Like all good stories about a prince, this one starts in a castle.
Derek Sanderson Jeter spent his boyhood summers around the
Tiedemann castle of Greenwood Lake, a home near the New York/
New Jersey border maintained by the Tiedemann family of Jersey City
and defined by its medieval-looking tower and rooftop battlements.
In the 1950s, the Tiedemanns started rebuilding the burned-out
castle with the help of their adopted son, William “Sonny” Connors,
who did his talking with a hammer the same way Charles “Sonny” Liston
did his talking with his fists.
More than a quarter century later, Connors, a maintenance worker
at a Catholic church, would preach the virtues of an honest day’s work
to his grandson, who was enlisted as Connors’s unpaid assistant when
he wasn’t playing with the Tiedemann grandchildren around the lake.
Derek Jeter was forever carrying his baseball glove, forever looking
for a game. His grandfather was not an enthusiastic sports fan, but as
much as anyone Connors showed the boy the necessity of running out
every single one of life’s ground balls.
Connors was a shy and earnest handyman who had lost his parents
to illness when he was young, and who had honed his workshop skills
under John Tiedemann’s careful watch. Tiedemann and his wife, Julia,
raised Sonny along with twelve children of their own, sparing him a
teenager’s life as a ward of the state.
Tiedemann was a worthy role model for Sonny. He had left school in
the sixth grade to work in a Jersey City foundry and help his widowed
mother pay the bills. At thirteen, Tiedemann already was operating a
small electrical business of his own.
In the wake of the Great Depression he landed a job inside St. Michael’s
Church, where Tiedemann did everything for Monsignor LeRoy
McWilliams, even built him a parish gym. When Msgr. McWilliams
did not have the money to cover the scaffolding needed to paint St. Michael’s,
Tiedemann invented a jeep-mounted boom that could elevate
a man to the highest reaches of the ceiling. He ultimately got into the
business of painting and decorating church walls.
Around the same time, in the mid-fifties, Tiedemann was overseeing
work on a 2.7-acre Greenwood Lake, New York, lot he had purchased
for $15,000. His main objective was the restoration of a German-style
castle that had been gutted by fire more than a decade earlier.
Tiedemann’s labor force amounted to his eleven sons, including
his ace plumber, roofer, carpenter, and electrician from St. Michael’s
— Sonny Connors.
“Sonny was a Tiedemann,” said one of the patriarch’s own, George.
“We all counted him as one of our brothers.”
And every weekend, year after year after year, this band of Jersey
City brothers gathered to breathe new life into the dark slate-tiled castle,
an Old World hideaway originally built by a New York City dentist
in 1903. The Tiedemann boys started by digging out the ashes and
removing the trees that had grown inside the structure.
They did this for their father, the self-made man the old St. Michael’s
pastor liked to call “the Michelangelo of the tool chest.” The castle was
John Tiedemann’s dream house, and the boys helped him build additional
homes on the property so some of his thirteen children and
fifty-four grandchildren could live there.
“We weren’t a huggy, kissy type of family,” George said. “We weren’t
the Waltons. But the love was there, and it didn’t have to manifest itself
more than it did.”
John Tiedemann was a tough and simple man who liked to fish,
watch boxing, and move the earth with his callused hands. Long before
he poured himself into the Greenwood Lake project, Tiedemann was
proud of being the first resident on his Jersey City block, 7th Street, to
own a television set. He enjoyed having his friends over to take in the
Friday night fights.
He finally made some real money with his church improvement
business and later bought himself a couple of Rolls-Royces to park outside
his renovated castle. But Tiedemann was a laborer at heart, and he
had taught his eleven sons all the necessary trades.
As it turned out, none of the boys could match the father as a craftsman.
None but Sonny, the one Tiedemann who did not share Tiedemann’s
For years Sonny was John’s most reliable aide, at least when he
was not working his full-time job as head of maintenance at Queen
of Peace in North Arlington, New Jersey, an hour’s commute from the
castle. Sonny would drive through heavy snowstorms in the middle of
the night to clean the Queen of Peace parking lots by 4:00 a.m. He
would vacuum the rugs around the altar, paint the priests’ living quarters,
and repair the parishioners’ sputtering cars for no charge.
Sonny never once called in sick and never once forgot the family
that gave him a chance. Every Friday, payday, Sonny would stop at a
bakery and buy a large strawberry shortcake so all the Tiedemanns
could enjoy dessert.
“Sonny was the spark that kept us going,” George said, “because he
never took a break.” Sonny idolized Julia Tiedemann, and he liked to
make her husband proud. If John Tiedemann wanted a room painted,
Sonny made sure that room got painted while John was away on business
so he would be pleasantly surprised on his return.
Sonny married a Tiedemann; of course he did. Dorothy was a niece
of John and Julia’s, a devoted Yankees fan who loved hearing the crack
of Joe D.’s bat on the radio, and who hated seeing Babe Ruth’s lifeless
body when she passed his open casket inside Yankee Stadium in 1948.
Sonny and Dorothy, or Dot, would raise fourteen children, including
another Dorothy, or Dot. The Connors family spent some time in
the castle before moving to nearby West Milford, New Jersey, where
Sonny served as the same working-class hero for his kids that John
Tiedemann was for him.
Sonny and his wife took in troubled or orphaned children and made
them their own, and it never mattered that money was tight. “Sonny
went back to his own experience as a boy,” said Monsignor Thomas
Madden, the pastor at Queen of Peace. “The Tiedemanns took care of
Sonny, so it was in his nature to take care of others. . . . And Dorothy
had just as big a heart as he did.”
One of their flesh-and-blood daughters, Dot, ended up in the army
and was stationed in Frankfurt, Germany, where in 1972 she met a
black soldier named Sanderson Charles Jeter, raised by a single mother
in Montgomery, Alabama. They married the following year, at a time
in America when the notion of a biracial president was more absurd
than that of a human colony on Mars.
Naturally, Sonny did not approve of the marriage. He worried over
the way the children would be treated, worried they would be teased
and taunted by black and white. “Sonny was very concerned about
that,” Msgr. Madden said. “He would ask, ‘Will they be accepted? Will
they have to fight battles?’ ”
His questions would start to be answered on June 26, 1974, when
Derek Sanderson Jeter was born at Chilton Memorial Hospital in the
Pompton Plains section of Pequannock, New Jersey.
If Sonny initially did not have a relationship with his daughter’s hus...