The mystery woman’s secret is still safe, but more of the story comes to light.
Nearly 30 years ago, a Rock Island County employee unearthed a portrait from the trash, which someone had thrown away while renovating a building. When the employee was about to retire in 2013, he pulled the portrait out of a county storage basement and went looking for answers.
Who was the woman in the painting? She must have been important. And who was the painter?
A couple of promising leads got cold and I was never able to identify the mystery woman.
But the painter, Ladd Yuhash, made a reappearance last week.
Greg Kaltenheuser bought a Yuhash painting from a thrift store on Gilbert Street in Iowa City about 20 years ago. While researching his find recently, he came across my 2013 column and emailed last week asking what I know about the artist.
It was like dipping an old bone into a new sauce.
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One of the few things I learned about Yuhash eight years ago was that he painted the mystery woman from Rock Island County, but he also painted one of the portraits of Dwight D. Eisenhower which is hanging in the Eisenhower Library/Museum in Abilene, Kan. I also knew Yuhash had a connection to the Rock Island Arsenal.
A new internet search has revealed more clues, starting with some previously missed or unpublished ancestry records.
Luckily, Yuhash’s only child has an unusual first name, Ildiko. Finding her on Facebook, her profile showed a list of friends, and one of them had mutual friends with me. I messaged Darcy Miller, asking if she could help me locate Ildiko Miller, as I was looking for information on Ladd Yuhash, and suspected that her friend was Yuhash’s daughter.
“In fact, her daughter is my mother, Ildiko. I’m his granddaughter, Darcy,” was the reply.
Tuesday, I was on the phone with Ildiko Miller. And I was delighted.
She told how her father was born in Hungary in 1922. When he was around 20, he became a prisoner in the Nazi concentration camp in Dachau, Germany.
“He was sent there because he refused to fight for the Nazis,” his daughter said. “He talked about it a bit, mostly about starvation – eating bugs and grass.
“The prisoners were taken away from Dachau one day when the guards began to disappear. American soldiers had arrived. Some of them spoke French, which was one of the many languages he spoke.”
Yuhash didn’t share much about the Dachau nightmare with his young daughter, but he said one of the Americans gave him a Camel cigarette, and he continued to smoke them all his life.
A few years after World War II, a priest who had been the leader of the Yuhash Boys’ Club in Hungary became his immigration sponsor and he moved to Ohio, Illinois in 1949.
In the early 1950s, Yuhash and his wife, Ingeborg (“Inge”), moved to Rock Island. Back in Europe, he trained as a painter and tried to establish himself there by accepting commissions from husbands who wanted portraits of their wives.
He had a studio on 38th Street and 18th Avenue in Rock Island, where an Aldi grocery store is located today. His small family lived in the same building and Yuhash tried to earn a living as a painter and art teacher.
His daughter does not know what year he took a job at Arsenal, but she believes it was in the late 1950s. There he worked in research and development and eventually held a number patents related to military arms and ammunition.
In fact, Miller believes the piece purchased in Iowa City by Kaltenheuser served as the patent artwork when it was painted in 1971. A note on the back of the painting, indicating that it previously hung in an office at the arsenal of Rock Island, suggests that she is Correct. Coincidentally, this painting (likely a mural) was also removed from the building during a renovation.
“He was at Rock Island Arsenal for several years,” his daughter said. “He was transferred to New Jersey around 1977.”
He left without Miller, Inge, Mom. The couple had divorced before his death in 1975 at the age of 51.
Six years later, at age 59, Yuhash passed away.
He had remarried and his new wife retained all of his artwork, Miller said, including the self-portrait he made shortly after Dachau’s liberation.
“He wasn’t a little man, and he only weighed 90 pounds now,” she said. “We asked about the paintings, including some my mum had done, but she wouldn’t part with them.”
But a silver lining emerged.
Earlier this month, Darcy Miller found some of her grandfather’s paintings for sale on eBay. The family bought four, two for Yuhash’s wife and two for his daughter, Ildiko. Two of the portraits were shipped on Saturday and the others are expected to arrive this week.
“When I was little, he was just the best grandpa; everything I knew about him,” Darcy Miller said. “As I got older, I learned he was pretty amazing.”
We may never know the identity of the pearl-wearing woman whose portrait once hung in a building owned by Rock Island County. But we know more about the artist, illustrator, teacher, inventor, father, grandfather and concentration camp survivor who painted it.
And now, I feel like that’s what counted all along.