KAUKAUNA, Wis.—Remarkably spirited and adored mother, grandmother, aunt, and friend to many, Mary Louise Miller died peacefully in her sleep in hospice care at St. Paul Home due to complications following a COVID-19 diagnosis. She was 101.
Recognized as infinitely stylish, with her hair, lipstick, and nails always done and earrings to match every outfit even if a Packers sweatshirt with jeans, Mary Louise lived every day to the hilt and recorded all of it in her diaries. Known for praying the rosary at all hours of the day and night, taking long daily walks, and talking to anyone who would listen, she attributed her longevity to all of these practices.
She also deliberately enjoyed herself as much as possible. A few of Mary Louise’s favorite activities included playing cards and bingo; dancing, especially the polka and waltz; arranging flowers; watching sports—basketball, baseball, and football—especially when her grandkids were playing; traveling to visit family; listening to music, especially Nat King Cole, though she was also known to make up and sing her own little nonsensical ditties; reading romance novels; and enjoying a highball or a beer with cheese and crackers among family and friends.
Born to Ann (Shepeck) and Vital August Mathy into an old-world Catholic family in Menominee, Michigan on the day of the Armistice, Nov. 11, 1918, she was one of eight children, all named some variation of Joseph or Mary. Tragedy befell the family amid the Great Depression when Mary Louise’s father was killed working for the railroad. She remembered that with the settlement money she received a new coat, a great luxury at that time.
She enjoyed an active, playful childhood, despite poverty, despite her mother’s sternness, despite resenting that her brothers enjoyed freedoms not extended to her. She often got in trouble with the nuns who were her school teachers for her innocent irreverence—one memorable example was when she laughed uncontrollably in French class when introduced to the word “la fenêtre,” for window, a sound that simply tickled her to inexplicable silliness.
Her childhood and young adulthood was plagued with debilitating eczema, a condition for which she received little relief despite experimental radiation treatments, and in her early 20s she endured a mastectomy that in all likelihood was unnecessary. Her sisters often wondered if her early physical sufferings led to her lifelong resilience coupled with a proclivity for being center of attention.
She met Albert Frederick Miller, who converted to Catholicism to marry her on June 12, 1939, and she was known to say her only regret in life was that they hadn’t met and married when they were 12. They had their first daughter, Joan (Miller), in 1941 before he was deployed to the Pacific in the Navy where he fought in World War II. Their second daughter, Mary Lynn (Heinritz) was born in 1946, nine months to the day he returned from the war, they liked to say. Their baby, Anne (Vanden Heuvel), came six years later in 1952.
After a brief interlude in Portland, Oregon in 1961, the family returned closer to home and settled in Appleton in 1962 where Al worked as a foreman for Appleton Machine.
Mary Louise and Al celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary in 1964, and on Dec. 19, 1966, Al died suddenly of a heart attack on a weekday after coming home for lunch, a daily rite. Mary Louise never remarried, and longed for him ever after.
Mary Louise moved to Appleton’s Randall Court Apartments in 1978 as one of its first residents, and she lived there independently until 2016 thanks to devoted care from special friend Stacia Grace Herrling. When she could no longer live on her own, Mary Louise moved into St. Paul Home in Kaukauna, where she enjoyed daily visits with daughters Joan (until her death in 2019) and Anne, and was exquisitely cared for through the end of her life.
Mary Louise was a long-time parishioner of St. Therese in Appleton, where she walked to mass every day; and she worked as a clerk at Ford Rexall Drug store. However, a true extrovert who spent most of her life living alone, she dedicated the majority of her post-retirement years to helping raise her nine grandchildren. Regular babysitting, watching them play basketball, playing canasta and sheepshead and 31, and taking them to Erb park to swim, were just a few ways she indulged them in fun of every variety. “You can’t beat fun . . . with a stick,” she was fond of saying, and though she also had a notoriously sharp tongue and compulsion to speak the truth without much filter, her legacy is overwhelmingly one of laughter and love.
Though the grandchildren span generations, each has their own vivid and special memories with Mary Louise, reflective of their unique relationships with her. Even great distance couldn’t stop her involvement in their lives, as she spent nearly every winter in Texas with daughter Mary Lynn and granddaughter Marin, becoming an unforgettable part of their community outside Dallas.
Mary Louise is survived by her daughter, Anne Vanden Heuvel (Scot) of Kaukauna; son-in-law Charlie Miller of Kaukauna; eight grandchildren: Sara Cohen (Charlie) of Kaukauna; Peter Miller (Jenny) of Neenah; Susan Sorenson (John) of Appleton; Marin Heinritz of Kalamazoo, Michigan; Sean White of Kimberley; Jennifer Knapp (Lou) of Galena, Ohio; Cole Vanden Heuvel of Aurora, Illinois; Nick Vanden Heuvel of Appleton; nine great grandchildren; and two great-great grandchildren.
In 2018, the family celebrated her 100th birthday, a goal Mary Louise had set decades before, an event she attended with glee and for which she wore a tiara and a feather boa. She outlived her parents, all her brothers and sisters, her husband, two of her daughters, and her first-born grandchild. She was born during the influenza pandemic of 1918 on the day World War I ended, and it took the next global pandemic to take her from this life she loved.
Her granddaughter Marin asked her toward the end of her life how she conceived of heaven, and Mary Louise replied, “Boy, I don’t know, but I sure hope I’m playing cards!”
Mary Louise left an indelible mark on everyone who knew her, especially her family. She taught us how to love, how to live, and how to die with spirit and grace.
Services in celebration of Mary Louise’s extraordinary life will be held at 11:00 a.m. on Monday, September 28, 2020, at the Verkuilen-Van Deurzen Family Funeral Home KAUKAUNA LOCATION, 2401 Fieldcrest Drive. Family and friends may gather at the funeral home from 10:00 a.m. until the time of the service. All are welcome. Donations can be made in Mary Louise’s honor to St. Paul Elder Services, Inc.
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