The bestselling American author Michael Crichton once said that “if you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything; you are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.” Leon Birmann not only knew that he was part of a tree, but he knew every leaf, branch, and piece of bark on that tree. A loving husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and friend, Leon was always eager to share a tidbit of knowledge with others, be it useful or otherwise. Ask any of his loved ones and they will attest: Leon seemed to know a little bit about everything.
Perhaps it is appropriate that Leon had a lifelong interest in history, as he began his life in one of the most tumultuous and notable eras in history. Leon Martin Birmann was born in Wiltz, Luxembourg on December 8th, 1937 to parents Michael and Irma (Fassbinder) Birmann, and older brother Rene. Though a joyous time for his family, he came into this world just as much of the world around them was being torn apart. The official start of the Second World War was still two years away, but the whole of western Europe was in turmoil as the Nazi regime continued to gain power.
Leon was just two-and-a-half when the Germans invaded Luxembourg in May of 1940. During the occupation, the Nazi soldiers took over the town of Wiltz and even the Birmann house. Most of Luxembourg was liberated in the fall of 1944, when the Allied troops pushed through just prior to the Battle of the Bulge. As a young boy, Leon particularly remembered the generosity of the American soldiers as they secured Wiltz—the candy and excess food they handed out was a much-needed treat.
After years of occupation, rebuilding, and the inherent poverty that coincides with both, Michael Birmann felt that his family had experienced enough. The Birmanns immigrated to America in 1948 with the same hope as countless others: a better life. They landed in Aurora, Illinois, where a relative already lived, and Michael and Irma soon found employment with the McKee Door Company. Originally a garage door manufacturer, McKee adapted as so many American companies did to aid the war effort and began producing aircraft hangar doors around the time the Birmanns joined the company. Again, the military had touched young Leon through his parents’ employment.
One of the more important consequences of the Birmanns’ move to America was a greatly-improved education system for the two boys. Leon attended a Catholic grade school for several years, and then moved on to the Aurora public school system for high school. He much enjoyed the game of basketball and played for his high school team, but Leon was serious about his studies. Throughout his years of lessons in the Aurora school system, the most significant revelation that Leon had was one about himself: he found that he loved to learn. Anyone who knew Leon would agree that some of his biggest smiles came just as a new fact entered his brain—he was, by all definitions of the word, a lifelong scholar.
After graduating high school, Leon went to college for two years to continue his education. Though his schooling went as well as was expected, he was devastated by the loss of a romantic interest, and left school to join the Army. He attended Basic Training and was then stationed with the 3rd Infantry division in Kitzingen, Germany—less than 200 miles from his hometown of Wiltz. Leon drove an M48 Patton tank as the 3rd Infantry supported the NATO alliance in West Germany just a decade after WWII. As an accomplished story-teller later in life, some of Leon’s favorite tales came from his time at the helm of an M48 Patton.
During his assignment in Kitzingen, Leon met a young woman named Gerda Schmidt. As nearly a quarter-million servicemen did during and after WWII, Leon brought his “war bride” back home with him, and the two were married in 1959. The marriage would later end in divorce, but Leon and Gerda had three beautiful children: a son, Michael, and daughters Karen and Heidi.
Upon his discharge from the Army, Leon returned to Aurora and his previous job at Jewel Foods. The chain of grocery stores was growing, and Leon’s responsibilities grew along with it. In the 1960s, Jewel acquired the Osco Drug Company and formed what is known today as Jewel-Osco. By 1975, Leon had been asked to relocate his family to Michigan as the retailer continued to expand outside of the Chicago area. They ended up in Kalamazoo, where Leon would become the store manager of both the Howard St. and West Main locations. His work ethic at Jewel was unrivaled, as was demonstrated during the Great Blizzard of 1978; when the storm hit, Leon slept at the store for days to remain open as many of his staff members were stranded at home. Perhaps his proudest accomplishment at Jewel was his attendance—in 35 years with the company, Leon never missed a day of work due to sickness.
Jewel played another important role in Leon’s life after relocating to Kalamazoo—he met Ann Hobson at a company social outing, and they wed in 1980. As Leon continued to raise his family, he was a supportive and encouraging father. He took up competitive shooting (using military weapons) with Mike, a convenient and exhilarating excuse for father/son bonding time. He and Ann enjoyed traveling through Europe—with a running historical commentary from Leon, to be sure—and also visited Gettysburg on a number of occasions. The family was seldom without a dog, but Leon’s favorite was a Norwegian Elk Hound named Heika, a mashup of his two daughters’ names. As his kids grew older and had children of their own, Leon rarely missed any of his grandchildren’s events, be it a game, concert, recital, or other performance. He truly loved his role as a grandfather.
Retirement brought about another exciting phase in Leon’s life—an uninterrupted opportunity to expand his understanding of history. He consumed books at an incredible pace, and found that he could recreate history through modeling. Leon built countless model airplanes and tanks, often spending hours on the finest details. He was even featured in a national modeling publication for a replica F4 Phantom airplane he built! The Kalamazoo Air Zoo became the outlet for Leon’s passion for history; he volunteered as a docent for 24 years and accumulated over 5,000 hours of service. His fellow volunteers became some of his closest friends, and Leon will surely be missed at their weekly luncheons.
Leon will be missed for his sense of humor, his story telling ability, his dedication to his grandchildren, his unwavering support of Notre Dame football, and his seemingly endless supply of answers. His legacy lives on in the wisdom he so enjoyed sharing with others. Anyone who ever learned something from Leon—no matter how important or trivial—now carries a piece of him with them.
Leon Birmann, age 78, of Portage, finished writing the last chapter of his own history on December 12th, 2015, surrounded by his family and friends. He is survived by his wife Ann; his three children: Michael (Rochelle) Birmann, Karen (Joel) Mastenbrook, and Heidi (John) McIntyre; his eight grandchildren: Brandon, Jessica, Nicolas, Taylor, Alexander, Jacob, Justin, and Laura; and his great-granddaughter Mikaila; eight step-grandchildren: Olivia, Kevin, Matthew, Trent, Zachary, Sabrina, Rusty and Cora; five step-great-grandchildren: Haley, Amara, McKinley, Felicity and Avery. Services and a light reception will be held at the Kalamazoo Air Zoo on Friday, December 18th from 5:00p – 6:30p. Memorial contributions may be made to the Air Zoo as well. Arrangements by Life Story Funeral Homes, Betzler, 6080 Stadium Drive., Kalamazoo (375-2900).