From Cornfield to Library: Still an Amazing Place!


Source: Public Domain

When I was young my family left the sidewalks and streetlights of Detroit for the wide open spaces of Southfield. Our home was nestled in an idyllic neighborhood with gravel roads and at night dark skies filled with stars we could actually see.  A woods for exploration and building forts stood across the street and beyond that grew a cornfield where we played hide-and-seek.

The cornfield was part of the Thompson family farm since the 1870s. Mary Thompson and her brother James, both in their eighties, lived on the southern end of the nearly 200 acre farm where they had a garden and tended a flock of sheep. Their residence was a big, white, two-story wood frame farmhouse heated by a fireplace and stoves. A working windmill stood close by.

The cornfield was amazing! Nearly sixty years have passed and I can still remember running breathlessly through it from the middle of July until harvest time. Its towering green and golden stalks seemed to go on for miles. They reached above my head and I could feel the enormity of their size and number as I’d look up and see nothing but corn tassels and patches of blue sky.

Most memorable of all was the terror of getting lost in the maze of cornstalks and finding no way out. Wandering in circles losing all sense of time and place and sometimes (the scariest of all) coming FACE to FACE with Miss Thompson and her brother!

I thought Miss Thompson was stern and authoritarian like my first grade teacher. I later found out she was a teacher and a school administrator, and graduate of Columbia with a M.A. in Education and New York University with a Ph.D in Education.  I’ve read she said educating and bettering the community were her primary goals. In 1959, she and her brother sold 166 acres, at half their value, to the City of Southfield for a civic center.

soutfieldlibrarybookcrOn March 25, 2015, I will be returning to the “cornfield” to present an illustrated talk on my late husband Charles Novacek’s book, Border Crossings: Coming of Age in the Czech Resistance. Of course, the cornfield is long gone, but on its site is the amazing three-story, 127,000 square foot Southfield Public Library with 250,000 volumes, 190 public computers, a career and business center, a glass tower and public art throughout.

Close by the original Thompson farmhouse still stands surrounded by 20 acres of land, a garden and the windmill.

At the age of 96, on October 21, 1967, Mary Thompson died in the fields tending her sheep. She willed her house and the 20 acres to the City of Southfield. At the time of her death, the following tribute was paid to her by the Southfield City Council: “Her agile mind and keen perception might well have earned her accolades in other fields, yet her duty to family and love for the simple life led her back to the land.”

I’m  looking forward to returning to this magical and amazing place!

On March 25, 2015 at 6:30 p.m., Sandra Novacek will be speaking at the Southfield Public Library in Southfield, MI about her late husband Charles Novacek’s memoir, a first person account of his life spent in the Czech Resistance during World War II and the Cold War. Mr. Novacek’s idyllic and “amazing” childhood in Czechoslovakia was interrupted by the occupation of his homeland  by the Nazis in March 1939. Many years later (after World War II) he escaped the Communist occupation of Czechoslovakia,  emigrated to the United States and  became a proud United States citizen and resident of the City of Southfield with his family.  

If you want your child to be a reader, be one yourself.


Brad, a reading role model and busy Dad, takes time to read Border Crossings: Coming of Age in the Czech Resistance with his daughter Alexa Faye close by.

Detroit Collaboration: Pages Bookshop, Always Brewing Detroit + Ten21 Press

pagesbookshoplogoalwaysbrewingdetroit400ten21presssnip                                                                        A Heartfelt + Thrilling Story Amidst Great Food and Drink with Friends

Pages Bookshop and Always Brewing Detroit are joining together to bring the second Taste Makers event to Detroit on Tuesday, February 24, 2015 from 6:30 – 8:00 p.m. The events combine literature, authors, great food and drink with friends.

9780985415105-JacketGray_novacek.inddFor this event, Chef Tim Schulte will bring fabulous hot appetizers and Sandra Novacek will present the story of her late husband Charles Novacek’s award-winning book, Border Crossings: Coming of Age in the Czech Resistance, Detroit: Ten21 Press.

Published in Detroit and endorsed by Madeleine Albright, this firsthand account describes the impact of World War II and the Cold War on a Czechoslovakian boy (Charles) who participated in the Czech Resistance against the Nazis and the Communists, from age 11 to 20 during World War II and the Cold War. After escaping his homeland, Charles fled to Germany, then Venezuela and finally immigrated to the United States and Detroit.

Sandra will read excerpts from the memoir, share vintage photos and art work and tell of the dangers her husband faced in a time of turmoil. She’ll explain how art played an important role in the resistance and Charles’s life during wartime and how his dream of becoming an artist was shattered when Hitler closed Czechoslovakia’s art schools and how he realized that dream while living in Detroit.

Sandra continued with this story after Charles’ death in 2007 by publishing and promoting the book to make sure the story was told. Border Crossings has won 14 awards including the Midwest Independent Publishers Association Midwest Book Award “Gold Medal” for memoir.

Please join us and get your ticket through Pages Bookshop for this event today. The ticket combines both and includes a beverage of your choice. Buy before the event and save! You can also pre-order the book through Pages Bookshop to make sure you get a signed copy.

 February 24, 2015, 6:30-8 p.m., Pages Bookshop @ Always Brewing Detroit               19180 Grand River Ave., Detroit, MI 48223, 313.473.7342 

For Love of Country, a Valentine, and a Stained Glass Window


Source: Lee Forman,

Today is Friday, the thirteenth of February, the day before Valentine’s Day. I should probably be writing about romantic love. But, I won’t.

Instead, I’ll write about a stunning symbol of peace and the love of country and American Regionalist painter Grant Wood (1891-1942) whose birthday is today. Wood was born near Anamosa, Iowa and moved with his family to Cedar Rapids, Iowa when he was ten. 

Last September I visited Cedar Rapids. I was presenting an illustrated talk about my love and late husband Charles Novacek’s book, Border Crossings: Coming of Age in the Czech Resistance at the extraordinary National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library.

I had limited free time and decided to use it to view Grant Wood art.  The world’s largest collection of works by Wood is at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art. Too overwhelming, I thought! I decided to save viewing that for my next trip especially since Wood’s legendary painting American Gothic (the iconic portrait of a farmer and his daughter) is not even there. It’s in Chicago’s Art Institute!

What I did visit was the Veterans Memorial Building on May’s Island just west of the Cedar Rapids business district.  The lovely Beaux Arts style building houses a stunning stained glass memorial window – the only stained glass window designed by Grant Wood in 1927, one year before Charles was born during a time of peace.   The glass was stained in Munich, Germany, and brought back in about 10,000 pieces to be fitted together with lead and installed in 1928 as a memorial to veterans of all wars.

The window stands 24 feet high and 20 feet wide and consists of about 10,000 pieces of stained glass fitted together with lead.  According to a 1928 article from the Cedar Rapids Gazette, “Nan Wood Graham, sister of the artist, modeled for the heroic central figure of the work – a 16 foot woman wearing a Grecian robe and a blue mourning veil draped over her head.  She gives the spiritual effect of a Renaissance painting as she floats in the clouds. In her right hand she the palm branch of peace and in her left the laurel wreath of victory.”

The woman looks down upon six male life-size soldiers, outfitted in the uniform a Private would have worn from the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Mexican War, Civil War, Spanish American War and World War I. Insignias of the Navy, Army, and U. S. Marines border the window.

Grants Wood’s impressive window is a shining reminder of the extraordinary courage, dedication and sacrifice made by so many for the love of their country.

Late Christmas Amaryllis Dazzle for Valentine’s Day

amaryllis02.12.15It’s nearly Valentine’s Day and my Christmas amaryllis have just started to bloom!

Anyone who knew my late husband Charles knew how much he loved colorful fresh flowers.

For our eleven years together Charles and I had a garden of dazzling red amaryllis atop our dining room table instead of a Christmas tree.

I’ve tried to keep the amaryllis tradition alive since Charles died, but for Christmas blooms the bulbs must be planted by November 1st. This year I was distracted and missed the deadline by four weeks.

So I was a little late. Who cares? I purchased Valentine’s Day red roses for my dining room table for Christmas instead.

And for Valentine’s Day I have a little comfort and joy!

Border Crossings: Above the Fold

gpnewsletterme400Last winter on Valentine’s Day 2014, I was overjoyed when a story on Border Crossings: Coming of Age in the Czech Resistance (my late husband Charles Novacek’s posthumously-published memoir) appeared on the front page of the Detroit Free Press above the fold, “Ultimate valentine: Book of husband’s war-era stories became a project of love.

“Above the fold” has traditionally been used to describe the placement of content on a newspaper’s front page. The paper’s headline and lead stories are placed on the part of the front page that is most prominent when the paper is folded and displayed on stands.

The items “above the fold” are also those editors think are important and might invite readers to buy and/or read the newspaper.

This year I’m delighted to be featured on the back page “above the fold” in the winter 2015 issue of Library Pointes: the tri-annual newsletter of the Grosse Pointe Public Library, Know Your Librarians! Sandy Novacek.” Here I list five things readers might not know about me (with mention of Border Crossings) and my “Most Embarrassing Library Moment!”

Front page, back page “above the fold.” Does it really matter? It’s just great to be noticed!

Tales of the South Pacific with Love in Detroit

Tales_of_the_South_Pacific_Michener400Detroit, MI— It’s the month of love and the day February 3rd is the birthday of American novelist and short-story writer James Michener (1907-1997), a favorite of my late husband Charles. Michener’s novels were detailed and researched extensively. He was known for making foreign lands accessible to Americans through his epic “fictional documentaries.”

One of Michener’s most famous stories was inspired by his stint in the U.S. Navy during World War II when he served as a naval historian in the South Pacific. His fiction collection Tales of the South Pacific (1947) took place there and Michener won a Pulitzer Prize in 1948 for it. The Tales presented that part of the world as exotic and foreign and dealt with the issue of racism.

The collection was later adapted for the Rodgers and Hammerstein romantic Broadway musical South Pacific in 1949, a 1958 film adaptation and numerous revivals. It is considered to be one of the greatest musicals of the 20th century and is one of my personal favorites. My introduction to South Pacific was through my high school in suburban Detroit, Michigan where I saw the musical directed and performed quite professionally by teachers and students.

southpacificalbumcoverThe musical opens on a South Pacific island during World War II, where Ensign Nellie Forbush, a naïve young Navy nurse from Arkansas becomes romantically involved with Emile de Becque, a French plantation owner. Nellie sings to Emile telling him she is “A Cockeyed Optimist.” And Emile later sings “Some Enchanted Evening” to Nellie tenderly  recalling their first meeting. Nellie struggles with her relationship with Emile – conflicted because of their different backgrounds and whether she should allow herself to fall in love with him.

The story of Nellie and Emile resonated with me when I met my husband Charles. He had a wonderful baritone voice and would often sing “Some Enchanted Evening” from the musical South Pacific to me. I loved that. “And somehow you know / You know even then / That somehow you’ll see her / Again and again.”

But like Nellie I was conflicted about our relationship. Charles was nearly 20 years older than me, we were “born on the opposite sides of the sea. . .” and we had only known each other a “few short weeks and yet. . .” That’s how I was feeling about Charles.

I reconsidered our relationship and thought of breaking it off, but soon realized I was in love with Charles and “ran to his side.” We had both discovered a need for each other in that stage of our lives and had the courage and sense of adventure to give it a try!

Happy Birthday, James Michener and thanks to Rodgers and Hammerstein! I will never dream all alone. With Love in Detroit, Sandy

Happy Birthday, Dear Maria!

It’s the birthday of my late husband Charles Novacek’s mother Maria Patko Nováčeková. She was born on January 8, 1902, in the village of Ožd’any in Austria-Hungary, the present day Slovakia near the Hungarian border. As Charles stated in his memoir, Border Crossings: Coming of Age in the Czech Resistance “Mother’s native language was Hungarian and I learned to speak it proficiently from her.” She read Hungarian stories and poetry to her son.

Charles dearly loved “Maminka.” He said she had a beautiful voice and a pretty face — he wanted to paint it. She wasn’t a big talker, but had a quiet manner about her and was very polite.

Regretfully, I never met Maria Nováčeková, but from Charles and through photographs I’ve seen of her I could tell she was graceful and well-groomed. Even though she was from humble roots, Maria had attractive clothing and a simple elegance that made her seem aristocratic, but not pretentious.

Charles said his mother loved the arts and music and instilled that love in her children.  In Border Crossings, he describes an event his parents attended at a nearby spa when his nanny had walked him over to hear his mother sing.

kupel-brusno-historia-1cr“It was on the first floor, elevated only about six or seven steps above the sidewalk. A large double door was closed, so I peeked in, opening it just a couple of inches, and I saw my mother standing on the podium, singing with the musicians. She looked beautiful, and was dressed in a long lace gown trimmed with white, undulating fur at the bottom; the melody she sang was the zwischenspiel “Von Der Golden Pavilion” by Hans Henrik Wehding. Father, wearing his full parade uniform, stood at the window watching her. When she finished, the music continued and Father went to her to ask her to dance. The parade sword flashed at his side as they danced together. I remember crying, though I wasn’t sure why, and I watched the entire scene until my nanny pulled me away to go home.”

Charles enjoyed traveling with his mother to visit her friends in Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Poland. They traveled by train, or in a one-horse buggy if the distances were short. “Mother took me with her to Rimavská Sobota, our district town; to Ožd’any, where I was born; and to Filakovo and Lučenec.” And Charles told me she especially liked taking her son “Karci” (Hungarian for Charles) to Banska Bystrica to a café that served ice cream pie.

Charles said his mother was the backbone of the Novacek family. She was brave and was rarely frightened or helpless. An excellent homemaker, wife and a loving, strict mother. She even taught him how to cook, clean and do needlepoint! I was lucky enough to benefit from Charles’ Hungarian/Slovak cooking talents.

Charles’ mother passed away on December 13, 1968. He wrote, “Her passing drove a deep hole into my heart, as if by a spear. I could not speak of it much then, and I still cannot do so.”

How grateful I am that Charles had such a loving mother who was so devoted to her son. Today I celebrate what would have been Maria Nováčeková’s 113th birthday!

Happy Birthday, Dear Maria!

Wishing for Happiness, Peace + Joy Around the World + in Detroit

 gingko2cr                   “I believe we create a more positive future through wishing.”                                                                                                                           —Yoko Ono 

It’s the start of the new year – 2015 and I’m making my list of wishes. There are many. Each year at least one comes true. And then there’s world peace. It’s always number one and that never seems to change. But that’s no reason to give up on it. Some things take time. So it goes back on top.

Another wish on my list has been lifelong – my wish for happiness, peace, and joy in Detroit.  I was born in Detroit and share its birth date of July 24. I moved back to Detroit when I married my late husband Charles Novacek and have made the city my permanent residence for nearly 20 years. The city has experienced some pretty rough spells. But that’s no reason to give up on it. The city’s on the mend.. Some things take time.

wishtreedetroitplaquecrOn April 29, 2000, Charles and I experienced an extraordinary “wish” occasion I will always remember. It was with 300 Detroit residents and Yoko Ono – multimedia artist, singer, peace activist and widow of John Lennon. Yoko was carrying on the work of her late husband. She appeared at Detroit’s Times Square Robert Hurst Park to dedicate “A Wish Tree for Detroit.” The gingko tree and granite stone “living sculpture” with a bronze plaque invited visitors to “whisper your wish to the bark of the tree.” Yoko spoke to the gathering and declared “I believe we create a more positive future through wishing.” She stated that she hoped the new art work would bring “happiness, peace and joy” to all who stopped by to see it. She was a gentle inspiration.

Yoko had made “wish” installations in other places around the world. For Detroit, she chose the gingko tree, considered a symbol of longevity, hope, resilience and peace for its beautiful fall color saying, “Yellow is the color of light.”

The tree’s delicate fan-shaped leaves have been prized for their beauty and copied by artists. Interestingly, there are many gingko trees in my Midtown Detroit Cass Corridor neighborhood. I have been collecting their leaves for years and pressing them and keeping them for good luck. Some are pictured above.

gingkobranchespragueWhen Charles and I visited Prague, Czech Republic we noticed the gingko leaf was a common motif used on its Art Nouveau buildings – decoration of the organic, of nature. Two of the best examples were the façades of Hotel Central and of Prague’s main train station.  Prague’s train station façade is now obscured by a freeway and Detroit’s wish tree goes unnoticed. In 2007 the Robert Hurst Park was razed to accommodate the new Rosa Parks Transit Center. The wish tree was removed temporarily and thankfully, replanted at the north end of the terminal. Yoko’s plaque is mounted on the nearby granite boulder.

Take time in 2015 to create a more positive future for the world. Visit the Rosa Parks Transit Center in Detroit and “Whisper your wish to the bark of the tree.”  Each year at least one comes true!

A Carol for Peace in the World + A Piece of Land in Detroit


Yet with the woes of sin and strife
    The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
    Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
    The love song which they bring; –
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
    And hear the angels sing!”

–Edmund Hamilton Sears, excerpt from “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear”

Those who know me know my passion for storytelling and linking of “noteworthy” historic pieces of information, events, people, etc. together.  So now that Christmastime is here – I’ve been thinking, “How can I possibly link Christmas and my late husband Charles Novacek’s book, BORDER CROSSINGS: Coming of Age in the Czech Resistance?

Well, there’s the obvious – Czech and Slovak Christmas customs, Novacek family and wartime events at Christmas, buying books as holiday gifts, etc.  But lesser known are the links to the Detroit couple composer Richard Storrs Willis (1819-1900) and his wife Alexandrine Macomb Sheldon Campau Willis (1829-1910).

Who were these people and what is their link to Christmas and Charles’ book?

While Charles was writing BORDER CROSSINGS I started to do research on our residence, a condominium in a nearly 100 year old structure in Detroit’s Cass Corridor aka Midtown. I was part of a group creating an architectural walking tour of the condo’s neighborhood for Detroit’s 300th birthday in 2001. I also needed information to write a history for our building’s centennial in 2005. I wanted to find names and information on previous owners and residents of the property, especially ones that might have been famous.

I browsed through city directories at the Burton Historical Collection at the Detroit Public Library and researched and copied property records at the Wayne County Register of Deeds Office in Greektown. From these sources I transcribed names of owners and residents and then researched most persons named. Information on the Internet was not as readily available as it is now.

Perhaps, the most famous person/link I located was Richard Storrs Willis and his second wife Alexandrine. Interestingly, his last name (Willis) and her first name (Alexandrine) are the names of the cross streets that border the block where our condo is located. So I figured the couple must have been “important.”

Further investigation revealed Mr. Willis was from an influential Boston family and became an important composer and publisher of hymns (both sacred and secular) in nineteenth century America. Perhaps his most famous hymn was the composition in 1850 of the tune “Carol” which is the melody for the popular Christmas carol “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” with powerful lyrics written in 1849 by  Edmund Hamilton Sears.

Throughout its history the carol has been controversial for its focus more on the universal human hope for peace than the birth of Christ in  Bethlehem. Sears’ message was written with concern of revolution in Europe, the United States-Mexican War, and slavery. During World War I American soldiers sang “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” in the trenches of France during the holiday season.

The song went to war and home with a generation who made it a part of their holiday traditions. Years later U.S. troops took the song back to the front lines of World War II and entertainers such as Bing Crosby sang the carol in Europe at U.S. O. shows. The haunting music and words of “peace on earth” voiced the hopes of homesick soldiers. “Man at war with man hears not the love song which they bring. Oh, hush the noise, ye men of strife, and hear the angels sing.”

The angel’s voices continue to be ignored. . . this carol’s words raise the ever-contemporary issue of war and peace and perennial hope and call for peace on earth. . . a message that motivated Charles to write Border Crossings: Coming of Age in the Czech Resistance.

I am also amazed to find out that Willis composed music for “Gaudeamus Igitur,” the beloved Latin student drinking song.  Mainly sung at graduation ceremonies “Gaudeamus” is a light-hearted composition with lyrics written in the tradition of carpe diem with urgings to enjoy life.

Charles mentions “Gaudeamus” in Border Crossings.  “Vlasta, three years older than I, attended the school in Rimavská Sobota, the district city. She studied Latin and French in school, and these fascinated me when she practiced them at home. She did not like my interference when I tried to repeat expressions after her, but she couldn’t keep this song from me: 

Gaudeamus igitur

Juvenes dum sumus.

Post jucundam juventutem,

Post molestam senectutem,

Nos habebit humus. 

[Let us rejoice therefore

While we are young.

After a pleasant youth,

After a troubling old age,

The earth will have us.] 

I could sing it better than she after I dug up the words from her papers when she wasn’t home.”

Additional information on Richard Storrs Willis. . . He studied at Yale University and was president of the schools’ Beethoven Society. After graduating in 1841, he spent the next six years in Germany, studying theory in Frankfurt and Leipzig where he became a member of Felix Mendelssohn’s circle. Returning to America, he supported himself as a music critic and wrote and edited publications including the periodical Musical World from the 1850s into the 1860s. When the Civil War began, Willis moved to Detroit, where he remained for the rest of his life.

Willis, a widower married the widow, Alexandrine Macomb Sheldon Campau, of Detroit in 1861. She had inherited many properties from her late husband John Barnabas Campau, including part of Belle Isle, Detroit’s island park. Alexandrine and Richard also owned the land on which Charles and my residence was built in 1904/1905. While doing my research I located a deed, dated October 1. 1864 from the Willis’s sale of the land which is located in what is now known as the Willis-Selden Historic District.

There are many other historic pieces of information about the Willis’s, but that’s for another blog. . . I will mention, however, that Mr. Willis was on the Detroit Public Library Commission in the 1880s and 1890s and even served as its president!