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The name John Oblak

I grew up in the Collinwood area of Cleveland, Ohio, which is located at the most northeasterly corner of the city. Prior to about 1910, this area was a small village. On the morning of Ash Wednesday March 4th, 1908, there was a fire in Collinwood's Lake View Elementary School. The death toll was 172 children and two teachers. One of those children was a little boy named John Oblak. He would have been my uncle.

One reason so many perished was that the first-grade children were the first to get to the front door, and they tripped as they made a turn near the door. In the panic, they fell down over each other trying to get out. As other children followed behind, the children just piled up on one another, so that those at the door were crushed by the others behind them.

One mother came to the door and saw her child under the pile. She tried to pull her child out, but was unable to do so because of all the other children piled on top of her child.

Another reason for the high death toll was that the door at the rear of the building was locked. Most of the dead were at that door. As I recall reading, the janitor also lost one of his own children.

A new school, named Memorial Elementary, was built next to the old site. The area to the north, the location of the old school, was made into a memorial garden. The basement of the old school was filled with water to create a pond.

Left: Lakeview Cemetery, with the coffins of the unknown. Right: The new Memorial Elementary School. It has also been replaced. Memorial Garden is off the picture to the right.

At the time of the fire, the city of Collinwood was in the process of negotiating a merge with the city of Cleveland. One report stated that there may have been some reluctance on the part of the Cleveland Fire Department to assist in fighting the fire. Most of the dead were buried in Lake View Cemetery. If you are interested in learning more about the fire, there are a number of sources available. Search for "Collinwood Fire."

One fatality in that fire was a relative of mine, a little tyke named John Oblak. He was probably about eight years old at the time, and would have grown up to be my uncle. He was burned so badly that the only part of him that was recognizable was the portion of his tee-shirt that was under him. Little John came from a working class family, so he might have been wearing a shirt that had been repaired, or was recognizable for some other reason. I have this piece of cloth in my possession, carefully tucked away in the bottom of a dresser drawer.

Little John had an older sister, named Mary. She was born about the year 1897 to my grandfather, John Oblak (born in Austria in 1867), and his wife Barbara (maiden name of Bedekovic, born in Austria in 1871). After they lost their son in the fire, they chose to have another son in 1910. They named this son John. This John is my father. He carried on the name by naming me John in 1940.

In 1965 my wife and I had a son who we named John Thomas Oblak. Unfortunately, he had birth defects and died at a young age. We had another son in 1968 who we legally named John Daniel. He goes by the name of Dan. In all, we had five children. None of them named a child John, so the name John Oblak ends with Dan.

I began to wonder how far back the family name of John Oblak went, so I recently started to research my genealogy. Some families manage to maintain genealogical records, but the political climate during the 1940s and 1950s prohibited the discussion of my German heritage. In just two days of research, I came up with over eighty names of relatives, and these do not include my grandchildren. I can see why many people avoid the issue, as the task can be daunting.

Being part of a "blended" family, I am compiling records on all those who are related by either blood or marriage. I hope that I can persevere through this project. My strict, old-country approach to life has come under attack by some, but the fruits of those who live a more carefree life have not impressed me all that much. You may not like it, but I learned long ago that only tenacity wins the gold medal.

With the many resources available today, I hope to find links to the past. Naturally, any assistance you could provide would be appreciated. Thanks for taking this trip with me.

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