Norma Erdmann’s story begins on a dairy farm in Champion Valley, a settlement of Czechoslovakian immigrants and their families in Western Wisconsin. The only girl in four grades at a little country school, she was strong and spirited. In the winter, a horse drawn sleigh took her there as she and her sisters sat on milk cans wrapped in a Buffalo robe to stay warm.
The oldest of three girls, Norma did chores and helped raise her youngest sister before graduating from Wonewoc High School and moving to Milwaukee. “Coming to Milwaukee was a starting point for me,” said Norma. There, she put her experience helping her mother as the oldest daughter to work as a nanny for a Wauwatosa family. Eventually, she secured a position with Hanson Glove and then Globe Union, spending her free time at dances at the Eagles Ballroom on Wisconsin Avenue.
It was 1941 and the talk of war had started when one night, Norma was invited to dance. An intermission followed, and she thought the dance was over until her partner returned. He asked if he could give her a ride home.
“Why did you come back?” she asked.
“Because I liked your smile,” he said.
He, Frank, would become her husband. In his Model A, they traveled back and forth from Milwaukee to her family’s home in Wonewoc and to his in Tigerton before marrying in 1942. Two months later, he took her shopping to Schuster’s Department Store to buy a coat. “I’ll never see it,” Norma remembers him saying. He received his draft notice earlier that day.
While he was away, Norma lived with his Aunt and Uncle and their two daughters, continuing to work at Globe Union. She ran a machine that helped produce resisters and transistors. She took up Red Cross Training, and considered serving, but with her husband, made the decision to stay home.
Before he left for Europe, Norma traveled to Fayetteville, NC, to say goodbye. His service was dangerous, including being in the Battle of the Bulge. Once, he crossed enemy territory via an unmanned glider. Norma knew it was harrowing, so made his unused parachute into a baptismal gown worn by their two sons, six grandchildren and great grandchildren.
She couldn’t be with him, but they corresponded “all the time.” As the war intensified, he could say very little. What he did say, though, meant a lot. “He said he loved me and couldn’t wait to come home,” Norma remembers. One day, Norma came home from work to find him sitting at the top of the stairs in his uniform at the apartment she had just rented in anticipation of his return.
When Frank passed away at the age of 66, Norma remained strong, finding joy in her family, and in activities like golf, bowling and reading. She traveled to Europe three times, including one month spent in England with her youngest sister, Jo Ann, visiting a pen pal that Jo Ann made during World War II.
Norma moved to Luther Manor when her health turned suddenly. Norma has remained an avid reader, sometimes reading three books at once in addition to the daily newspaper. “I’ve always loved history and reading,” she says. Life enrichment staff even looked to Norma for updates on current affairs for daily news readings with residents.
Now, when Norma reflects on her life, she does so with admiration for the small town farm girl who made her life in the city. Growing up knowing simple right from wrong guided her, as did a lesson from her mother. “Treasure your name,” she told Norma.
Today, she does the best she can with God’s help, while also drawing advice from the nurses at Luther Manor. “Don’t change,” they tell Norma. “You are not stubborn,” they say. “You are determined.”