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Two women I will miss (11/18/2012)
By Frances Edstrom

Two women I have admired for many years died recently, and they deserve to be remembered.

I credit Virginia O’Brien, who died on November 7, with giving my children a first grade experience that became the solid base for their future academic success. When John and I were shopping for a house (something we did a lot of before we found the perfect one), Virginia was our realtor. As we drove from house to house in Winona, we got to know each other. In addition to selling real estate, Virginia taught first grade at Cathedral School, which is now closed.

We told her about Cassidy’s kindergarten experience, which was not a very happy one, we said we had hoped that our daughter’s school experience would feed her natural intelligence and curiosity, and set her on the right path of education.

Oh, said Virginia, I teach first grade, and when a student finishes a year in my class, I want her to be able to read well enough and do enough math to be able to function well in society, even if she never has another day of schooling. Virginia said that she could teach them enough to be able to read a simple contract, and balance a check book. This sounded great to us, although we wondered if Virginia was perhaps overstating the level of achievement of her first graders.

Cassidy was so unhappy in her class, though, that as the year went on and first grade loomed, we decided to look into Cathedral. When we talked to people in our parish, we heard good things about the school and Virginia, so decided to send Cassidy there for first grade.

We did, and found that Virginia was indeed right. Cassidy finished the year able to read anything and do simple arithmetic. (If I had known then how much college would cost when she was ready to go, I might have just said she’d had enough school and put her to work at the newspaper. I’m kidding.) Cassidy graduated from Cathedral, and then decided to change school systems, attending Winona Junior High, and graduating from Winona Senior High. We had issues with her education along the way, mostly that it did not challenge her enough, but we never questioned her year in Virginia’s first grade. Consequently, our next daughter, Morgan, started in Virginia’s classroom, went on to Central School in fifth grade, and then the junior high and high school. By the time Jake was ready for first grade, Virginia was retired, and he had Joanie Klagge for kindergarten and Judy Whetstone for first grade at Central.

Thank you, Virginia, for your contribution to our family, and to many others.

Last week, Verna Meyer died. She is the mother of my friends Candace Gordon and Pam Dahl, who have both now live a few hours north of Winona. For many years, Verna and her husband, Ray, owned the Williams Hotel and Annex on the corner of Third and Johnson streets in downtown Winona (where the Wild Boar is now located). The Annex was a full-service white-tablecloth restaurant.

Verna, like so many career women of her generation, was a housewife who stepped into the family business partly out of necessity coupled with a wish to help her husband and contribute to the family welfare. She was a wonderful mother, whose daughters greatly admired her for her homemaking skills as well as her work outside the home.

As customers of the Williams for many years, John and I were always quite taken with Verna. She held sway over the dining room, was always perfectly coifed and made up, and wore lots of jangly jewelry. Her smile welcomed even the most bone-tired, winter-weary, snow-covered customer to a festive evening at the Williams.

Verna also loved needlework, and two years ago, I was given a set of dishtowels that she embroidered. I am taking them out of circulation so I can keep them longer. When she retired, she lived independently for quite a while, until arthritis brought disabilities that required she be in a nursing home. But Verna’s smile never faded, and she was always delightful to see and visit with.

Verna was a role model for me back during the 1970s’ women’s lib movement, when there were many women and men who disapproved of my working at the newspaper while my young children were at day care.

Thank you, Verna. I will miss you. 


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