North Decatur High School’s Chautauqua Day, an event that helps students focus on what they learn through an ample collection of projects and other ventures, had a very special guest Tuesday night.
Rosemarie Von Trapp, whose family’s exploits are widely known from the 1965 musical film “The Sound of Music,” visited the North Decatur stage to share her story, sing a few songs and clarify some aspects of the film that were embellished for the silver screen.
In the movie, Maria, a woman studying to be a nun, is sent to watch over the seven children of a widower naval commander, Capt. Georg Ritter von Trapp. Ultimately, Maria bonds with the children and introduces them to music before they leave Austria out of fear of the Third Reich.
Following a full day of Chautauqua events, Rosemarie Von Trapp told the crowd that she had never been in a Chautauqua before. When North Decatur teacher and Chautauqua organizer John Pratt called Von Trapp to invite her to the school, she was ill.
“I said, ‘Lord, if you want me to go, you have to make me feel better,” Von Trapp explained.
The 80 year-old said that North Decatur was a wonderful school, noting that she was home-schooled, which was boring because she couldn’t be with friends. Her life had begun in Austria, and on Tuesday, she was in Decatur County.
“That’s quite a trip, and now I’m here,” Von Trapp said.
She led the group in song, belting out “My Favorite Things” from the musical before moving on to talk about the movie.
“I’m number eight, which means I’m not in the movie,” she explained.
In reality, there had been 10 Von Trapp children, not seven. However, Rosemarie’s sister Maria von Trapp did actually make dresses out of curtains. Her father also did have a whistle from his days as a submarine captain. In those days, Rosemarie Von Trapp explained, submarines were very loud and required a whistle for the captain to keep in contact with the sailors. He trained his family to listen to the whistle, too.
But unlike the movie, her father never made her march.
“Sailors don’t march,” she said.
Looking back on the film, Von Trapp said she now sees it as a “refugee movie,” but had never really thought of herself as such.
“It’s not easy to be a refugee,” she said. “It’s just a movie to bring hope to people.”
She credited the musical creators Rodgers and Hammerstein for making the story a success, and one that would give hope and comfort to other refugees.
“We all feel at home in a certain place,” Von Trapp said.
Just two years ago, she came back from a temporary home in Israel. There, she had been working as a volunteer, taking care of tourists. She said being there made the stories of the Bible real for her.
“It was the best time of my life.”
Von Trapp was born at her home in Austria, and was 9 years-old when the family came to America in 1938.
“We did not go over the mountains,” she said, referencing the movie Von Trapps fleeing the Nazis by venturing over the Alps. “My dad said no to Hitler three times.”
The Von Trapps’ butler, Hans, had told Rosemarie’s father to leave before it became dangerous for the family to stay in Austria. When her father protested, Hans turned over his lapel to reveal a swastika, Rosemarie Von Trapp said. The family bundled up knapsacks, headed to the backyard and boarded a train to Italy. They eventually arrived in France and took a boat called “The American Farmer.”“That was prophetic,” Von Trapp said.
Once they arrived in America, they moved to Philadelphia and then on to Vermont because its mountains resembled Austria.
After several performances from North Decatur students interspersed with Von Trapp’s message, she presented teacher John Pratt with a small singing goat, so he “wouldn’t be lonely when Chautauqua was finished.” She also brought books to give away, maple sugar candy and she made a donation to the school’s library. The school’s Travel Club also presented Von Trapp with a gift bag, featuring an Eiffel Tower key-chain the group had acquired during a trip to Paris.
“Is there a tree growing on top of it?” Von Trapp asked jokingly.
Following her performance, Von Trapp stayed after to take pictures with guests and sign autographs. The movie might not have been true to life, but the message remained for Rosemarie Von Trapp.
“The idea was real,” she said.