creedence Clearwater Revival. They had the house. They shared a love of learning. They shared enthusiasm.
In July 2020, when Stecher told him a baby was coming – another boy – they would have something else to share. Baby Stecher would be another Jack, named in his honor.
Rokahr pooh-poohed the idea – Jack is better as a nickname, he said But Stecher knew he was pleased.
“He said the house was built for a big family,” Stecher said. “And he was thrilled Ezra would have a sibling.”
Months passed and the pandemic took hold and refused to let go. It began to kill Americans, many of them elderly.
Rokahr and Ray were stuck in their apartment, the vaccine not yet available. Then Rokahr’s computer broke down and no one was allowed in to fix it. When Stecher would get him on the phone, he finally seemed his age.
It was hard for the gregarious man not to be able to congregate and socialize, she said.
“Sometimes, his mood was better than others, but he was just getting worn down.”
Then, on the last day of February 2021, Elle and Sam welcomed Jack Louis Stecher into the world.
When Stecher called to tell her friend the good news, the phone went to voicemail. She would later learn Rokahr was hospitalized with COVID, and Ray was stricken with the virus, too.
Ernest “Jack” Rokahr died March 5 2021; Ray followed a few weeks later.
Rokahr’s nephew organized a small memorial service in Lincoln that spring. Stecher cried as she wrote her tribute:
“Here’s to Jack Rokahr; a dear friend to all and a guiding light … You made me feel truly worthy of your friendship and like a true member of your family.”
Her Jack is a toddler now, his tiny body full of mischief and fun, living in the Sunday Dinner House on 24th Street with his mom and dad and big brother.
They contemplated moving, Stecher says. It would be nice to have a garage, after all.
“I was so sad after Jack died, I thought ‘I have to move.’”
But now she thinks about the man she found, 98 years old, delighted to peer into the past and coax it into focus for her.
“He told us it was important for us to know that our house was always filled with love, that the history of the house and the family who was here, would set the stage for whoever landed there next.”
Two little boys running across up and down creaky wood stairs, warmed by the radiators, two loving parents, a solid foundation underfoot.
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