The request seemed simple enough.
The new bride asked for a photo with her first cousins and their great-grandmother.
Perhaps only a member of the Pflug clan, however, could have been prepared for what came next.
Steadily, the grand staircase filled up with youngsters. More than 100 were expected for the portrait. Teenage Pflugs corralled wandering toddlers. School-age cousins dangled from railings.
Parents calmed antsy ones by stomping their feet and chanting tunes such as “Who Let the Dogs Out?”
About a half-hour later, after 20-year-old bride Leah stepped into position, all said “Cheese!”
While the scene left a frazzled photographer and some guests sighing with relief, it was rather old hat for great-grandmother Kathy Pflug of Omaha, who referred to it as “controlled chaos.”
At age 86 — and with 15 children, 81 grandchildren and 103 great-grandchildren — the matriarch is a rarity in an era of shrinking families.
Her family is exceptional not only for its size but also because members have managed to remain close geographically as well as emotionally. (Most live in Omaha and, as noted by several, they actually like one another.)
“It's amazing,” said Matt Derry, the young bridegroom who married into the family. “I love it. I love all the commotion.”
The newlyweds have their sights set on having at least seven little ones of their own, bucking the national trend toward smaller families. The U.S. median family size has dropped from five in 1850 to four in 1950 to about three today.
Another way to look at it: In 1970, about 2 percent of all Nebraska births were to moms having their eighth or more child, said David Drozd, a demographer in the University of Nebraska at Omaha's Center for Public Affairs Research.
Today, that figure is a half percent — a 75 percent drop.
Kid-crowded homes, once considered a necessity to help with chores and crops, have gone the way of the family farm.
“As we've moved from a rural to urban society, children have gone more from being an economic asset to an economic cost,” said Charles Harper, a sociologist at Creighton University.
That's not to say kids aren't valued for the pure pleasure they bring parents. It's just that in today's world of pricey schools and the high cost of child-rearing, children are a bit like luxury cars, said Karen Rolf, assistant professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha's School of Social Work.
“You don't need so many to bring you pleasure, right?”
Even if someone comes from a big brood, chances are only 30 percent that he or she will follow suit, said Rolf, citing a 2007 study in the American Journal of Human Genetics.
On the other hand, Rolf said, large family networks can be more valuable than a Wall Street paycheck. They provide built-in playmates, baby sitters, advice on child-rearing, unofficial crisis counselors — their own little community.
Hence, some families enjoy the multiplication.
Enter the Pflugs (pronounced Flewgs).
One of Kathy's children has 11 kids, another has 10, one has eight and five have seven each.
Some are entertainers who perform together: All nine sons, for example, sang the “Our Father” a cappella at the wedding of Leah and Matt.
Some built a business together: Four Pflug boys and their sons run a family roofing company.
Six of the brothers and sisters live within a few blocks of mom — two across the street from her — near Holy Name Catholic Church, where most still are active.
Mark Pflug (No. 10, as he is known by other siblings) didn't think twice about returning to Omaha after finishing college on the sunny West Coast.
“My friends thought I was crazy,” he said. “But I can always visit the scenery. I wanted to be close to the people I love.”
Some always will wonder how the siblings can stand to be so near, especially after such a crowded childhood.
One bedroom for the nine boys, one for the six girls.
One drawer apiece. One bath (no shower). One bike for girls, one for boys.
For those who can't understand the close-knit family, No. 2 sibling, Judie Jones, says: “No explanation will do.”
One gains insight, though, by going back 68 years, when a small-town Iowa telephone operator making 35 cents an hour crossed paths with a visiting technician named Jerry Pflug.
Kathy McKeever knew him for seven months before tying the knot. Later, the couple — barely out of their teens and already with one baby, Stephanie — were separated by World War II, when Jerry was drafted.
That turned out to be the longest pause in what would be a string of 15 children in 19 years.
Kathy mostly was a stay-at-home mom and Jerry was manager of the Holy Name credit union.
After 57 years of marriage, Jerry died 10 years ago. The couple beat many odds. For one, a doctor told Kathy that her 4-foot-11 frame would not allow her to have children. She topped off her brood with twin boys, who are now 47.
Advice for couples today?
While theirs was a household devoid of lavishness, Kathy said, she and her husband strove to fill it with song, prayer and humor.
Dad was a joker who led the church choir, put all the kids through Catholic schools and tried to shield them from needless worry.
“We didn't share our problems with our kids, and we didn't argue in front of them,” said Kathy. “We were too busy to be mopey.”
Dad always kissed Mom when he got home from work. They held hands.
“If a good piece came on the radio,” said Kathy, “we'd get up and dance right in the middle of dinner.”
The tone rubbed off on later generations.
Today, when a new face joins the extended family ranks, an uncle or aunt inevitably bursts into a song even young ones soon memorize.
“Welcome to the family. We're glad that you have come to share your life with us. . . .”
They'll carry on the tradition at the baptisms of the three babies born in June. Four more are due soon, including the first great-great-grandchild.
Indeed, the crew has gotten so big that Christmas get-togethers are held at a school gym. Second-oldest sibling Judie started a computer database to track family growth.
Still, the matriarch — called “GG” by the great-grandkids — can recite everyone's name. She records births and lineage in a spiral notebook.
She knits all newcomers a pair of booties and places a dollar bill in each foot to kick off their college funds.
Come Christmas, she'll write every one a personal note. Depending on age, they'll get $3 or $5.
Only recently has Kathy slowed down some after near-fatal episodes including an abdominal aortic aneurysm, colon cancer and a heart stoppage — thus earning the nickname “Miracle Mama” from her kids.
GG Kathy smiled proudly as guests at the Leah-Matt wedding released dozens of purple and white balloons.
The gathering at the Rose Theater, she said, marked the start of a new wave. Leah Leick Derry is the oldest and first to marry of Kathy's 103-and-counting great-grandchildren.
“This will never end,” Kathy said with a giggle. “Isn't it wonderful?”
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