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Family Honor

Learning to Love Luxembourgers



By Ted Kleine

Earlier this fall an invitation to a dinner for the crown prince of Luxembourg appeared in the mailbox of Michael Leider, a retired greenhouse owner who lives in Northbrook. Leider is the son of Luxembourgian immigrants and an old friend of his ancestral country's royal family. When Grand Duke Jean, the current monarch, came to Chicago on a war relief tour in 1941, Leider spent ten days driving him around the midwest.

"I was traveling with him the first time he saw the northern lights," remembered Leider. "It was in Minnesota. I kept in touch with him until recently. I saw him subsequently every time he visited Chicago."

But at 83, Leider felt too frail to make the trip downtown to see Prince Henri--the son and heir of Grand Duke Jean--speak at the Chicago Hilton and Towers. Although Chicago has more Luxembourgers than any city outside the grand duchy itself, no royal had visited since 1987, when the prince flew in for the centennial of the Luxembourg Brotherhood, a fraternal organization. A Leider had to be at that dinner.

So Michael Leider passed on the invitation to his 37-year-old grandson, Mike, whom he's been grooming since boyhood to do two things: grow flowers and preserve the Leider family's obscure heritage. Mike started working at the greenhouse when he was 12, and he started hearing about Luxembourg when he was barely out of the cradle.

"My whole life has been Luxembourg, ever since I was a child," said Mike. "My grandfather was very into the Luxembourg thing. I was his Luxembourger. He still calls me that. To my grandfather it was the thing. He was so proud of being from Luxembourg. He told my father, 'Make sure Michael gets this invitation. I want somebody to go.'"

When Mike Leider got the invitation, he decided he didn't just want to shake the prince's hand--he wanted to give him a photograph that shows the friendship between the Leiders and the royal family. It's a picture of Grand Duchess Charlotte, who reigned over the country during World War II, holding Mike's father, Jim. It was taken during the relief tour, when Jim was still an infant. The Leiders are so proud of this photograph that it hung in the offices of their greenhouse in Buffalo Grove during the greenhouse's 100th-anniversary open house last month.

"I'd like to present the prince a picture of his grandmother with my father," said Mike. "I want to give him a copy of this thing and say, 'We're proud to be Luxembourgers, and we're glad you're in Chicago.'"

Until a few years ago Mike's knowledge of Luxembourg didn't go much beyond his grandfather's stories. He'd passed through the country once in his early 20s while spending a year in the Netherlands learning the flower business, but he didn't go exploring or look up his roots.

When he was 31, Mike was diagnosed with leukemia. A bone-marrow transplant from his sister Mary saved his life. After he recovered he told her, "I'll take you anywhere in the world you want to go." Of course Mary wanted to go to Luxembourg. The siblings went to Toddler, the village Mike's great-grandfather emigrated from over a hundred years ago. When they visited his old house, they found it was still occupied by Leiders.

"I stood there where my great-grandfather came from, and I could just imagine what he had to go through to get to Chicago and survive," Mike said. "It made me more grateful for my forebears, who made me who I was."

One of Mike's relatives in Luxembourg is married to a man who's a chauffeur for the royals. Mike tried to get ahold of the family to arrange a meeting with the prince when he came to Chicago. Getting no response, Mike decided he'd approach Prince Henri on his own. He'd have two chances: a reception for the Luxembourg diaspora and the dinner the next night in Skokie.


Luxembourg is a tiny country, about the same size as Cook County, set like a puzzle piece between Germany, France, and Belgium. It's shaped like a low-cut hiking boot set on its heel. Luxembourgians speak Letzeburgisch, a dialect of German, as well as German and French. Only about 400,000 people live there, and until recently it wasn't taken very seriously by the international community. Germany used it three times as an invasion route to France. In the 1950s President Eisenhower appointed Perle Mesta, a famous Washington hostess, ambassador to the country. A decade later Luxembourg was the inspiration for the Duchy of Grand Fenwick, the minuscule nation that acquires an atomic bomb in the movie The Mouse That Roared. Another Luxembourgian claim to fame is that General George S. Patton is buried there, in the military cemetery established after the Battle of the Bulge, which was fought mainly in Luxembourg. But more recently Luxembourg has been active in the European Union, and its banks now rival Switzerland's.

Luxembourgers began arriving in Chicago in the 1880s, settling mostly in Rogers Park, Niles, and Skokie because there was still good farmland in the area. An agrarian people, many of them started greenhouses and truck farms. Mike Leider's great-grandfather, Michael Leider Sr., came over in 1893, at the age of 18.

"He was the second son," Mike said. "The first son got everything. My great-grandfather got a hundred dollars, and at the time the economy was poor, so he emigrated to the United States."

The senior Leider was married in Saint Henry's Church at Ridge and Devon, which was the Luxembourgers' parish. It's now the Misericordia Home. (Legend has it that the grandmother of tennis player Chris Evert Lloyd, the greatest Luxembourgian-American athlete of all time, was a member of the congregation.) Like many of his countrymen, he opened a greenhouse, in Evanston. Even today, the Luxembourg News of America, published in Skokie, is full of ads for florists and growers. The Leiders moved their greenhouse to Buffalo Grove in 1965 after the city of Evanston took over their original site to build a school. Their ten-acre nursery is now the biggest in the Chicago area and supplies flowers to grocery stores and potted plants for office lobbies and doctors' waiting rooms.

The Luxembourgers were too small and innocuous an ethnic group to have their own alderman, or even their own slur--"those Luxies" was about as harsh as anyone got--but they did have their own harvest festival, the Schobermesse, which was held each fall in Rogers Park until the 1960s, and their own restaurant, the Luxembourg Gardens in Morton Grove. (It's now an Italian restaurant.) At its height in the 1930s and '40s the Luxembourg Brotherhood had 25 chapters in places as far away as Portland, Oregon, and New York City. Now there are four: in Rogers Park, Wilmette, Morton Grove, and Skokie. Intermarriage has dissipated the group, and unlike the Irish, who have Saint Patrick's Day, and the Germans, who've got Oktoberfest, the Luxembourgers have no heavily publicized celebration to rally ethnic pride. Although there are an estimated 200,000 people in the Chicago area with some Luxembourgian ancestry, only 220 belong to the brotherhood.

"You've got a very small country and you don't have any immigration from Luxembourg," Mike said. "The only thing that's going to keep it going is people like me."


On Sunday evening I got to the Doubletree Hotel North Shore in Skokie about half an hour before the prince was to arrive and rode up to the top floor in an elevator full of middle-aged and elderly Luxembourgers dressed in their Sunday best.

"I'm surprised they're allowing all these Luxembourgers in the hotel," a priest in front of me joked quietly.

In the lobby outside the ballroom was a picture of the prince and his family sitting in a vineyard in front of several tubs of grapes. A woman in a yellow dress was studying it. "He reminds me of someone," she said. "Who was that movie star who played in The Thorn Birds? Richard Chamberlain! But better looking!"

Inside the ballroom, a harpsichordist played Luxembourgian folk tunes. The prince's American subjects grazed at the fondue pot and lined up for the cash bar. I looked around the room for Mike. He wasn't there, and his name wasn't on any of the tags laid out on the registration table.

Just after seven o'clock, officials from the Luxembourgian consulate began clearing a path to the podium at the back of the room. His Royal Highness Crown Prince Henri was about to make his entrance. Everyone stared at the carved double doors, then rose to their feet as a slight man in a wrinkled charcoal suit strode across the carpet. He looked squinty-eyed and windburned, as though he had come straight from the ski slopes of Gstaad. After singing along with the national anthem, "Ons Heemecht" ("We Wish to Remain as We Are"), and receiving a copy of Michael Jordan's new book, For the Love of the Game, from the staff of the consulate, the heir to the throne of Luxembourg stood at the microphone and addressed the room in a soft, almost diffident voice that could have belonged to a continental banker.

"It's each time a great pleasure for me to be back in Chicago and meet with the Luxembourg community," the prince said. "It's always with great warmth that you receive the Luxembourg people."

The prince had expressed a desire to mingle, but before he had a chance to work the room it started working him. Every time he turned around, there was another Luxembourger waiting to shake his hand. For the next hour and a half he remained pinned at the head of a long receiving line, a living shrine that people wanted to touch and tell a story to about grandfather Jules, who'd emigrated to Chicago with nothing to his name but his common sense and a few gardening tools.

Dick Witry, a lawyer from Skokie and a former honorary consul of Luxembourg, was one of the first to meet Prince Henri. Witry is almost the same age as the 43-year-old prince, and he's met him on other state visits, so they spent nearly five minutes together.

"I just traded frivolity with him," Witry said. "We talked about a few events we both remembered. Two of his kids just went off to college, so we talked about the empty nest syndrome."

Jon Heinz, a housepainter who is president of a chapter of the Luxembourg Brotherhood, had an injured foot and didn't feel like joining the mob around the prince, so he sat and observed him.

"He has that Clint Eastwood look," Heinz said.

Heinz has never met Prince Henri, but he does have a personal connection: the prince's sister was his cousin's nurse while his cousin was recuperating from a motorcycle accident. Luxembourg can't afford a full-time royal family, so everyone outside the line of succession has a day job.

Jonathan Buck, whose card describes him as an amateur genealogist from LaGrange, had recently traced his roots back to 16th-century Luxembourg and had visited the country for the first time in May. He stood in the receiving line with his mother, Rose.

"When I went to Luxembourg, I couldn't believe the neatness of the gardens," Buck said. "You never saw a weed in the gardens."

"A Luxembourger can grow anything," said Rose, whose grandfather emigrated from Luxembourg and settled on a farm in downstate Mendota. "They can make a potato look like a rose."

When the Bucks reached the head of the line, they shook the royal personage's hand, and Jonathan remarked that he had been treated with great hospitality when he visited Luxembourg. The prince responded that he was treated the same way whenever he came to America. Rose talked about her grand-father's garden back in Mendota, a Luxembourger's garden on the Illinois prairie. The prince listened politely, holding his water glass between his fingertips. Then he posed for a picture with the Bucks, standing with his hands clasped behind his back, just like England's Prince Philip, the model of the manly, upright European royal.

"Would you like to meet Prince Henri?" an official from the consulate asked me, probably since I was the only reporter in the room. Prince Henri is not stalked like his peers in Britain and Monaco.

I did want to meet him, if only to tell him about Mike Leider and his family heirloom. I was escorted to the front of the line. I decided to start with an innocuous question.

"Your highness," I said, because this was probably the only chance I'd ever have to use those words. "Do you come to Chicago every time you visit America?"

"Not every time," he said, with the exact primness of a man whose English is not quite fluent. "Chicago is very important to Luxembourg, not only for all the Luxembourgers who came here but for what they did during the war, with my grandmother," referring to the relief tour.

Then I told him about the picture. "I talked to a man earlier this week who wanted to give you a picture of your grandmother holding his father..."

I was midway through the story when Prince Henri suddenly seemed to turn to wax, as rigid and blank-eyed as an exhibit at Madame Tussaud's. But a wax figure, I realized, was what most of his subjects regarded him as. He didn't seem like a particularly distinguished man. When he'd entered the room, he hadn't commanded it like some politicians do. He had fine, gracious manners, and that was all his duties here required. Nobody expected him to say anything clever or extraordinary. People wanted to tell him stories, about their ancestors, about their trips to Luxembourg. His job was to listen, like a counselor. But I could see that it sometimes bored him. I felt embarrassed. Here I was, a man without a drop of Luxembourgian blood, telling him about his grandmother, a woman I'd never even heard of until two weeks before. I shook his hand and withdrew.

"I think he was tired," Dick Witry explained to me later. "He was also suffering from jet lag." The grind of shaking hands wore him down, he said. "How much small talk can you take? You have to appear to be interested in the person with whom you're speaking. I'm sure it's the same with Prince Charles. I've had beers with Prince Henri at the airport, and he's much less formal. He's a very easygoing guy."

Mike never got to meet the prince. The banquet was the following night, and he couldn't find a baby-sitter to look after his kids. It was the same reason he'd missed the reception. He called me Monday afternoon and left a message on my voice mail.

"Unfortunately, we're not going to be able to get down to the banquet tonight," he said. "Please extend my apologies to the prince, and tell him I will forward the picture to him, because I do want him to see it. Tell him I'm really sorry I didn't get to see him. I hope I'll see him next time he's in Chicago, or next time I'm in Luxembourg." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Mike, Jim, and Michael Leider photo by Dan Machnik; Grand Duchess Charlotte with Jim Leider, 1941; Crown Prince Henri and theLuxembourgian ambassador, middle, with consulate staff uncredited photo.

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