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 love produced.
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 to God's.
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.