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Hard worK: Lessons learned at early age help Jennie Melka in life

October 6, 2011
By RENEE PRUSI - Journal Staff Writer ( , The Mining Journal

NEGAUNEE - As the oldest of seven children, Jennie Luca Melka learned about hard work at a young age.

It's something most young people today don't understand, she said.

"My brother and I were the oldest," Melka said. "My brother took care of the cows and the other animals. I was in charge of the house and the other kids. Every morning we had chores to do. One morning I would scrub the floors, the next I'd mix bread for my mom. That was our life. Work, work work.

Article Photos

Jennie Melka, now 96, has lived in the same house on Cambria Road in Negaunee since 1938. (Journal photo by Renee Prusi)

"The probem now is kids don't know how to do that," she said. "They expect things to be handed to them."

But the 96-year-old has empathy for the the younger generation as well.

"I know some kids have a hard life. They don't have the closeness I had with my parents," she said. "And I am very lucky. I have wonderful grandkids who do everything for me now. I am very thankful for them."

Born Aug. 9, 1915, Jennie was the oldest of seven children of Italian immigrants Frank and Rose Luca.

Rose emigrated to the U.S. in 1914 at age 18, coming to Negaunee through a first cousin, Dominic Barbutto.

"He was like an uncle to us growing up," Jennie said of Barbutto. "We always took him that way and always called him uncle."

Frank Luca was reluctant to tell his children about his past.

"He ran away from Italy during the war but didn't talk about it," Jennie said. "I never knew much about all that, how he came over or anything. He never talked about that. He never talked about Italy."

Frank and Rose married and had the seven children, Jennie, Dominic, Angela, Jimmy, Frank, Theresa and Margaret.

"We lived in the Powerhouse area when I was growing up, one of only three families there," Jennie said. "Then we moved to the Carr Street area. My dad was a miner and he worked 16 hours a day. He worked really hard."

The family maintained a farm, so that gave the youngsters many tasks to do.

"When I was older, I got a job outside our house. I made 50 cents a day and gave that to my dad," Jennie said.

Jennie attended St. Paul Catholic School in Negaunee through the eighth grade, then withdrew to help her family.

"Did we know about discipline? Oh my yes. From the time I can remember, we had work to do when we got home from school," she said. "Regardless of what else was going on, we had to do that work. We might have had some hardships, but I think we were happier then than families are today. The parents and kids back then were closer. We all stuck together.

"When (World War II) broke out, my brothers went into the service, but our family kept together," she said. "That was life."

When Jennie was 14, she got to know someone special: Leslie Melka.

"He was a playmate of my brother's," she said. "He was 15 and I was 14 when we met. We were friends for years, then when I was 21, we got married. That was that."

Did her father approve of her non-Italian beau?

"Goodness, my father didn't like him one bit until we got married," she said. "Then my father got very close with my husband. They got along wonderfully. My husband was that type of guy. He was very, very likable."

Frank Luca insisted the young marrieds stay with the family the first winter after they wed.

"He didn't want us in a little apartment in the dead of winter," she said. "We moved into the shell of this house in May 1938. We fixed it up little by little. I have lived here ever since."

Life on Cambria included the Melka's only child, son Leslie Jr.

"We were lucky to have him," Jennie said.

Jennie loves her Cambria Road home and has experienced some changes through the years.

"When we first moved in, you couldn't see the highway, which was just two lanes going through the woods back then," she said. "Then they put in the four-lane and cut down lots of trees. We can see the highway now."

She and Leslie Sr. were the young marrieds in a neighborhood of older residents when they first moved in.

"They treated us so nice. This was a wonderful neighborhood to move in to."

Son Leslie Jr. - just Junior to his mother - grew into quite an athlete.

"Junior was a basketball player all four years he was in high school," she said. "We would go to all the games and follow the team everywhere."

Her son passed away a few years ago as did one of her grandsons, Michael.

"I miss them both so very much," Jennie said. "But I am very grateful for my grandkids. They are wonderful to me."

Renee Prusi can be contacted at 906-228-2500, ext. 253.



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