Strong Women 2020
May we be them. May we know them. May we care for them.
From March 1 to March 8 we are excited to share the stories of strong women at Luther Manor, including Anna, Betty, Norma, Verert, Dorothy, Paighten & Mary Ann.
Mary Ann Abrahamson is many things: smart, caring, engaging, giving and strong. Her story begins as the youngest of nine children on a farm near Marshfield, Wisconsin. There her gift for learning, and her determination, was established.
Encouraged by a loving father who called her Baby until the day he died, she taught herself to read at a very young age. He was so proud of her that when company was over, he would pick her up and put her on the fender of their Franklin car and hand her the newspaper. “Read, Baby,” he would say. She also remembers him sharing an apple with her at night, slicing away one piece at a time while he sat in a rocking chair singing cowboy songs with Mary Ann on his lap. He died of cancer when she was just 12 years old, leaving her with his pride in her early accomplishments and a love of learning that remains today.
Mary Ann finished high school at 15 and the following year, after completing training at a county normal school, realized her goal to teach at a rural one-room school, freeing up other teachers for service in World War II. After the war, Mary Ann entered the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point as a junior. There, she met he husband, Harvin, whom she calls “such a love.” Once married, she taught fifth grade while he finished his teaching degree, completing hers in summer school. What followed for Mary Ann was a successful career teaching in Whitefish Bay, while raising their sons, Ted and Terry.
Together, she and Harvin pursued their Masters in Education degrees, traveling across Europe researching primary education in selective suburbs of larger towns. Two summers and as many years later, they earned them: she, a member of Mensa, in 1973 and he in 1974.
All the while, she remained rooted in family. She was particularly close to her sister Bobbi. Named Grace at birth, Bobbi came of age in the Roaring 20s. An adventurer, she traveled west with a friend, working as a waitress along the way before settling in Alaska. The distance didn’t come between them, though, and Mary Ann learned from Bobbi about life and about giving. Eventually, Mary Ann paid those lessons forward while caring for her sisters, Ethel and Lucille, when they could not care for themselves. Slowly, Mary Ann said goodbye to each of her siblings, and while so many losses were difficult, she stayed strong, even giving the eulogies at five of their funerals.
As the sole surviving sibling, the importance of family will always be part of Mary Ann. With Harvin, she has traveled to visit his family in Norway and her family in the Netherlands. They both enjoyed river cruises in Europe that provided opportunities for them to stop and see relatives along the way, spending time with them in their homes in order to know them, their interests and their gifts. On many trips, they were joined by Mary Ann’s sister, Lucille, and niece, Dolores.
Now, Mary Ann’s days are spent closer to home. She loves to read and is a member of Luther Manor’s book club. She is savvy with technology, using her iPhone and iPad to their fullest, including to connect with friends and family on Facebook and to book rides on Uber.
Her passion for learning also continues as a way to help others. She is an active participant in both the Froedtert & Medical College of Wisconsin’s Successful Aging Project and the Brain Health Registry. Her days are full as she continues to look for and find ways to make a difference for others. She gives generously to honor and remember friends and neighbors, helps make possible projects important to them, and looks out for her family near and far.
“This is what you do,” Mary Ann says. “You help.”
Dorothy Stuhlmacher sees the best in people. Growing up on a dairy farm in Pickett, Wisconsin, she remembers her father taking her and her siblings to church and school in a horse drawn sleigh. She couldn’t wait for Sunday and she never missed school, she said remembering the beautiful horses that got her there.
As one of 14 children, she still marvels at the ease with which her mother managed the household. More than once, Dorothy came downstairs in the morning to find a newborn baby in the corner and her mother making breakfast for their large farm family.
Church and weekly sing-alongs rounded out Dorothy’s childhood before she moved to Milwaukee to live with her sister, Ruth, in the northwest side community of German Russians called North Milwaukee. On Villard Avenue, North Milwaukee’s main street, was Winkie’s, a five and dime store where Dorothy found a job working in the office and where the rest of her life began.
“Mrs. Winkie was a farm girl, too,” Dorothy remembers, and therefore saw a bit of herself in Dorothy. Through that, opportunities for Dorothy to grow in the business developed, and she was moved from working in the office to the store. “I enjoyed being with people,” she said, and in the store, she was surrounded by them.
There, she met a stock boy named, Don. “And Don came to like Dorothy,” she said.
After they met, Don served in the Army in World War II. When he returned, they were married. Dorothy remembers Don as a wonderful husband…tall and handsome. Together they ran Winkies, traveling to New York City and Chicago to buy merchandise. They had an eye for what people liked but couldn’t get, and when shipments were scheduled to arrive, a line of customers formed on Villard waiting for the doors to open.
In 1985, the Stuhlmachers bought the Whitefish Bay store from the Winkies. A family enterprise, their sons and their wives joined the business, and today there are grandchildren involved in the business. Today, they run Winkie’s Hallmark and Winkie’s Toys and Variety in a single upstairs/downstairs setting to meet the needs of customers.
“I love my sons and appreciate that they keep the store going,” she said.
The feeling is mutual. Terry and Tom remember their parents putting family first, and admire their mother for her strength. After their father died in 1999, Dorothy found the courage to establish her own path forward, knowing when to sell her home and move to an apartment, and then to Luther Manor. She took care of those difficult decisions, and adjusted beautifully with each transition. They also remember her commitment to bringing them up in the church and developing in them a strong faith that she practices now with daily prayers of thanksgiving for her health and happiness.
Today, Dorothy is an active resident of Luther Manor’s River Oaks Assisted Living Community in Mequon. She continues to see the good in everyone, encouraging her neighbors to attend programs, or simply enjoy the company of one another.
A bit a living legend, Dorothy’s impact on the greater Milwaukee community through Winkie’s continues as the business remains a destination for the next generation of customers seeking gifts for family and friends. Her most profound effect, though, has been and continues to be on her family. Her greatest source of pride and joy, they proudly follow in the footsteps she imprinted through hard work, determination and faith.
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.”
In conversation with Anna Robertson about her life, the names of strong women emerge: Charity Adams, Evelyn Ross, Florence Williams, and her daughters. Together with Anna, they form a common thread of strength that is present in all they have done and continue to do.
Growing up in Mississippi, Anna worked alongside her mother, a sharecropper, and brother picking cotton. In helping to support her family, she learned early in life the value of hard work. After her mother passed away, she served in the United States Army to serve her country and to perform duties that would allow the men to fight on the front line and become self-sufficient.
Anna was a member of the Women’s Army Corps 6888 Central Postal Directory Battalion in World War II that, upon arrival in England in early 1945, was met by millions of pieces of mail needing sorting for delivery to those serving in the European Theater operations. Anna’s battalion was the subject of a recent documentary called “The Six Triple Eight.” She shared her story as one of seven surviving members of the unit, an important piece of US and military history. The Six Triple Eight completed their work in half the expected time, so went to France for a similar assignment, disbanding after war’s end.
Charity Adams was her commanding officer, and is remembered by Anna as someone who was willing to help with anything she needed. Evelyn Williams was a friend, fellow battalion member and the reason that Anna moved to Milwaukee. When Evelyn’s sister Florence was getting married, she invited Anna to attend. She stayed, finding work as a patient caregiver at the VA Hospital and then as a nursing aid at St. Camillus before the responsibilities of raising eight children drew her full attention home.
In her children, she instilled the importance of hard work and faith. Thirteenth birthdays were celebrated by getting social security cards and then jobs. Sundays were for church: Catholic church in the morning and Baptist church in the afternoon.
When you ask Paighten about herself, she answers in terms of her family. She is the big sister to two brothers, ages 16 and five, and the oldest cousin of many. She is a senior at the Milwaukee School of Languages. Inspired by her grandfather, who emigrated from Germany when he was 14, she wanted to speak his language so elected to study German, a language in which she is now fluent. She is so fluent that on a test given by the German government to US students interested in attending college there, Paighten earned the highest score possible by a non-native speaker.
Paighten’s favorite place is her family’s cabin near Lake Superior. Its rural setting is unlike her surroundings in Milwaukee, where her parents’ home forms a triangle with the homes of her aunt and uncle, and her grandmother. To get an understanding of what it would be like to live there, Paighten wrote to the principal of the town’s single school, and asked if she could attend for one week. She found the experience exhilarating, even though it caused her to take stock of the blessings of urban life. Still, it felt like home, and Paighten hopes to make it official one day as the town physician.
Earlier this year, Paighten was offered the opportunity to spend part of her school day off campus for work study. Because of the rigor of her academic coursework, and weekends spent helping on a family tree farm near Portgage, she couldn’t commit to a job. She could, though, commit to helping others. With a love for older adults that grew from the days when her family would travel to Iron Mountain, Michigan, every other weekend to care for her great grandparents, she inquired about volunteering at Luther Manor. You could say she was meant to be here. Her parents met here when they were in high school. Her mom worked in dining and her dad was a dishwasher. Her grandmother worked in the laundry.
“I had the honor of knowing my great grandparents,” Paighten says. “How many people can say that?”
The time she is spending here, in complement to the joyful memories of the older adults in her family, have Paighten considering a career as a geriatrician. As she considers the choices with which she is faced, including which college to attend and how to include an experience studying abroad, she does so knowing that the decisions she makes today will help establish her path forward.
As a gifted young woman who finds strength in her passions and dreams, these decisions are not easy. With opportunities accumulating before her, Paighten is drawing on family and the life experiences that have shaped her to make a leap of faith into a future she has made possible with her hard work and determination.
It may have been a Diversity Visa that brought Verert Muandoh to the United States, but it was her own strength and determination that forged the way. A commitment to education and a gift for learning seeded her journey.
Verert grew up in Cameroon, Africa, dreaming of working in the medical field. Education was expensive, though, so as the oldest in a large family with limited means, she wanted to make sure that her siblings had a chance to attend school, too. That spirit of sharing led her to a Bachelor Degree in education and a position as a high school geography teacher. After nine years of working in Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital city, Verert had saved enough money to move to the United States. She called for her parents to meet her in the city, sharing the news with them that she would be moving to America. She left the next day. It was her first plane ride.
Her dream of working in the medical field became a reality soon after she settled in Milwaukee in 2014. She took classes to become a Certified Nursing Assistant, encouraged by her cousin to apply at Luther Manor. She did, and was hired the next day.
“I loved the work,” she said. “I found it so joyful that I wanted to do more.” More meant continuing her education to become a Licensed Practical Nurse. Before long, her Luther Manor residents and coworkers encouraged her to keep going. “Don’t stop here,” they said.
With a goal of becoming a Registered Nurse, Verert enrolled at Milwaukee Area Technical College. She took classes without a break, completing the four-year program in three while working full-time on second shift. With little opportunity to study, she concentrated in class to “get it right.” And get it right she did. Classmates noticed, suggesting to the others that they all pay attention to what Verert says because she was most always correct.
Verert graduated in May 2019. Without family to attend her graduation ceremony, she celebrated with classmates. One was Georgia, a Luther Manor colleague with whom she became close, studying together late at night after work when time allowed. Pictures of them at graduation, in gowns adorned with honors regalia, bring a smile to her face.
So do the residents for whom Verert cares on Luther Manor’s second floor home. “I love that floor,” she says. Motivated to provide them with best possible care, she speaks about them like family. One is encouraging, but tough, like a mother. And another, a former French teacher at MATC who Verert called Madame, used to ask for her. She is now “of late” but the impression she left on Verert remains.
The strongest woman in her life, though, is in Cameroon: her mother. She encouraged Verert to get an education, assuring her that life would build from there. “She is the backbone to my success,” she says.
Faith is essential, too. When asked where she found the strength to pursue her dreams so far from home and family, she said that the answer is prayer. “With God, everything is possible.”
Betty Mattson has many gifts. She is smart (a nurse), giving (a volunteer), talented (an organist and knitter), and loving (a wife, mother, grandmother, great grandmother, neighbor and friend). She is also understated.
Newly married, she and her husband, Dick, settled in South Bend, Indiana, while he finished his degree at Notre Dame. Betty found a job at the local hospital, but before she started, she learned that she was expecting a baby. In a phone call to let the hospital know she wouldn’t be there, she said simply, “Something has come up.”
That something was their daughter, Sandra, one of the many joys in Betty’s sixty-five year marriage. Two sons, Steve and John, followed. Betty and Dick met through his parents, who were members of her father’s parish in Wisconsin. They considered her to be a perfect match, so when Betty returned home from nursing school in St. Paul, Minnesota, she met Dick, they fell in love and together built a fantastic life. They visited every state, traveled to Europe, the Caribbean and the Panama Canal. Closer to home, Betty found ways to help others, putting to good use her nursing education volunteering for the Brown Deer health department and doing manicures for Luther Manor residents. She shared her love of music as an organist for 16 years at Abiding Savior Lutheran, where being a self-taught pianist came in handy, and with the Brown Deer Public Schools to accompany student concerts and programs. Betty also served as President of Luther Manor Auxiliary, now known as the Friends of Luther Manor. The organization’s archives hint at Betty’s strength. One of the first programs under her leadership was one of futuring to anticipate the needs of the residents of tomorrow so that the Auxiliary could help prepare Luther Manor to meet them. Within her active life after her children were grown, Betty worked as a nurse at Columbia Hospital in Milwaukee
After she and Dick moved to Luther Manor, Betty’s strength was tested but proven. When he was met with a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, Betty lovingly – and tirelessly – cared for him in their apartment. When she no longer could, she made the decision that was best for him, but hardest for her, placing him in the full-time care of Luther Manor’s nursing teams with a move to skilled care. Remembering that time four years ago, she’s not always able to see the strong woman that her family did. “She was the epitome of strength,” said Sandra.
Today, at 93 years old, Betty is an active and independent woman. An involved Terrace resident, she knits hats for local organizations, looks after her neighbors and friends and spends time with family, continuing as an example of strength. She is a pillar…their pillar.