Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Lee DeWyze: (Flemish) American Idol

American television ratings for the past nine seasons has been dominated by the reality TV show American Idol. For those of you unfamiliar with the show, each year a group of judges tours the country in select cities to look for amateurs hoping to break into the music industry. Those that make a round of local auditions are invited to Hollywood. Over the next dozen or so weeks the contestants are screened and eliminated first by the judges' decisions and then, in the final rounds, by vote-ins from the television audience.

Tonight Lee DeWyze, a Flemish American, won the contest. Lee was named the "next American idol". Yet, besides the rough outlines of his background, there are no clear indications of his ethnic roots . Even DeWyze's own blog, bios and Facebook do not include any references to it. Yet, his name alone suggests a Flemish heritage.This posting is intended to fill in a few of those missing pages of Lee DeWyze's Flemish ancestry. More importantly still, is to ensure that the record the origins of those who have achieved some measure of success are properly credited to our ancestral homeland: Flanders.

The DeWyze ancestral home is in Klercken, now part of Houthulst, in West Flanders, Belgium

The earliest DeWyze ancestors I have been able to uncover arrived in the U.S. (according to Ellis Island records) about 1892. Although some DeWyze family members migrated first to Gent and then to America, the DeWyze family ancestral homeland is in West Flanders in a town called Klercken (now a part of Houthulst). Some DeWyze family members still reside there. The Telebel map of the current landline phone directory map for Belgium (below) shows that Houthulst still has the largest concentration of DeWyze surnames.

Like many Flemish immigrants the DeWyzes scattered to places that had strong Flemish communities in the U.S.: Detroit, Moline, and Chicago. Lee's ancestors settled in Chicago permanently in 1910. This was the tail end of the decade with the largest numbers of Flemish immigration to the U.S. Within a few short years of their arrival, the DeWyzes had made sufficient money that they bought and sold several small parcels of real estate (as the June 4, 1914 Chicago Daily Tribune recorded). Yet, like other Flemish immigrant families in Chicago, the DeWyze family was not rich. Several of them worked as butchers - such as Octave DeWyze (1877-1980), who arrived in 1900. Others, such as Octave's son Leon "Lee" DeWyze (American Idol Lee DeWyze's great grandfather) worked as janitors from the 1910s well into the 1950s.

The DeWyze family maintained strong Belgian ties during the first half of the 20th century. They joined the Belgian American Club, like many of the janitors in Chicago. The club met at the Belgian Hall (2625 West Fullerton - pictured above). Leon's sister, Mary De Groote, was an active member in many of the Belgian Club activities. Often she worked closely with Lea Van Puymbroeck, wife of Arnold Van Puymbroeck (and later Club President) and the man who we will honor at an upcoming gala event June 13th.
The DeWyze family also built their social lives around other ethnic centers for Flemings in Chicago. The Belgian Church, St. John Berchman, where Lee's great grandmother Edna was both married and buried, was also a place where they went for the Belgian kermis (carnival). When the DeWyzes passed on, they went to rest like other Belgians in St. Joseph Cemetery in River Grove IL.
However, the demands of citizenship and the passing of time began to fade the memory of origins and ethnicity. Robert "Lee" DeWyze, Leon's son, played football, served in World War 2, and was as American as apple pie. Robert Lee's brothers - Donald (our Flemish American Idol's grandfather) and Jimmy - served in Korea and Vietnam respectively, capturing the Chicago Tribune's respect in an August 26, 1965 article. But when Robert's, Donald's, & Jimmy's mother Edna passed away in 1970, the Belgian Club was already fading from the day-to-day of Flemish Americans like the DeWyzes. As neighborhoods changed and middle class families like the DeWyzes moved to the 'burbs, their links to their ethnic roots frayed.
Today another Flemish American has gained prominence. Lee DeWyze is demonstrating that the sons and daughters of Flemish immigrants are not limited in aspirations to work as janitors or tradesmen. Lee DeWyze is not only the "next American Idol". Lee DeWyze is the next Flemish American Idol.

Copyright 2010 by David Baeckelandt. All rights reserved. No duplication in or reprinting permitted without my express, written consent.