The German Heritage Society
(Compiled by Edwin H. Culver)
In the early sixties, Charles H. Sipple, III had the idea of a society honoring men of German descent. He had attended several St. Andrew's Society banquets and was impressed by the Scots' devotion to their heritage. Charles Sipple expressed his thoughts to the Rev. Curtis Derrick, pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Ascension, while the two were en route to the Bonaventure Cemetery to conduct a funeral. He told the pastor that people of German descent should stand up and be counted and stop suffering the guilt brought on by Germany's involvement in the two World Wars.
After much discussion the two agreed that Savannah should have a society composed of native-born Germans, their sons, grandsons, and great-grandsons along with any direct lineal male descendants of a German man or woman who came to the United States and helped build it into the dominant country that it is today. Charles Sipple solicited the aid of his long time friend, Jack E. Altman, Jr., and Pastor Curtis Derrick suggested George H. Oelschig help with the formation. Charles Sipple, Jack Altman, and George Oelschig met one morning over coffee at the Pirates' House to share their ideas. They all felt that for a German society to be successful, it should have the blessings of both Pastor Curtis Derrick and Pastor Joseph Griffin of St. Paul's Lutheran Church, the ministers of the two largest Lutheran congregations in Savannah. With the blessings of the two Lutheran pastors, the five met at Johnnie Ganem's Restaurant to plot the course of the new society. It was these initial three men, Charles Sipple, Jack Altman, and George Oelschig along with the guidance from Pastors Derrick and Griffin, who laid the groundwork and continued to work diligently through the years building the society.
To add further input, the founding committee was expanded to include Luhr G. C. Beckmann, Jr. and Dr. Henry C, Frech, Jr., both of whom made substantial contributions to the organization. The first formal meeting of the committee was held at the Sipple residence, 20 Pinewood Avenue. In attendance were Charles Sipple, Jack Altman, George Oelschig, Pastor Curtis Derrick, Luhr Beckmann, and Dr. Henry Frech; Pastor Griffin no longer resided in the city. Charles Sipple chaired the organizational meeting, and the committee continued to meet regularly at Dr. Frech's office. Despite meeting weekly, the committee still required over a year to author a preamble and by-laws and to select the limited membership. Sallylu R. Sipple, wife of Charles Sipple, designed the badge which the society continues to use today.
The group was further expanded to include Herman H. Grotheer, Jr., Fred J. Hart, and Thomas A. Smith. These men, together with the six other men on the organizational committee, elected the prospective members by the black ball system, with each candidate standing on his individual merits. Each prospective member was invited by a member of the organizational committee to see if indeed there was excitement to foster a new German society. The committee was met with robust enthusiasm, as each and every candidate accepted the Society's invitation; the group began with ninety-five charter members.
The charter meeting of the Society was held in the Gold Room of the old DeSoto Hotel on January 28, 1965, at 8:00PM. Charles Sipple presided over the meeting with the first order of business being to name the Society. After several suggestions, Dr. Charles Usher offered the name "The German Heritage Society" which was approved. The following charter officers and stewards were elected: Charles H. Sipple, President; Dr. Henry C. Frech, Jr., President-Elect; George H. Oelschig, Vice-President; Luhr G. C. Beckmann, Jr., Secretary; Hal H. Hoerner, Treasurer, and the Rev. Curt E. Derrick, Jr., Archivist. The Board of Stewards included Dale Critz, Sr., Edward J. Derst, Jr., Jesse L. Fulenwider, Jr., Henry M. Garwes, Jr., Herman H. Grotheer, Jr., and Frank K. Peeples.
The officers and stewards immediately turned their attention to the first annual banquet, to be held on Thursday, October 28, 1965. It was complete with a formal gourmet dinner, German music, and renowned speaker, with an assessment of fifteen dollars for each member and guest. Radio personality Paul Harvey was to be the featured speaker, but it was the Rev Benjamin Bedenbaugh, professor at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, who sent the audience home with their sides splitting from his hilarious and risqué talk. Rev Bedenbaugh's presentation, along with George Oelshig's menu and Jack Altman's unique telegrams, which he wrote and read, made the first annual banquet outstanding and the talk of the town. The German Heritage Society was well on its way to carve out its place in a city with many ethnic organizations.
The grand traditions which began at the first banquet in 1965 have continued each October through the years. The German Heritage Society is proud of its gourmet dinner served in courses, its delicious German wine enjoyed for toasting, its warm fellowship which is renewed each year, and its outstanding speakers who have included Douglas Edwards, Red Mitchum, Jerry Clower, Lewis Grizzard, and Bubba Bechtol. These ingredients make for a banquet that is a most enjoyable and memorable evening for both members and guests.
The German Heritage Society is much more than just an annual stag banquet. Members also meet in April for a business meeting and with the ladies at winter and summer socials. On March 3, 1989, the members, their wives, and their guests celebrated the Society's 25th Anniversary with a banquet at the Hyatt Hotel. The Society has taken trips to Germany in September of 1967 and again in September of 1970 to enjoy Octoberfest; a recent trip was made in June 2000.
J. Curtis Lewis, Jr. started a scholarship fund, with members of the Society contributing to further the education of German students in the United States and American students in Germany. Through this scholarship fund, Daniel Marhla from Germany completed his degree at the Savannah College of Art and Design. On the state's 250th birthday, Scholarship prizes were given to three local students who won an essay contest about the contribution of German settlers to Georgia. Each year the most outstanding student of the German language at Savannah Country Day School is honored by having his name engraved on a plaque given by the Society. The German Heritage Society is very much interested in understanding the German culture and history, and therefore, it frequently has educational programs at the quarterly meetings.
The German Heritage Society joined the national movement and lobbied Georgia's senators and congressmen to name October 6 each year as German American Day to honor the achievements made by German-Americans in the United States. Dr. Julian K, Quattlebaum Jr. represented the Society and attended the celebration of the first German-American Day on October 6, 1988, at the German embassy in Washington, D.C. In honor of the first German-American Day in Savannah, The German Heritage Society along with The German Friendly Society and The Salzburger Society broke ground for a fountain in Orleans Square to honor German immigrants who settled here. Shirley Oelshig, wife of George Oelschig, suggested the idea, and the three societies raised the necessary $50,000 with an additional $30,000 being contributed by the City of Savannah to complete the project. The fountain began flowing on March 13, 1989, with the formal dedication taking place on German-American Day, October 6, 1989. In honor of German-American Day, the Society's annual banquet is held on the Thursday evening of the week in which that day occurs.
The first decade of the new millennium saw members and guests continuing to enjoy the annual banquets, however, the members were always seeking other avenues to spread the German culture. To celebrate the 35th anniversary of the Society, a special event was held with members and their wives on March 10, 2000, with the theme "Best of 35 Years." On April 22, 2005, the 40th anniversary was celebrated with a similar banquet, and member, Justin Burgstiner, was the speaker. Also, member Frank W. (Sonny) Seiler delighted the audience with his stories about the University of Georgia mascot, "UGA", as the speaker at the 2008 Annual Banquet.
To add to the German theme of the Society's banquets and meetings, nineteen full-size flags were purchased. Seventeen of the flags represent the states of the Federal Republic of Germany with the German Eagle Crest. A noteworthy change to the Society's procedures was to use the membership category of "Honorary" to not only honor those members exhibiting exemplary service, but also to use the spaces created to expand the membership. Many of the Past Presidents have been given this honorary distinction.
One part of the Society's by-laws preamble is "To perpetuate the culture, historical, linguistic, and scientific influence of Deutschland." Our society has tried to make its presence known in these areas both at home and abroad. Locally, the Society sponsored the German Memorial Stone at The Coastal Heritage Society's creation of Battlefield Park. It is designed to commemorate the Revolutionary War Battle of Savannah and Spring Hill Redoubt on October 9, 1779. The German Heritage Society joins seven other local groups and societies that honored their respective participants in this battle. A bench inscribed with the Society's name was given as part of the Ranger Memorial Monument at Hunter Army Airfield. This memorial was dedicated on October 18, 2007, and honors the fallen Rangers. It creates a place where families may visit, reflect, and honor their loved ones who served this country.
In Germany, The German Heritage Society generously contributed to the Frauenkirche-Dresden Lutheran Church for its restoration. This important Lutheran Church was destroyed in 1945 during World War II. In 2006, scrolls with the names of donors from our organization were personally delivered to the church officials by Diane and Paul Jurgensen. They saw the stones that were numbered 856 and 857 which were installed over an arched window. These numbers are recorded in the church's archives in appreciation for the gifts by The German Heritage Society of Savannah, Georgia.
The German Heritage Society has come a long way since Charles Sipple discussed his idea with Pastor Derrick. The Society's accomplishments of the elegant annual banquet and the attractive fountain in Orleans Square are both wonderful and obvious. But, it is that feeling of pride for their German heritage and ancestry that the members gain through their fellowship and association with other members that really makes The German Heritage Society so special. We, the current members, wish to remember and honor the men on the founding committee who through their hard work, dedication, and enthusiasm made the idea a reality that we all cherish and enjoy today.
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The German Heritage Society of Savannah
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