Clemens Vonnegut, Sr.,
K's paternal ancestors the Vonneguts came from Munster, Westphalia, where the name derives from a distant forebear who had an estate—"ein Gut"---on the little River Funne; hence the surname FunneGut the estate on the Funne. This name was subsequently changed from Funnegut to Vonnegut. Funnegut sounded too much like "funny gut" in English.
Clemens Vonnegut, Sr., was born in Munster in Westphalia in 1824; came to the United States in 1848 and finally settled in Indianapolis in 1850. His father had been an official tax-collector for the Duke of Westphalia.
Clemens had a far better formal education than ninety-eight percent or more of the German or other immigrants. He had completed his Abitur' at the Hochschule in Hannover: which meant that he had the equivalent at that time of an American college education and was qualified to attend one of the Universities as a candidate for a Ph.D. degree. He had an acquaintance with Latin and Greek, and spoke French fluently in addition to his native German. He had read widely in History and Philosophy; had acquired a fine vocabulary; and was able to write with clarity. Although raised and instructed in the Roman Catholic Church, he rejected formalized religion and disliked clergymen. He greatly admired Voltaire, and shared many of the latter's philosophical views. Instead of attending a University, Clemens became a salesman for a textile firm located in Amsterdam, Holland. At the age of twenty-four, in 1848, he decided to emigrate to the United States, where he first traveled about as agent for the textile mill.
When he came to Indianapolis in 1850, he encountered a fellow countryman named Vollmer, who had been settled here a few years and was already established in business for himself in a small way as a retail merchant in hardware and sundry merchandise. The two became friends, and Vollmer invited Vonnegut to join him in this enterprise. The firm then became known as Vollmer & Vonnegut. After a short association Vollmer decided to make a journey out West to explore the new country and visit the gold fields recently discovered in California. He was never heard from again, and presumably lost his life in the "Wild West."
Vonnegut thus became the sole proprietor of the small business which he in 1852, and later his sons and grandsons, made into a considerable enterprise as the Vonnegut Hardware Company.
Upon his marriage to Katarina Blank in 1852, he bought a modest home on West Market Street and they raised their family in steadily improving material circumstances. Both spoke German in their home, but had considerable fluency in French as well. The training of their children was in the tradition and culture of nineteenth-century Germany. It is highly significant of Clemens's ascetic and puritanical ethics that his literary idol was Schiller and not Goethe, who was much the greater genius. He disapproved of Goethe's morals, and would not read him
Clemens attained local distinction as an advocate of progressive public education. He served for twenty-seven years on the Board of School Commissioners of the City of Indianapolis; most of the time as Chairman and Chief Administrative Officer. He was an incorruptible and highly efficient officer. He was particularly interested in the High School, and saw to it that first-rate instruction was provided in the classics, history, and the social sciences. He was instrumental in the establishment of the second High School in 1894, known as Manual Training High School, where, under Professor Emmerich as Principal, instruction was provided with emphasis on Science, Mathematics, and Practical Engineering. Graduates of these two high schools were readily accepted at Harvard and Yale and other great Universities until about 1940; since then the prestige of these high schools has sadly declined as a result of lowered standards.
At his death at age eighty-two in 1906 he was a greatly respected figure in the business and civic life of the community; next only to Henry Schnull as the first in prestige of the German immigrants to Indianapolis.
Old Clemens, as he advanced into his seventies, turned over management of his business to the competent hands of his three sons: Clemens, Jr., Franklin, and George. His son Bernard had a brief connection with the Company but disliked what he called `the trade in nails' and confined his attention to his profession of architecture and to his avocations in the arts. He had never been as robust as his brothers, two of whom lived into their nineties. The old man set them all an example not only of the highest standards of moral integrity but of physical fitness through exercise of the body. To the end of his days old Clemens was a devotee of the teachings of Father Jahn: a sound mind in a sound body. He exercised daily in all weathers and ate and drank very sparingly. He never weighed much over one hundred and ten pounds. He could be seen striding vigorously about the streets swinging a large boulder in each hand. If he passed a tree with a stout branch within reach he would stop, lay down the boulders, and chin himself a number of times on the branch. On a cold December day in the year 1904, in his eighty-third year, he left his home for his usual walk. He apparently became confused and lost his way. When he did not return at his accustomed time, his family instituted a search with the assistance of the police. He was found several miles from his home lying by the side of a road-quite dead. It was the sort of death he would have welcomed-active to the very end.
Clemens Vonnegut was a cultivated eccentric. He was small in stature, but stout in his independence and convictions. While his forebears had been Roman Catholics, he professed to be an atheist or Free Thinker. He would more properly be called a skeptic, one who rejects faith in the unknowable. But he was a very model of Victorian asceticism, lived frugally, and eschewed excesses of any kind. He greatly admired Benjamin Franklin, whom he called an American saint, and named his third son after him instead of naming him for one of the saints on the Christian calendar. As a recognition of his service to public education, one of the City's schools was named after him. He was highly literate, well read, and the author of various pamphlets expounding his views on education, philosophy, and religion. He wrote his own funeral oration.