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Virginia Degen: From Princess of Pigs to World Ambassador

Since 1982, more than 500 German Schleswig-Holsteiners enjoyed Virginia Degen’s hospitality and friendship. First plans are on its way in inaugurate in memory of her transatlantic bridge building The Virginia Degen Lecture & Research Series in German-American Studies.

It’s difficult to imagine the tiny, delicate woman with the curly white hair and smiling eyes amidst a bunch of squealing and grunting pigs. But for decades, Virginia Degen was the mistress of more than two thousand pigs on the thriving hog farm she and her husband Leonard founded.

After Leonard died following a battle with Parkinson’s disease, Virginia’s son Rick took over the operation, and she moved to a senior citizens’ residence on Kiel Street. To the east of Kiel Street is a long, arrow-straight road called German Avenue. Although one might think these streets are to be found in Kiel, the capital of Germany’s northernmost state of Schleswig-Holstein, they’re located in a little Iowa town of fourteen hundred. As one approaches this small Midwestern town, he’s greeted with a sign emblazoned with large letters spelling out the German greeting Willkommen Freunde (Welcome Friends).

Thanks to Virginia Degen’s indefatigable efforts over the past three decades, about five hundred visitors from Schleswig-Holstein have come to know this tiny spot in America’s heartland. More importantly, because of this energetic and remarkable woman an intense transatlantic friendship between Holstein, Iowa, and Schleswig-Holstein has grown and prospered.

The seeds for this extraordinary friendship were sown in 1978 when Kiel students Joachim “Yogi” Reppmann and Dietrich “Dee” Eicke journeyed to America to research German immigration to the United States. The two young men had the bright idea of visiting American towns with German names. One of those towns was Holstein, Iowa, where they met Virginia Degen in 1982. The fifty-nine-year-old farmer’s wife and the two young Germans discovered their shared love of history and their mutual desire to better understand the Germanic roots of the small Midwestern town of Holstein.

Reppmann and Eicke had arrived in Holstein at a very propitious moment, as the small town was about to celebrate its centennial. Virginia was one of six members on a planning committee tasked with organizing the celebration. Largely due to her tireless efforts, a 517-page book was published, which chronicled the town’s history and contained biographical sketches of Holstein’s residents over the past century. While researching the book, the committee noticed that eighty percent of Holsteiners had German roots, with most having ancestors who’d hailed from northern Germany. One of those was Virginia Degen, whose mother’s maiden name was Wellendorf.

One of the primary inquiries in writing Holstein’s centennial history was how the town came by its name. A letter to the newspaper in New Holstein, Wisconsin, led to a startling discovery. Holstein, Iowa, had not been named in honor of the Duchy of Holstein in northern Germany — at least not directly. In 1882, Joachim Thode, the first mayor of Holstein, Iowa, had named the town after the place he grew up. That was the town of New Holstein, Wisconsin, which had been founded in 1848 by Forty-Eighters hailing from the Duchy of Holstein, north of Hamburg. Nevertheless, the town’s name always reflected the home across the Atlantic from whence its settlers had emigrated. In fact, before the initial tiny town was dubbed “Holstein,” it was known simply as the “German Settlement.”

Learning of the visit of the two young north Germans, a New Holstein reporter recommended they be invited as special guests to the Holstein centennial celebration. Virginia’s friends Sophie and Harlan Bauer (whose surname means “farmer” in German) invited the two young men to stay with them during their visit. During that visit, the Holsteiners treated Reppmann and Eicke like royalty, and the young history students indeed felt like German princes as they waved from the back of a big Cadillac convertible during the centennial parade festivities. Before they left to return to Germany, Yogi and Dee invited Virginia and all her fellow Holstein residents to visit them in Germany. Unbeknownst to the travelers and their gracious host, this invitation was the first pier in a transatlantic bridge that would carry the traffic of countless visits creating and then strengthening a deep German-American friendship spanning more than thirty years.

A few months after their return to Germany, the postman brought Reppmann and Eicke a letter from Iowa in which Virginia and her husband Leonard accepted their invitation. What’s more, the Degens informed the two students they would be accompanied by forty-two farmers, many of whom had reached their “golden years.” They not only hoped to see the landscape of Schleswig-Holstein, where their forefathers had trod, but also the great cities of Hamburg, Cologne, Heidelberg, Munich, and Salzburg. Reppmann and Eicke’s youthful exuberance quickly turned to panic. They were living in simple — perhaps squalid would be more accurate —student quarters with a shared toilet. How could these two humble college students possibly show their American visitors everything they wanted to see?

After the initial shock, the poor students hit upon a plan. They wrote to the mayors of all the cities the Holsteiners wanted to visit and asked for help. Amazingly, they got it! In Bonn, the then Federal Secretary of Finance Gerhard Stoltenberg even hosted an amazing reception for the Americans. Before that, the little group had spent a week in Schleswig-Holstein, where to everyone’s great surprise, hosts and guests were able to communicate about their farming experiences in Plattdeutsch, or Low German. This language, which was spoken on the countryside in northern Germany, had been used around the dinner table of the Americans by their German ancestors for many years. The discovery of this shared lingual bond was an indescribable joy to both the Germans and the Americans.

1983, Len Degen, Yogi Reppmann, and Virginia Degen – the tour group of 42 Holsteinites had been welcomed: the ladies with a red rose, and the men with a bottle of ‘Flensburg Beer.

Of course, on a trip like this, not everything goes a hundred percent smoothly. Visitor Sophie Bauer had her wallet stolen on the Reeperbahn in Hamburg’s famous red light district, and in Würzburg, the bus Reppmann and Eicke had leased cheaply in Kiel broke down. When the bus company in Würzburg advised the two young tour guides that a replacement would set them back 3500 Marks, the two students gulped, as they had nowhere near that kind of money. Sensing the boys’ distress, Virginia spoke with the other travelers. After learning of their guides’ plight, the Holsteiners passed the hat, and the trip continued without any ruffled feelings. It was all done very matter-of-factly, like going to the local farm implement store to buy a replacement part for a broken piece of farm machinery.

The German trip of those forty-four Holsteiners marked the beginning of a beautiful friendship that continues to this day. Virginia Degen’s home became the first stop for young German journalists and students visiting from Kiel, Flensburg, and Lübeck. They learned a lot more about life in the States than they ever would have in a hotel room. For decades, Schleswig-Holstein musicians, politicians, and even members of the German Parliament have made their way to the tiny town of Holstein and its one-woman welcome wagon, Virginia Degen. In turn, Virginia became a regular visitor to Schleswig-Holstein.

Thirty-one years after that remarkable centennial celebration, Virginia still enjoys greeting every German visitor from her senior residence. Self-taught, hard-working, and possessed of a remarkable vim and vigor, Virginia has achieved a good deal of worldly success without ever losing her humility, charm, and wit. Virginia Degen, once a “princess of the pigs,” had become a world citizen and a goodwill ambassador between two great nations.

PS: For the whole story of how the citizens of Holstein, Iowa, renewed their contacts with their ancestral homeland, please see Building a Bridge by Virginia Degen; Erhard Boettcher; Yogi Reppmann (book orders: )

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