History Culture Lawrence Welk
Fern Welk, Wife of Lawrence Welk,
is Eulogized as Daughter of the Prairie
"Fern Welk, Wife of Lawrence Welk, is Eulogized as Daughter of the Prairie." Emmons County Record, 14 March 2002.
(Editor's note: Shirley Fredricks gave this eulogy
at her mother's funeral.)
Fern was born on Aug. 26, 1903, to immigrant parents in St. Anthony,
North Dakota, a true daughter of the prairie. Her life spanned
and mirrored the twentieth century as she moved from a life on
the frontier wilderness marked by back breaking labor and uneasy
relations with neighboring Indian tribes to the heights of show
business prestige and our exploration of neighboring planets.
Her earliest memories were of waking with the dawn each day and
racing to hop into her parents' bed where her father, Mathias
Renner, kept candies for her hidden under his pillow. She would
find the candy and her parents would play with her. Mathias throwing
her into the air and catching her with glee until all three of
them were giggling with happiness. Sometimes she would hear her
father reminding her mother, Elizabeth, to replenish the stock
of candies because he always wanted 'Ferna,' as he called her,
to find some. Her mother would admonish Mathias that he was spoiling
Fern but he was tender-hearted and knew something about the hearts
of young girls.
Fern was the thirteenth of fourteen children born to Mathias and
Elizabeth. Her older siblings were much older than she was because
her parents had lost six infants from infectious diseases just
prior to Fern's birth. Her survival was considered a gift from
God. Her parents were homesteaders but her father also served
on the city council and the board of education.
When Fern was three years old and her little brother was six weeks
old, Mathias was stricken with a ruptured appendix at the age
of 41. Fern watched as he was taken away in a horse-drawn wagon
to the nearest hospital some distance away. In her home, as the
hours passed, there was an increasing sense of foreboding. Toward
dusk, as she waited by a window, Fern saw a lone rider coming
across the plains toward their home. As she later recounted, she
knew he would be delivering unbearable news. She fled up the stairs
to the attic where she hid by covering herself with old quilts.
There she cowered in terror and heartbreak all through the night
as she heard her siblings searching for her despite their grief.
This was the greatest loss of her life. Even as an old woman she
could not speak about her father without weeping. With the death
of this lovely man, her enchanted childhood ended and with it
her possibilities for a life that might have contained imagination,
security and poetry. For her mother, her seven siblings and herself,
life became a contest for survival.
Elizabeth was a tower of strength who believed in educating both
her sons and daughters. Not only did the farm succeed with the
help of her older children, but she invested in the stock market,
an unheard of enterprise for her time and place and she made sure
that all of her children had advanced degrees. Fern became an
RN and worked in hospitals in the Dakotas and in Dallas where
she became increasingly fascinated by working in their laboratories.
While pursuing her career in South Dakota she accompanied friends
to see a radio broadcast at a local station with a powerful signal
that reached all of the Midwest and south into Texas. It was a
broadcast that featured a popular new orchestra leader and his
band. Dad immediately spotted mother seated in the audience and
after the show asked several people if they knew the beautiful
dark haired nurse. He managed an introduction and started actively
courting her despite her first refusal to go with him, having
been warned about the shady character of most show business performers.
He continued to see her in South Dakota and when she moved to
Dallas, he bought a small hotel there so he could perform in that
city while pursuing his courtship.
Dad's proposal presented Fern with a critical life decision. She
knew that she was deeply in love, but she also knew that marriage
would finish her dreams of a career in medicine with its absorbing
intellectual challenges. In the end, she knew that she wanted
children and a home and said yes.
Throughout her life she maintained a keen interest in medicine
and was untiring in quizzing family members in the profession.
It is no accident that her two daughters happily married physicians,
that three of her eleven grandchildren became physicians and that
in their generation of spouses, there is another physician and
two nurses. She even entertained the dream of going to medical
school herself when her children were grown but life took her
in another direction as her husband became a national celebrity
and the demands on her time and emotional resources increased.
Fern's early life was bruised with uncertainty and instability.
As a teenager she lost her two oldest, and idolized, brothers
who were in their twenties and who had kept the family financially
solvent after her father's death. The oldest died in the 1918
flu epidemic, leaving a wife and four small children. Her second
brother died suddenly while in law school in Chicago of black
diphtheria. The early years of her marriage found her moving from
town to town with my dad, constantly saying good-bye to newly
forged friendships and support systems. Even as she put down year-long
roots in cities like Omaha, Denver, Pittsburgh and Dallas, she
coped with raising young children while yearning for a real home.
For almost the first two decades of her marriage, she was essentially
a single parent as my dad's work, of necessity, took him through
many states within a few weeks. They finally settled in Chicago
and bought their first home where they remained for eight years.
These were years strained by World War II with all its anxiety
and by a horrific auto accident in which Fern was a passenger.
She sustained a broken and dislocated pelvis, crushed ribs and
broken legs. When she was brought to the emergency room she had
the presence of mind to call me to say that she had a few bruises
and the doctors wanted to keep her overnight for observation.
She asked me, barely a teen, to care for my younger brother and
sister. We took care of each other for several days until my dad,
in his usual practical fashion, sent his girl singer north from
New Orleans, where he was performing, to take care of us. Her
experience was not domestic, but she was a good sport and that
is another hilarious story.
Fern spent a month in the hospital and was told that she would
never walk again. Confined to an upstairs bedroom after returning
home, we took care of her, assisted by her niece. Mom talked a
friend into purchasing a pair of crutches for her. As soon as
her casts were off, she started trying to stand, then take first
steps. While we were away at school she practiced walking on her
crutches in limited space and eventually walking up and down stairs.
It was a proud moment, four months later, when her doctor approached
her as she and my dad were dancing at a ballroom to express his
astonishment that it was really her!
Fern had an innate sense of style and taste that she inherited
from her own fashion conscious mother. Her instincts were swift
and true. She made gorgeous choices, sometimes from hundreds of
options, with confidence and speed. They were always perfect.
At times, one could almost imagine that she had been born at Versailles
instead of on a humble farm in North Dakota.
At the age of eighty-five I took her shopping for an important
event at an exclusive boutique. She spotted a dress and took it
to try on. To assist her I brought a few additional possibilities
into her dressing room. When she tried on my first choice, she
said firmly, "No, this makes me look too matronly."
Whereupon she promptly decided on the black and red tango dress
with the large red bow and the flounced skirt that had first caught
her eye. Then she bought the red Spanish high heels that matched
it. Of course, she was stunning and I was chastened.
In 1952, our family moved to Los Angeles and within three years,
my dad was on national television and becoming a celebrity. My
mother's down-to-earth Midwestern soul gave her an uncanny instinct
for spotting a phony and this skill was exercised well as a parade
of sweet talkers and wanna-be's tried to cultivate instant intimacies.
She fought to keep her and our family's private life private,
and allow her children to develop normally. If only the media
who proved so relentless had known how boring we were they would
have given up in disgust.
Her dedication to her family was her life's great artistry and
joy. Her bedrock faith in each of her children and their special
gifts and talents allowed them to become the individuals they
are today. As a grandmother, her pockets and handbags were always
filled with lemon drops, even on formal occasions. Her in-law
children and grandchildren became her own children in fact as
well as affection. Though she enjoyed the lovely clothes and homes
that she so deserved, she always believed that her real wealth
was contained in the people and generations that she nurtured.
You see among you today some of the beautiful jewels that her
Fern had a delicious sense of humor and a wry wit, which she delighted
in using. At the most unexpected moments, as children, we knew
that if we could tweak her humor enough so that she could see
how ridiculous our misbehavior had been, we were almost home free.
Almost, because we would still have to pay a price but now she
was on our side.
When she was eighty-nine, shortly after my father's death, she
took her three children and their spouses on her life's dream
trip - a journey through Israel to visit all the places in the
Bible that she held so dear to her heart. She was eager to see
and hear about all the legendary locations that informed her life
and her beliefs. She insisted on sampling everything and even
climbed to the top of Masada on a very hot day.
In her final decade, she endured and accepted the loss of sight
and hearing, and its inevitable isolation, with remarkable equanimity.
In these, as well as in all of her life's challenges, she bravely
turned to her faith and to her devotion to the Mother of God,
who, she felt, understood better than anyone what it means to
be a woman and a mother. With incredible optimism in her later
years, she would say, "You know, I don't have an ache or
pain." At her final hospitalization she looked at me and
remarked, "Shirley, why am I here? I'm not sick, I feel fine."
Fern had that rarest of talents that today is largely unacknowledged
and uncelebrated. She was our family's invisible heart. She was
the connector who reached out to every person, continually binding
them to one another as she brought news, validation or encouragement,
and reassurance, from the oldest to the youngest. In so many small
and seemingly insignificant ways, she tied us to one another and
helped us to see the humanity deep in the soul of each person.
Now that she is gone, each of us must assume the responsibility
for her mantle of loving communication. She is part of each of
us and her strength and resolve flame in each of us. We must be
the new hearts who reach down into fresh generations and invite
these loved ones into their own history and into new embraces.
Fern had what was for me perhaps her most admirable and quiet
gift - the capacity to hold unresolved mystery in her heart. She
knew that there was much in life that she could not know. On a
deeper level, she understood that many of the dynamics of human
relationships are subtle and complex, imbued with conflicting
values and loyalties. She knew that all of us are always on a
path toward our own becoming and that those she loved could falter
and stumble on life's journey, and, in disappointing themselves,
become closed and defensive towards those who love them most.
All of this she understood with a transforming wisdom that didn't
require analysis or explanation. Her uncomplaining and peaceful
acceptance of these limited relationships over long spaces of
time was truly heroic.
Last Wednesday as her family gathered at her hospital bedside
for the last time we held her hands and spoke of our love and
gratitude for the many gifts of the spirit that she had bestowed
on each of us during her long and blessed life. As that long day
progressed, she was never alone but always supported by her adoring
family. In the midst of this antiseptic and clinical environment,
my wonderful nephew, Kevin, and his wife, Lindy, brought us a
miracle. They plugged in a CD player and started playing my dad's
recordings of all the songs from the 20's and 30's that my parents
had fallen in love to. For the next hours, Fern's room and, I
hope, that ward were infused with lush orchestral music, soaring
rich and romantic over her as she slowly passed from our arms
In those hours, I saw that Mathias, her beloved father, was waiting
after almost a century, with his welcoming embrace, to show her
all the sweet delights now of paradise. And I saw my dad, handsome
and young again, walking toward her with a smile and arms outstretched
to ask, "Fern, may I have THIS dance?"
Mother, in your arms we first knew heaven's embrace. Today we
release you back into the enfolding arms of that embrace and into
a love that will continue to illuminate your beautiful life even
as it glows in our own.
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