My tribute to the greatest mom ever
Mom loved family, her faith, the Hawkeyes, the Cubs, the Bears and Notre Dame football
By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – For the first time in my life of 57 years, I’m without a parent.
My mother passed away in her sleep early Thursday morning at the age of 91, and almost three years after my father passed away at the age of 91.
Mom also died on my sister’s birthday – February 18.
And while the timing of her death is probably just a coincidence, who knows with mom because she loved and cherished her family, and her family loved and cherished her.
We loved her wit, her feistiness, her resolve and the stability and comfort that she provided on a daily basis.
Mom’s birth name was Leona Mae, but she was called “Dutchie” throughout most of her life because I was told she sounded like a little Dutch girl while learning to talk as a young child.
Despite being highly intelligent and successful in school, mom never had the opportunity to attend college because she grew up poor, and as one of seven children, in the Highland Park section of Des Moines.
But that didn’t stop mom from helping to put three of her four kids through school at Drake University where she worked for nearly 30 years as a beloved dormitory receptionist. She became a friend to countless students who called her “Mrs. H” and sort of looked at her as a mother away from home.
One of the students was a young man from a Chicago suburb who made quite an impression on my mother, and that wasn’t always easy to do.
In fact, mom was so impressed with this young man, who was a sophomore at Drake at the time, she mentioned him to my oldest sister during a conversation at the dinner table one night.
My sister was nearing the end of her senior year of high school and planned to attend Drake the next fall.
Mom told my sister that she had met this nice young man, and thought they might have a love connection. Mom even said you could marry him, and it was highly unusual for mom to be such an impulsive matchmaker.
Well, to make a long story short, my sister met this nice young man after starting college and they were married in 1972 and now have three children – two of whom are married and the other engaged – and five grandchildren.
Family meant everything to mom.
Family, faith, friends, the Chicago Cubs, the Chicago Bears, the Iowa Hawkeyes and Notre Dame football; that was mom. She loved it all.
She also loved to cook, and could make just about anything taste good, even meat loaf and stuffed peppers.
She also had incredible attention to detail, and knew about everything that was happening in her home.
I remember a friend and I drinking an unrefrigerated bottle of pop without permission in the basement of my house, and then putting the bottle back in the holder. Mom came to the basement after returning home from work and it took her about 10 minutes to see that one of the pop bottles was empty, and I had to confess.
Mom was very particular about what we ate as children. Soda was only allowed on Friday nights, along with popcorn and a Hershey bar.
I was fortunate to have parents who truly loved each other because to have stability and guidance from home was so comforting, encouraging and beneficial.
Mom and dad didn’t agree on everything, especially my father’s love for the New York Yankees. But they always made it work because they had a special bond.
Mom and dad were devout Catholics and never drifted from their faith.
And that’s comforting to know because I believe that mom and dad are reunited in Heaven, and she’s reminding dad that the Cubs have won a World Series more recently than the New York Yankees have.
Mom loved to tease dad about so many different things, from his Gene Keady-like comb-over in the 1970s and 1980s to his collection of hats, and his massive collection of firewood that encircled our entire backyard for much of my childhood.
He was her rock, and he worshiped the ground she walked on.
The four words my father probably said the most while I was growing up was “go ask your mother.” It wasn’t because he was ignoring me. He just knew mom would have the answer, or would say the right words to comfort me.
No marriage is perfect, but mom and dad’s marriage, which lasted nearly 67 years, was pretty close to being perfect from what I could tell.
And for that, I’m so grateful.
Mom did have some crushes, however, and she liked to remind my dad about them every so often.
FDR, Forest Evashevski and Ernie Banks were among her biggest crushes.
She absolutely adored Evashevski, or “Evy” as she called him, and would warn my dad that he had better behave.
Dad would just look at me and laugh.
I didn’t know who Evashevski was when I started hearing mom mention him, but I did my research and that was my introduction to Hawkeye football at a very, very young age.
My father had his own football story to tell, but it was bittersweet.
He attended Notre Dame on a football scholarship from 1945-49, but a devastating knee injury as a freshman kept him from ever playing in a game at running back for the Irish.
Mom knew she could tease my father about “Evy” because mom knew that dad could take a joke, was comfortable in his own skin, and one heck of a football player himself. My father was a 215-pound running back at a time when some linemen barely weighed 200 pounds.
My father enjoyed sports, especially golf in his later years, but mom was a much bigger sports fan.
I remember many nights in which mom and I would be glued to the television watching the Cubs or the Iowa men’s basketball team in our house in a part of Des Moines called Beaverdale, and I’d look over to dad and he would be asleep.
The day my older brother signed a national letter of intent with the Iowa football team in 1978 was a proud moment for my parents because they had literally raised a Hawkeye.
Sadly, my brother’s career also was cut short by a knee injury that kept him from playing in a game for the Hawkeyes.
My mother didn’t always show emotion, but I remember her crying many nights as my brother battled a life-threatening staph infection in his knee.
It was during those darks moments when our family was touched by the grace and power of John Streif, who was the beloved trainer and travel coordinator for the Iowa football team and men’s basketball team.
John Streif was like a guardian angel to my family during those tough times because of how he watched over my brother. And my mother never forgot his kindness.
I remember interviewing mom for a story I was writing about John Streif’s retirement in 2012 and she became emotional while thinking back to how he helped her ailing son.
“He’s a great man,” mom said of John Streif, her voice cracking with emotion.
My mother had an ornery side, too, and I often brought it out.
Like the night, or more accurately, the early morning when I came him drunk, loud and hungry. I had graduated from college about two years earlier and already had worked for one newspaper, but didn’t like the job and quit after about four months.
So I was living at home for free while searching for work, but sometimes, I still acted as if I was a kid having fun in college, and that didn’t sit well with mom under the circumstances.
She woke up that morning and saw her kitchen ransacked and heard me snoring like a drunken buffoon, as she put it.
But instead of lecturing me, mom chose a unique way to send a message.
She made me tomato soup with milk that had soured, and I was stupid enough to have eaten all of it. I then told her that it didn’t taste right, and she explained why with a look on her face that I’ll never forget.
Let’s just say her message was received loud and clear. And, no, I didn’t get sick.
I also remember asking mom why she and dad never grounded me, and jokingly she said it was because that would have kept me around the house more. Mom had a very unique sense of humor.
There was also my final high school baseball game in which I pitched and lost in the playoffs.
Mom then overheard me and some of my teammates and friends talking in the parking lot in the moments after the game about a party that night.
She pulled me aside and said it was too soon after losing to be talking about a party.
My mom loved sports, but especially baseball, and she thought I was disrespecting the game she loved, and she was right.
Mom and I used to talk on the phone frequently, especially later in her life, and mostly about sports.
The conversation we had the night the Chicago Cubs won the World Series in 2016 is one that I’ll never forget. Mom often had said that she wanted the Cubs to win a World Series during her lifetime, and thankfully, it finally happened.
My mom had a softer side, too.
She greeted me at the basement door after every youth football practice with a Gatorade, with words of encouragement and with dinner always ready. And that was after having worked eight hours.
I remember as a young kid, after mom had started working at Drake, she would have grapefruit sliced and cut up and waiting for me in the refrigerator. She did that every morning without fail.
Mom worried about me being lonely after she started working for Drake in the early 1970s, so she got me a dog.
Actually, what she did was bring home a female Basset Hound that had been living with some students in the dormitory at Drake. The dog’s name was Fred despite being a female because she had been living in all-male dorm.
Fred became a beloved member of our family in 1972 and made my life much better over the course of a decade.
Fred was laid to rest in 1982, and a week before my high school graduation.
Mom spent the final night of Fred’s life by her side trying to comfort her. Fred was in a lot of pain, and mom did whatever she could to help ease the pain because that’s what moms do.
Mom and dad also had lots of friends, from work, from the neighborhood and from where they grew up. They often got together on Friday and Saturday nights with friends, and I remember the house always being filled with happy chatter.
Mom spent the last seven years of her life living in a care facility in Des Moines, the first four years with my father. They made friends with the staff immediately and were comfortable and safe in a new environment.
My dad hated leaving his townhouse in West Des Moines, but it was time, and he knew it.
Mom is in a better place now with dad and all of her brothers and sisters and friends.
Her last year was tough in a lot of ways, but mom was a fighter.
I drove to Des Moines on Wednesday to visit her and sat by her side for several hours. Mom never woke up, but I’m convinced she knew I was there.
The nurse told me that mom was nearing death, so I just prayed and thought about all the good memories because there are so many.
I’m so fortunate that both of my parents lived into their 90s with few health issues until the end, and that they were deeply in love.
Mom passed away about 12 hours after my visit.
The phone rang at 3:15 Thursday morning, and I knew without looking that it was my sister to tell me that mom had died.
No matter how much you prepare for that moment, the death of a parent still is devastating.
I’m fortunate to have family and friends to help cope, but there is also an empty feeling knowing that mom and dad are gone.
Rest in peace, mom. Thanks for everything, say hello to dad, and I love you both.