SpectFront1501    Travelers are often noted to say, “be prepared to be lost and found” when going to visit Newfoundland, one of the easternmost provinces of Canada on the Atlantic Ocean seaboard.
For 93-year-old Dorothy Specht, of Hector, her early life story is also one of lost and found. From losing her father who drowned in a fishing accident, living in an orphanage, becoming a “war bride” and traveling with two small children from the coastal shore city of St. John’s to the flatland Minnesota prairie town of Bird Island and finding new beginnings in America.
Through it all, she reflects on more than 50 years of marriage to her beloved WWII soldier husband Alex who brought her to a new country, raising a family and creating a lifetime of inspirational stories and lessons in perseverance.
Father Drowns at Sea
Fishing always has been the primary industry of the province, and for the people who make their living from the sea, many of them residing in the numerous quaint traditional villages that dot the rugged coastline of Newfoundland.
Dorothy was born in 1919 in the small fishing community of St. Bernard’s and later raised in St. John’s, which is Newfoundland’s largest city and home to nearly half of the island’s population. Her father, James Cox, was one of those fishermen who earned his livelihood from the sea.
Dorothy was 8 years old when she saw her father for the last time on a fateful day in 1927 as he sailed to the Grand Banks on a fishing schooner.
Once at sea, fishermen on the schooner were paired together in a dory that would go out and fill their small flat-bottom boats high with fish before returning to the main ship. But James Cox and his dory mate drowned when they were caught in a sudden, fierce storm. Neither man was ever found.
Cox was just 28 years old when he died, and Dorothy says she mostly remembers him from a few photos. She was the oldest of five children left behind with her mother, Ethel Cox.
“With five kids, she now had to find a job, and with nobody able to help financially, we were all placed in an orphanage while she worked,” said Dorothy. She was responsible for her three sisters, who were sent to one orphanage that held 180 children, while her brother went to a boys’ orphanage home.
There are some stories from the orphanage that are difficult for Dorothy to recount. While there the children went to school but also had to “earn their keep” by doing various tasks. Dorothy was taught how to knit, crochet and embroider. “Then, once a year they would have a big sale. The rich people looked forward to it, and the money went to the orphanage,” she commented.
Dorothy also remembers the time when she was punished for trying to escape. “I had decided to leave the orphanage and take my sisters with me to go find our mother,” she said. “But we didn’t get very far before we were caught, and since I was the leader of this plan, I got punished.”
Dorothy’s mother always came every Sunday to visit her children in the orphanage. “But I wasn’t allowed to see her that week because of trying to run away with my sisters,” she explained.
Her mother later remarried, and the children returned home after four years at the orphanage ,but the family would suffer more from an alcoholic stepfather. But her experiences were shaping her into a strong, compassionate woman for the challenges ahead.
Dorothy Meets Alex
Long before WWII began, Newfoundland was a British colony and remained that way until after the war when, in 1949, it became the 10th province of Canada. During WWII, numerous military bases were built in Newfoundland by Canada, Britain and the United States to help safeguard Atlantic ship convoys transporting men and supplies to the battlefields of Europe.
England had entered the war nearly two years before the United States, and Dorothy’s brother, Robert Cox, became a “Newfyjohn” – slang for St. John’s conscripts now entering to serve with the British Navy. It was now 1940 and Dorothy’s life was about to change.
Alexander “Alex” Specht, of Bird Island, was a young Army soldier stationed in Newfoundland at Ft. Pepperrell, where he worked in communications at the base. The island had several military bases that were vital to the eastern shield defense of Canada and the U.S. from German advances.
With the influx of military personnel, many people often socialized in bars, various meeting places or at dances. More than one friendship led to marriage.
So it was for Dorothy and Alex who met at a USO dance. “I was only 20 or 21 but I always felt that after losing my father, Alex kind of became my dad, then my friend and eventually my husband…he was very good to me.”
The couple married at the massive St. John’s Cathedral in 1942 and soon had two children, Caroline and Michael, both born in St. John’s. Then, the decision came to move the family “to the states” in 1944.
The Journey
By now German U-boat submarines were regularly operating in the coastal waters around Newfoundland attacking the large numbers of merchant ships that passed on their voyages to Great Britain.
It was not without concern then when the Specht’s began their week-long 3,000-mile journey to Minnesota. First, they left St. John’s by train and traveled to the end of the line at Argentia. There they boarded a packed passenger ship to go across the submarine-infested waters of Cabot Strait in the Gulf of St. Lawrence to North Sidney, Nova Scotia.
“I was terrified,” said Dorothy. “It took us eight hours to cross. We had to do a lot of zig-zagging even though we had Navy escorts and plane coverage. But the next ship behind us was sunk by the Germans,” she recalled. “A week later the next ship that left port got hit, and Alex’s chaplain, who was on furlough, got killed.”
From Nova Scotia it was another succession of train rides through New Brunswick, Canada, into Maine and down the coast to Boston. The Specht’s boarded another train to Chicago where Alex’s sister Katie met the family and drove them safely to Minnesota.
Adjusting to Bird Island
Alex settled his wife and children into a home with his folks, Eva and Mike Specht, in Bird Island before he had to return to finish his Army stint in Newfoundland.
Now all alone in a foreign country with two little kids and living with in-laws that only spoke German, Dorothy soon learned she was pregnant with her third child. With non-speaking English in-laws, communication was sometimes difficult other than a few basic words. “I said to Alex, ‘how am I going to learn this?’ I guess I was just too stubborn, but I ended up taking care of them as they aged,” she said.
Alex returned in time for the birth of Carl, but the war was still going, and he went back to his Army obligations once again. Dorothy smiles as she recalls how kind the people of Bird Island were to her, which was a major blessing in Alex’s absence.
“We had an agreement with the lady who had a beauty shop across the street and a telephone for me to talk with Alex,” recalled Dorothy. “He knew he might soon be getting shipped out to Europe but because of censorship he couldn’t tell me. We had a secret signal between us though that if he wished me a happy birthday I knew that he would be leaving but then Germany surrendered,” she said.
“But I didn’t know for sure when he was going to be discharged until he showed up in Minneapolis,” she stated. “He drove his sister Marge’s car to Bird Island, and I was pretty glad to see Alex come home again…Michael didn’t know his dad when he got back.”
Together Again
When Alex returned, the Specht’s decided to farm and moved to the Buffalo Lake area. Dorothy was raised in a city so this was all new to her, but she learned how to cook all of Alex’s favorite German dishes and for her family too which grew to eight children, then 62 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Serving pork hocks, sauerkraut, mashed potatoes or stuffed cabbage was far different than preparing Newfoundland meals of lobster, cod or shrimp. “I’m a fan of sauerkraut now,” says Dorothy. “When I first ate it, I nearly died… I was pregnant, but I stayed with the program.”
After farming, Alex worked for several businesses in surrounding towns before the couple moved to Hector and an apartment in 1991. They had a chance to return to St. John’s to revisit places where it all began, but there were many changes. Their life together changed, too, in 1993 when Alex died of cancer.
Dorothy also has been experiencing some health issues and recently spent time recovering at the Renville County Hospital in Olivia where her daughter Patti Jo works. “I received a lot of wonderful care while I was there,” she stated.
She is glad to be going back home again to her apartment in Hector to work on another afghan for her grandchildren. In all, she’s made over 80 afghans and delicate doilies for family and friends. Some of them have been exhibited at the Renville County Fair and have received blue ribbons.
When she’s tired of crocheting she knits as she’s surrounded by two of her great-grandchildren who come to her apartment after school. She is grateful for their company, family members who help her stay in the apartment, for Alex and her memories of coming to America.