Ask Romanian immigrant Steve Auer if he remembers how he got to this country so long ago, and the Lake Zurich man nods.
"Columbus," Auer says.
That was the name of the steamship that brought 9-year-old Auer, his mother, Barbara, and his sister, Eva, 7, to the United States of America in the spring of 1929, just in time for the Great Depression.
Auer, who renewed his driver's license before celebrating his 93rd birthday Wednesday, remains so invested in his adopted homeland that he risked his life to make sure he voted Nov. 6. A routine doctor visit on the morning of Election Day revealed a rapid heartbeat caused by atrial fibrillation.
"He was supposed to go to the hospital that day," says a daughter, Lu Auer of Lake Zurich. "But he said, 'I haven't voted yet.'"
His daughter, who is retired from a teaching career in Buffalo Grove, took him to the polling place that afternoon and put off the hospital stay for a day.
"It's your duty," Steve Auer says about voting. He cast his first presidential ballot in 1948 for Democrat Harry Truman at the suggestion of a Democratic precinct captain in Chicago.
"One year in Chicago and you're a Democrat," Auer says. "In 1952, I voted for Eisenhower, and I've voted Republican ever since."
Whether his candidate wins or loses, Auer says the point is to "keep trying" to make the nation better even if "it usually doesn't work out that way." He instilled the importance of voting in his two daughters and a son, Steve, who died last year at age 54.
"He would call me up every time and say, 'Did you vote?'" says daughter Barbara Barrie, who is managing agent for a condo association in Lake Zurich and lives in Hawthorn Woods. "I passed that along to my kids, too."
While he suspects his offspring don't vote for the same candidates he does, "I never ask who they vote for," Auer says. "That's their business. They can do what they want."
His commitment to his adopted home comes despite a cruel arrival. The boy who boarded the Columbus could not remember his father. Frank Auer had come to America years earlier and gotten work as a tailor before he sent for his wife and kids. The ocean voyage for passengers in the cheap steerage section was rough.
"I was sick, and I still get sick when I go on a boat ride," says Auer. His mother got sick after arriving in Chicago and died six months later.
Having spent his early years in Zilasch, a village near the border with Serbia and Bulgaria that didn't became part of Romania until after World War I, Auer spoke only German.
"When you go to school and you're young, you learn English in a hurry, especially the bad words," remembers Auer, who lived with his sister and dad in the apartment behind his father's tailor shop. His widowed father married a woman named Gertrude, who became Auer's stepmom. The lad started his formal American education in second grade but doesn't remember getting beyond sixth grade.
"It was the Depression, and I needed to work," he says. Through his father's connections, Auer spent his teen years working on a farm southwest of Joliet.
"It was a small farm with chickens and pigs and a garden where we'd try to grow vegetables," remembers Auer, who lived on the farm and went a year without seeing his father or sister.
When he was 16, he returned to his family and landed a job as an apprentice in a bakery in Chicago.
"I worked six days a week and made $4 a week," Auer says. He would begin work at 4 a.m. and finish 10 hours later by sweeping the floor and greasing the molds for the next morning's baking. He'd sleep in the bakery on Fridays so he'd be ready for the Saturday shift that started at 1 a.m.
"I used to go down to the bakery on Sundays when it was just the boss there so I could learn more," he says. Auer says he learned enough to become a baker in the Army in 1942 "after they couldn't make a machine-gunner out of me." He began his overseas service in Northern Africa and followed victorious troops into Italy.
"We'd be on this side of the mountain and the Germans would be on the other," Auer says of his base in Cassino, Italy. "All we had to do was lob a 200-pound shell over to the other side."
Stationed behind the front lines, the closest Auer came to combat was "Bed-Check Charlie," a small German warplane "that would come around some nights and drop a bomb," Auer says. But on a farm near Florence, Auer was wounded when an American signal flare exploded in his hands and sent gunpowder into his eyes. He was flown to a hospital in Rome and quickly returned to the war, but his vision never fully returned to normal.
"I've got some floaters from powder that never worked its way out," Auer says.
When his Army company rolled into Germany, Auer finally used his carbine.
"I shot rabbits and brought them back to make hasenpfeffer," says Auer, who notes the women in the German house where the U.S. troops were staying cooked a wonderful meal.
"You don't consider the civilians enemies," Auer notes. "We got along good with the civilians."
Everywhere they were stationed, the Army cooks would make friends with the locals. "Whatever food was left over, we'd give to the kids," Auer says. "They would even reuse our coffee grounds."
During a leave while he was training at Fort Bragg, N.C., Auer visited his sister, Eva, who worked at Montgomery Ward. She introduced him to a co-worker named Lucy. Auer and Lucy wrote each other throughout the war and they married on Jan. 27, 1947.
The newlyweds shared a bedroom with her two younger sisters in his in-laws' apartment until they could convert an old coal bin into a basement apartment. A breathing problem aggravated by flour dust forced Auer to quit the bakery. He worked as a soda jerk in a Rexall drugstore owned by his pharmacist brother-in-law, and for a mail-order company before finding a job in the meat-distribution business.
Having learned to drive during the war operating a Jeep at night with the headlights off to avoid drawing attention from the enemy, Auer started Steve Auer Wholesale Meats in 1957. He would drive 1,000 miles a week delivering meat throughout the suburbs and into Wisconsin. He bought a summer home in 1963 in Lake Zurich, and made it a permanent home in 1967.
Auer has spent a lifetime making the best out of what he had. His scrapbooks contain old photographs from his time in the Army, when he managed to find film and photography chemicals and convert "any cubbyhole or tent" into his darkroom. He reads three newspapers a day, even though his eye injury and macular degeneration require him to use a magnifying glass of some type. He keeps up on politics despite having never gotten beyond elementary school. And he votes, even when he has heart problems that require hospitalization.
"You can get anything you want," Auer says, "if you try hard enough."