15 Minutes: German immigrant finds way to Tahoe
August 12, 2005
Rolf Bonsack, 68, retired to Tahoe two years ago and is active in AARP, South Lake Tahoe Senior Center and recently became stage manager for Ageless Entertainers, who have a production coming up Saturday. Originally from Germany, he arrived in America in 1954. He was a baker for 25 years, and has owned Speed Queen Laundry Sales and Service for the last 25 years.
Q: Tell me about coming to America. Do you think immigration was different back then?
A: It’s completely different now. I was born and raised in Germany, but I always wanted to come to America. I was 17 when my visa finally came through.
In those days, you had to have a green card. And every Jan. 30, you had to go in and report. My uncle was my sponsor and they’d call him to make sure I had a job. You couldn’t be the burden of the United States, you had to make sure you had your own health and welfare. You had to take care of yourself.
Q: Why did you want to come here?
A: I just wanted to see something different. I was a mining engineer at an iron ore mine in Germany, and there was only a black market there at that time. I could not take it any more.
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Q: What was it like leaving your whole family behind in Germany?
A: My father died fighting in the war and I was adopted by my grandmother. My mother remarried and had three more children. My wife’s father and my grandfather were on the same battlefield in France in 1917. It’s so ironic.
I just went back after 50 years, to make closure with my mom and two sisters and my brother. It was interesting. I hadn’t been back for 50 years, and the language just came back, it all came back.
Q: How did you become a baker?
A: I was washing dishes and the foreman came up and said “How would you like to be a baker?” At that time it was very hard to get into the unions. So he said, “You work for me for four and a half years, and I guarantee you get into the union.”
Q: How much did you make at that point?
A: $50 bucks a week and all I could eat.
Q: What did you bake?
A: I worked for a big company in San Francisco called Stemples Donuts. They made 10,000 dozen a night. When they moved to San Jose, I moved with them. We shipped donuts by plane to soldiers in Vietnam. The government bought them by the pounds.
Q: How did you get into the laundromat business?
A: I was a baker for 25 years, and I figured I was 40 years old and I’m not going to get much younger. One day my wife said, we’ve got five kids, we need more money. In that day $80 a week was not much. So she looked around and found one laundromat. We operated it for a year and a half and another guy came up to me and said, “You wanna buy my laundromat, too?” In five years’ time, we had five stores and operated them for 25 years.
Q: Who do you serve with your business?
A: Hotel, motels and laundromats.
Q: When did you meet your wife?
A: On a Valentine’s Day in San Francisco. We both lost our hearts in San Francisco on the same day. That year was a little tough: I got married, bought a house and had a child all in one year.
We had five kids in all. It was interesting when the twins came along – my other daughter thought she had a pair of dolls. They were buddy buddies.
Q: What attracted you to Tahoe?
A: We used to come here to ski some years ago and we’d stay at a cabin just around the corner from here. We came up three years ago to stay at the cabin and saw this house for sale. And my wife said, “That’s it.”
Q: Is this a good place to retire?
A: I think so. The economy has become higher now. But we made up our mind to be here. We participate in the South Tahoe Senior Center, and we work elections for the election board.
Q: You said you are the stage manager for Ageless Entertainers?
A: Yeah, it’s run by the Senior Center. They have about 20 acts coming up at the Horizon. They needed someone to pull the curtains, check the microphones and make sure the people get on the stage. I had no experience, but it’s a lot of fun. I enjoy it.
Q: Do you have a philosophy in life?
A: Just take it one day at a time. That’s all you can do.
The “Ageless Entertainers Variety Show – Cruising Around the World” will be performed at the Horizon Cabaret Show Room on Saturday at 1 p.m. Call (530) 542-6094 for tickets.