Winifred Hermsen Willis: A Once and Always Teacher
She came from a working-class family. Her father, Joseph Hermsen, was born in DePere, Wisconsin, into a German immigrant family. His father, Heinrich John Hermsen, relocated his family to New Eddy, North Dakota, in 1883. He bought a farm there. Ten-year-old Joe labored in those fields throughout his early teenage years. By 1889–the family now living in Tacoma, Washington–he began a career in the retail meat business, one that would engage him for the next fifty years: as a delivery boy, an apprentice butcher, and, finally, as the owner of a local meat market, one he supplied from his own forty-acre cattle ranch in Lynden, not far from his eventual home in Bellingham.
During 1891-1892 Joe Hermsen apprenticed as a butcher in Portland, Oregon. He met Amelia Annie Fleming, the eighteen-year-old daughter of a local bootmaker. As yet unmarried, she helped to support her family through the 1890’s as a retail clerk in various department stores. That ended when she married Joe Hermsen on November 8, 1899 at St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Portland. Immediately afterward, Joe took his young wife back to New Whatcom (it would become Bellingham in 1901) to start a family. They lived at first on 13th Street; by 1909 they had settled into what would be the family home for thirty-eight years. The house at 2005 Young Street presented a short and pleasant walk of a couple of blocks to their Assumption parish church.
A Portrait of the Young Wife
By 1909 the couple no longer dwelled alone. They shared their home and lives with five of their one-day nine children. These included Mildred, the eldest; the third born, Winifred Mae; Alice Josephine, and two boys, Joseph Valentine (he arrived on Valentine’s Day) and John Fleming. On May 30th of the previous year, the second born, Lucille Bernice, had died of diptheria.
Winifred, Mildred, baby John, Alice, young Joe and his father
This family’s life had three centers. The home always remained first and foremost. Amelia no longer worked for wages in the community. Until her death in 1937 she assumed the roles of wife and mother, supporting her husband, caring for and raising their children. In his role as provider Joe became owner, president and proprietor of the Empire Meat and Grocery Company. This took much of his day-by-day efforts, but he labored at this for the welfare of his family.
Besides family and business, the Catholic parish focused much of their community efforts. Joe Hermsen sang regularly in the Assumption choir. He possessed a lovely tenor voice: he was described to me by his granddaughter, Kathy Hermsen Maggini, as “the John McCormick of the West.” Indeed, the dedication program for the Church of the Assumption in 1904 lists him as singing with a trio the Gratias Agimus, in a quartet the Qui Tollis, with a partner the offertory’s O Salutaris. I can only imagine his solo redition of Et Incarnatus Est during the choir’s chanting of the credo. For her part Amelia shepherded the family to Sunday mass, got them off to Assumption grade and high school classes, and served on the Church’s altar society. In whatever time she had left she gave her attention to the meetings of the Seattle Diocese’s Council of Catholic Women.
Given their lives as teenagers and young people, apparently neither Joe nor Amelia received any formal education past high school. Such would have been usual for their time. Seven of their nine children, however, went on to college: five, including Winifred, to the local normal school, Western Washington State College of Education, while two of the boys, John and Ed, attended Washington State College and the University of Washington respectively. Before their marriages five of these young graduates spent some years themselves as teachers, Winifred (or “Mike” as she was called by family and friends) among them.
She graduated on June 11, 1924. On September 24th she interviewed at Goldendale School District #404 for a position as a grade school teacher. She succeeded, and taught there for two years. As it happened, young James Willis, her future husband’s younger brother, being eleven in 1924, was studying at the same school. His older brother, Robert, had already graduated, and had matriculated as an undergraduate student at the University of Washington in Seattle. This, however, would not keep him away from visits at home over occasional holidays.
Their sister, Katherine Margaret, was attending Goldendale High School from 1923-1927. I asked her once, many years later, how her brother had met the young school teacher, Mike Willis. “Well, probably at church,” she replied.
In the fall of 1926 Mike left Goldendale to teach closer to home. She acquired a position as a grade school teacher in LaConner, a small agricultural community nestled between the San Juan Islands and the Cascade Mountains, about forty miles south of Bellingham, a bit further north of Seattle. (The latter gains importance because Bob Willis would be in Law School at Seattle’s U.W. until June 1930.) The town was built along the Swinomish Slough, a channel of salt water about thirty yards across, that flowed between LaConner on the mainland and the Swinomish Indian Reservation on Fidalgo Island. In 1926 School District #307, centered in LaConner, expanded to include the school-aged children on the Swinomish Reservation. Such fits my recollection of my mother telling me that “in LaConner I taught Indian children.” For seven years, until she was married in 1933, she led classes of third to sixth graders, both Indian and white.
I once asked her what she taught. She mentioned both music and art. Her daily program for the 1927-1928 school year–she taught both 4th and 5th grades–include, in addition, English and Spelling and Writing, Geography and History and Arithmetic. In 1931 she attended summer school at the University of Washington in Seattle. She took courses in “Elementary School Music,” “Elementary School Reading,” “Makers of Nations,” and “Golf.” All seem to fit, except the golf! Although her future sister-in-law, Katherine, avidly loved the game, I never knew Mike, at least during our years in Yakima, to swing a club.
Bob Willis, and Mike Hermsen, May 1930
Bob graduated on June 16, 1930. He joined the law firm of Irvey Bounds in Yakima that summer. Three years later, on June 13th, Mike Hermsen and Bob Willis married at the Church of the Assumption in Bellingham. After a short honeymoon along the Oregon coast, the couple began their communal life in Yakima, seventy-five miles from his family in Goldendale, double that from hers in Bellingham. But Bob’s Uncle Emmet McKanna, a real estate agent, lived there with his family, as did his mother’s dear friend from Douglas, Alaska, Frances Penglase (known in the family as Panky).
For three months they stayed at the pleasant Marilynn Apartments. They had to move on September 1st, as Mike noted to her sister Mildred, because “we won’t be able to afford such exclusive apartments again–we’re going to come down to earth–to go with the price of a poor lawyer.” They rented a house at 805 North First Street; they lived there until 1937. That year they bought what would become our home at 3408 West Yakima Avenue, a new family residence built on the western boundaries of the city. I never learned how much the “poor lawyer” had to put down to buy it. I do know that he had a mortgage of $4,000 which he retired in 1967, thirty years later.
The Willis Family Home in 1953
After an early miscarriage (I might have been son #2 instead of the eldest child), they welcomed three children into the family: Robert in 1935, Lynn in 1938, and James in 1944.
Mike Willis and her children, Christmas 1946
Much like her mother before her, Mike’s life centered mainly around her home, her husband and children. She never returned to a teaching career, nor any other outside job. She cooked meals, baked delicious pies and cakes and cookies, canned the Yakima Valley’s abundance of fruits and vegetables. She sewed patches to torn pants, darned socks, washed unrelenting piles of soiled clothes, and ironed the wrinkles out of most of them. She strove to keep both us and the house clean and in some semblance of order.
Most centrally, however, she oversaw the structure of our communal life. We ate our evening meal, always at 6:00 P.M., always together. As we grew older, we cleaned up the dishes afterwards. On Saturday mornings we did household chores, assigned and overseen by her, before we had the rest of the day to play outside or with our friends. We dressed up for Sunday mass, sat together as a family in a front pew, and rarely missed. Afterwards, we might take a ride, or have breakfast at a diner, or enjoy a movie at one of Yakima’s three acceptable theaters. During the war years, often two or three soldiers from the Army Firing Range spent the day with us, one culminating in a mid-afternoon Sunday meal featuring a roast surrounded by carrots and potatoes on a table set with her best china and silverware.
We marked year by year the passing of the seasons, following regularly the liturgical and civil calendars. Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving earned star ratings and the most elaborate celebrations. Advent stirred up expectations of Jesus and a Christmas tree, not to slight Santa Claus; Lent occasioned talk, at least, of belt-tightening and self-denial in anticipation of Holy Week. The Fourth of July stood out next. Special individual attention came on birthdays: presents, ice cream and cake, friends invited to a party, lunch downtown with Dad or a movie.
On ordinary days, ones with no school and no homework, Mom might play a game of Monopoly with us. Much more often she brought out playing cards for a game of hearts or pinochle or canasta.
Some of the best times happened around the piano. She loved to sing. She had a fine soprano voice. And she could play just about any tune by ear as long as we could start up the melody. When Dad joined in, we routinely sang college pep songs, jauntly pieces from the 1920’s, or stirring ballads emanating from the trials and sacrifices, at home and abroad, of our century’s two world wars. In his absence she tended to listen to our current favorites, play them as we sang, and entered in on the choruses.
Always she taught. Most noticably we learned proper English. Automatic responses flowed out of her when we mangled grammar: “I’m going to lay down”–“lie, hens lay”; ‘Can I go over to Dick’s house?–“May I. . .?”; “I’ve got a problem with. . .”–” I have one today, I got one yesterday.” She expected us to do our homework, helped us when we asked for it, often checked our returned papers, especially if they showed up with a “C” or less. Both of our parents reviewed our report cards. Low grades, especially in deportment, demanded clear explanation and problem-solving for the upcoming term. She demanded responsibility and got it. All three of her children received college educations, all three themselves became teachers, all three went on to establish their own families. Best of all, all three enjoy happy and fulfilling lives.