Thursday, August 20, 2020

Remembering Harold James Ripley, 1928-2020


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His early years were marred by terrible strife. The man himself defied the odds of his childhood and built a highly successful life. He had four children and raised two more who came from his second wife. He ended up with scads of grandchildren, great grandchildren, and great-great grandchildren. When his time came, he went out with a heavy sigh, in his sleep, at the age of 92 after a brief illness.

He was one of the hardest working people I ever met, was sharp as a whip, and did not suffer fools
Harold at the Orphanage (right)
Harold at the orphanage (right)
gladly. He had a keen insight and knew everyone in the Butler/Bremer County area from his long career in agriculture - either as a solo farmer or as senior manager for massive ag operations. He was also an entrepreneur, starting a Mad Hatter Muffler back in the 1970s among other business ventures. He was also a great storyteller. Because he was not a gossip by nature, it was tough to pull out details and dig deeper sometimes, but it was always going to be a fun ride if you were lucky enough to get this very stoic guy going on a tale to tell.

He was born the first child of Rasmus Theodore "Ted" Michaelsen, a 2nd generation Dane on March 15, 1928 in Plainfield, Iowa. His mother, my grandmother, Verlie Lynette Smith, like Ted, came from a large family. His lived in Cedar Falls, hers lived in Plainfield. 

Over the next years, three sisters would join him: Janis, two years younger, Dixie, four years younger, and baby Judy. The depression, now in full gear by 1936, had decimated the Michaelsen's ability to thrive. They were usually one step ahead of the sheriff who was looking to evict and the entire family had to be resourceful in finding ways to put food on the table. It didn't help that Ted liked to drink. Or had a tendency to be physically abusive to his wife.

Janis told me about one Christmas, when there was no money for gifts. Harold found an old cedar chest
Harold & Ellen (left)
with a leg missing. He fashioned a new leg for it and gave it to Janis and she kept it until her death. That year, she saved her pennies from selling eggs to buy each of the children a bar of soap.

Janis recalled to me that one day, they had all been sitting on the porch on a hot day. Verlie was nursing baby Judy. Ted hit Verlie and they both went flying. She also recalls that it was not long after that Verlie left. Without the kids. She had no job, no chance of a job, and no money.

Ted had the kids and the support of his sister Margaret. Margaret hadn't been able to reach Ted after several days, so she went up to where they were and found the children alone. Ted had taken a job in a CCC camp as a cook, and put Harold, the 9-year-old, in charge. Janis, age 7, cooked whatever they had and cared for baby Judy. She recalled that she knew she needed to wash the diapers, but no one had ever told her she needed to rinse them out. Baby Judy ended up with a serious diaper rash by the time Margaret made her way to them to check on them.

Quick-action was required. She loaded them on the bus and they all went to the Bremer Lutheran Orphanage, where they were placed and now had steady care. Janis thrived in the institution. Harold seemed to be doing fine and was in school and participating in activities. One day that winter, Verlie arrived with winter coats for them all. Janis was in no hurry to go anywhere, she liked the routine.

Margaret worked hard with the Smith's and the Michaelsen's to find permanent placement for the
Harold's 1950 Studebaker
children. Janis and Dixie went to Ted's sister Dagmar in Mississippi and would get involved with 4-H and excel in school. Harold was eventually sent to Verlie's brother Claude and his wife but was treated poorly, by all accounts, and ran away.  Verlie's younger sister Evelyn, who lived in Plainfield caring for her mother, Kate Smull Smith, brought him in. Her husband Marvin Ripley was often away at sea as a Navy man, but they adopted him. Baby Judy, for some reason, did not end up with the family, but was adopted to a wealthy rural couple. Some of that story can be found elsewhere here and here. Verlie would have another family with Leo Linsey - three boys, the oldest of which is my dad.

Harold had a happy life with the Ripley's. Things became normal. He grew up and married Ellen Chester, a very pretty local girl, and a few months later, their first child was born. Three more would follow. He farmed in Bremer County and later, was hired by a large ag firm to manage farms all over the area. He knew his stuff and did well. By the early 1970s, the marriage was failing. After the divorce, he married Judith Stigers, a divorcee with three children. Her two sons lived with her and Harold would adopt the youngest and raise them both. Out of this, I got my cousin Tony, who chose not to take Harold's name, but lovingly supported his parents in their old age and fondly called Harold, "Dad." They were married 48 years-ish when Harold died.

I want to recount a time I had questions about my great aunt Mary and a conversation I had with Harold to tell you a little about his absolute disdain for gossip.

I had been trying to talk about his aunt Mary Marie Adaline Smith, who so far, I had found two husbands for. I peppered him with questions about her Greek immigrant husband and the time they lived in Michigan running a Greek restaurant. He gave me very basic information. I also asked about her last husband - the one she lived with in California when she died. Again, all he said was that she married him because she had known her when she was younger.

After much more research, I came back to him, only this time, I took a different tack: "Uncle Harold. Here's my theory, tell me if it's right. Aunt Mary married the first time to the guy name Hoard and got divorced. It looks like she met her second husband DL Albert right after that and they also got a divorce. Then she married the Greek guy. Then she married DL Albert AGAIN, not because she knew him when she was younger, but because she'd been married to him before!  Is that right?  He said, "Yup."
I loved him a lot, just as I do his lovely wife, my Aunt Judy. I will miss him. 

Judy and Harold