Interview by Teresa Nguyen
Joanne is the mother of local Janesville resident, Suzanne Hamilton. Suzanne is quite involved in our community and in her church community. You might often see Suzanne and her husband, Stuart, supporting and attending local events.
What a beautiful gift for one’s mother, to share her life story! It is both remarkable and inspiring.
The Early Years
I was born to Fred and Grace Bookhout in 1931, during the depression. We were unaware that times were so hard and just got used to things. My brother, Bobby, and I grew up on a farm, just north of Morrisonville, Wisconsin.
All the farmers in the area were in the same boat, and clothes weren’t a big thing back then, and we didn’t think of ourselves as being poor. Most people had big gardens and seemed to do okay. Farmers helped each other, anyway.
My Aunt Blanche, Aunt Myrtle and Aunt Hazel were my role models. They were known as “The Bennett Sisters”. They were my mother’s sisters and influenced me a lot. Blanche and Myrtle were instrumental in raising me when I was young, because my mother had died.
Both my mother and her sister, Blanche taught grades 1-8 in a one-room country school. This was well before I came along.
Their parents didn’t have money, so they sold cucumbers and buttons to help pay for schooling to become teachers. My mother graduated from the two-year Normal School and started teaching.
At that time, my grandfather told my mother that she couldn’t marry until Blanche went to school because it was money out the window. Her fiancé, my dad, raised and sold piglets to help finance college for his future sister-in-law, Blanche.
Myrtle worked in a hardware store and made hats and such and helped out. Blanch also would come out to the farm and help my mother. Then she would go teach at the schoolhouse where she had to start the fire in the stove, get the water from the well and all. For the commute, she would ride a horse to and from the schoolhouse.
Tragedy Strikes the Family
I was six and my brother was eight when our mother passed away. It was really a sad thing…my grandpa had died and they were having the funeral. We were all in the car on the way from the cemetery. My father was driving and we suddenly had a car accident. I can remember them taking us to St. Mary’s Hospital. And it just so happened that my Aunt Blanche was in the hospital at that time having her baby, my cousin, Barbara. And my other aunt and uncle were also there at the hospital visiting them.
Then we came in from this accident! I can remember my other aunt holding me in the waiting room. They kept my dad a while because he needed stitches. But my mother had a severe head injury, a brain concussion and went into a coma. She stayed there for weeks and never fully recovered from it.
My uncle, who had just had the baby, took my brother and me home in his old model A car back to their farm and we stayed overnight with him. I don’t remember much of what happened after that. At Christmas time, my dad took me to visit my mother in the hospital. She was still in a coma.
It was very hard for my dad. I often stayed with my aunt and uncle. They had a lot to do with raising me in those early years.
At the time of my mother’s death, I was so young, that I didn’t have a lot of memories of her. I do remember how she would take meals to my grandpa and feed him. I would tag along up the stairs to his room. He had been ill and stayed at our home prior to his passing.
I remember my mother died in March.
I can still see the coffin in the living room and the chairs all set up. There were all those visitors and I remember the neighbors were there. My dad said to me and Bobby, “You go up now (to the coffin), because this is the last time you’ll see your mother.”
I would sometimes find myself crying, but then realized it didn’t do me a lot of good. You just learn to deal with things.
Suzanne used to look at my mother Grace’s ring in the jewelry box and admire it. When Suzanne was to be married, she wanted to have her grandmother’s ring. Her fiancé, Stuart, asked my father if he could give it to her. He agreed to it, so, my mother’s wedding ring was passed down to my daughter, Suzanne, who also resembles her grandmother, Grace.
Our housekeeper, Ruby, helped us even before my mother died. She would come out to the farm often. Ruby was a neighboring farm girl in her early twenties and would help with chores and the meals. She continued on after my mother’s death.
Eventually, when I was about nine years old, my father married Ruby. They never spoke of my mother. Even though a stepmother can’t fully replace a mother, Ruby embraced the family and her role in it and was loved by many. She passed along her Norwegian traditions, as well.
Together, they had a daughter together, Carol. She is nine years younger.
Life on the Farm
We had cows, pigs and crops. We had a lot of chores, as farm kids do. I had to milk the cows and wash the separator (a manual device in farming of the past used for separating the milk into cream and skimmed milk). I also collected the eggs from the chickens. We had a big garden and a lot to do on the farm.
It was a pretty good-sized farm, so we always had hired help, too. Sometimes they lived with us in the big farm house.
Many years later, the University of Wisconsin bought our farm and the land. They burned down our home, replacing it with a newer, smaller one to save energy and such. It certainly didn’t take the place of the old house and it was sad to see it go. They use the land as a UW Research Farm.
When I was young, my father paid tuition to send us over to Morrisonville to go to school, which wasn’t too far, as we lived about a mile north of town. We would either walk or take a bicycle. My brother, who is two years older, would give me a ride on his bike, until I got my own. Sometimes the neighbor boy would give me a ride, as well.
After World War II, you couldn’t find a bike. They finally found one for me, which was second hand.
I remember when we entered the war. That day we were out at my aunt’s farm on the hill and she came out of the house to tell us, “We’re at war!” They had heard the news of the bombing of Pearl Harbor on the radio.
Farm help was hard to get then. Gasoline, flour and so much was rationed at the time. I remember they sold bonds, and we collected milkweed pods to help in the war effort. (During the height of World War II, milkweed was valued for its floss. It was naturally buoyant and water-repellant. The military used the fibers to fill life jackets for soldiers. It took two 20-pound bags of milkweed pods to make one life preserver. Government ads encouraged school children to collect the pods to help our American soldiers.)
High School Years
Our elementary and middle school years were combined, 1st through 8th grades. For 9th through 12th, we had to go to DeForest for High School.
At that time, there weren’t busses. Then my dad bought a car for my brother. He would pick up several of our neighbor kids, all boys. They would go practice football after school. Back then, they had six-man football. Soon after, they changed it.
I would have to wait with the other girls until our brothers were done with their practice. We girls would sit on a terrace and study or just talk. We had a good group of friends.
In high school, I attended the football games. Sometimes we’d catch the train coming from Madison to Portage to go watch a game and then take the train back. We wouldn’t get home sometimes until 10:30 at night! I’d either stay over at my girlfriend’s home or with my aunt, who lived nearby.
Sometimes, we’d take the bus into Madison and do things. We could walk out to Hwy 51, about a mile, and the bus driver would know that we wanted to go to Madison. He’d pick us up and it was a half hour ride into the city.
No one worried about us in those days. As long as you showed up when it was time to eat, that was just fine.
In high school, there weren’t any sports for girls. I was involved with the newspaper as a writer and then as editor the last year. I kind of liked that.
My ambitions after school were to do something in business, clerical work or something similar. It was expected that, as soon as I graduated, I would get a job. That’s just the way it was, unless you went on to college, though not too many of my friends did.
I took a job working in the Oscar Mayer plant in Madison. I used to do key punching, when the sales orders came in.
My friend and I roomed together. In those days, it was common to rent a bedroom in a family home. We shared the kitchen, bathroom and we took turns using the washing machine, etc. They rented to a few of us. We took the bus to work. We liked the city life and our independence.
I worked at Oscar Mayer from 1949 up to around 1952.
Don went to school in DeForest, too. My brother would stop and pick him up on his way to school, because he had to walk quite a way. I think I met him around age 16. He was a gentleman.
We would go to dances in different towns and out to eat. That’s what you did in those days, it was your entertainment. They always had live bands at the dances.
In 1952, Don was drafted and training in boot camp down in Georgia. When the Korean War broke out, they told the guys they would not be returning home. Instead, they would be sent straight overseas.
We were planning a wedding up here in Wisconsin, but we had to cancel that, because of the war.
Determined to Marry
My girlfriend and her husband decided that we would all take a trip down to Georgia so that Don and I could get married down there while he was still stateside! We wanted to be married in the Lutheran church and it seemed that in the South, one was hard to find. They were all Baptist!
Well, finally we found one over the border in South Carolina. There was also a law in Georgia that you had to be 21 to get married and I was still 20, but in South Carolina we could. Then, the pastor at that church was on vacation. We had to find another church!
After that, we had trouble with the car! It would stop on us every so often, which was happening on the trip down there, too. As luck would have it, just before we were going to get married, it stopped again!
I remember, Don was outside the car and lost his military cap on the road in the wind. We had to go back and find it. It had already been run over a few times on the road. He would’ve been in trouble if he’d lost his cap!
There were a lot of obstacles yet, in the end, we married!
In November, he was able to come home for just a while, before he shipped out. We had a reception in my grandparents’ home.
The Korean War
When I took him to his flight, I wondered if he would come back in one piece or even come home at all. You would worry about those things, but there was nothing I could do.
Don had no idea where he was going while on the ship and he was so seasick. When they arrived in Korea, they took a train up to Seoul and, at times, they had to lie on the floor because they were being fired upon!
He worked as a telephone operator while in Korea. He had to put the calls in to Japan for some of the officers. They had a guard that walked around his shack to protect him. He told how the weather was cold and how you really had to be careful, because you could be shot by snipers.
He wrote to me nearly every night, though the mail was kind of slow back then. We wrote back and forth. I’d wait for those letters! I lived with my parents while he was gone overseas and had returned to my work at Oscar Mayer at that time.
I have a photo from Korea of Don lying on his military cot in Seoul with a picture of me on the wall behind him.
He was gone for about a year, close to when the war ended, and then was shipped home. We went to the Edgewater hotel after I picked him up. I had to pack some civilian clothes for him to wear, but I had forgotten his shoes, so he had to walk around in his army boots.
He didn’t talk about the war a whole lot. He didn’t like being in service. He wouldn’t watch any war movies or shows on TV. He would say, “War is a terrible thing. I don’t want to have anything to do with it.” He wouldn’t even get involved with the veterans’ groups or anything like that.
He would say, “I’m no hero. I’m just lucky I came back.”
Post Military Service
Don didn’t want to go back to the farm. His older brother had stayed on the farm and he decided to get into carpentry. He signed up for an apprenticeship through the veterans’ organization and went to school. He would go to class some days and worked on the job the other days. We shared an apartment in Madison and I was still working at Oscar Mayer.
Seven years later, we built our home in Morrisonville, Wisconsin. My cousins were the Morrisons and they were instrumental in founding the community. They were my mother’s sister’s family. Don had some help from the neighbor down the street and they built the house piece by piece. I’d help by holding the lights in the evening and packed food for them, which I’d bring to the site. I remember even when it was cold in winter, they were still up there roofing.
Don finished his training and received his Journeyman’s Certificate for Carpenters and Joiners in 1958. For a while, he was working for other builders and then decided to start his own business, Quam Builders.
In February of 1959, I was expecting my first child, our daughter, Suzanne. We’d had people pestering us about having children, but we waited several years. That was what we wanted to do. I was 27 when I had my firstborn. Most women had a few by then so I was an “old mother”.
In those days, when you were pregnant, you had to show your doctor’s slip to your boss. They wouldn’t take your word for it as far as the due date and all. And pregnant women were not allowed to continue working. Your pay would end without any compensation or severance pay.
I had to quit my job with Oscar Mayer and became a stay-at-home mom. A little later, we had our second child, Mark. I was involved with the school PTA and the kids’ activities. We were also quite involved with our church. When the church finally moved to the new building, Suzanne was just a child, and even the kids helped carry books and things from the old church to the new location, just down the street.
I liked having cultural experiences, so I made sure to take the kids to Madison to see plays, to shows and to the library there. I took Suzanne to dance lessons and would take Mark to Rennebohm’s to eat.
Suzanne recalls, “I remember we were different. None of my other friends were doing those things, and I really believe that my exposure to those experiences positively influenced who I am as an adult.”
In high school, the children were involved in band, and Don and I would go to their concerts.
Don and Flying
Don’s true passion was flying. He eventually got a pilot’s license and loved planes. He was a safe pilot and took me up there many times. We would travel to other states, too.
He was always at the airport working, restoring airplanes. He owned and safely flew many planes through the years. He even refurbished an old plane in the old church building! He flew as often as he could. And he would buzz the house and tip the wings, saying ‘hello’ to me as I was hanging up clothes. The kids would run out and wave to the plane. They knew it was Dad.
We flew to Texas and to Florida. However, if the weather wasn’t good, he would just land it wherever we were. On one of the trips, we were stranded somewhere in Tennessee. It was fun for him because he could visit with all the other pilots. For him, it was like it was Seventh Heaven! It was awful for me. I just wanted to get home! He was very safe about flying in poor conditions, though. He would go up, take a pass and then return to say, “Nope. It’s not good, we’re not leaving.”
The kids would go up in the plane on trips sometimes, too.
Mark remembers, “Dad made little benches in the back and let me and Suzanne sit on the benches in the plane.”
We would fly places and he would meet up with old army friends. We would fly out to Ohio for aviator conventions and such.
Don won an award in 1986 at the EAA Oshkosh Air Show (Best of Type) for the 1949 Aeronca Champ he rebuilt.
He flew well into his 80s and wanted his grandson, Riley, to fly, too. Riley took some classes, but didn’t pursue the hobby because he didn’t have the time with a job and a young family. You have to be dedicated and fly often to keep the skills up. It’s too dangerous, otherwise.
After Don’s death, we sold the plane, the other flying items and the hanger to a friend of Don’s.
The Woman Behind the Business
I took on the bookkeeping for Quam Builders. We built much of the older part of DeForest. So many of the structures were built by Don. I kept the books and helped keep the business running behind the scenes. He would figure the costs and finances. We worked well together.
We built in this area and we built some apartment complexes that we kept. We maintained them, too. It was a successful business.
Besides the bookkeeping, I did a lot of cleaning, painting and other manual labor. I would take the kids with me. They would either hang out with their toys or help in little ways. I’d make meals and take them down to the buildings in progress.
Sometimes we’d eat as a family with a makeshift dining area set up on sawhorses! I had to be resilient through those years.
A New Career
When Mark was a junior in high school and Suzanne was in college, I was talking to my friend about going back to work part time (outside of our building business). Don wanted to retire and, if I got a job, I could get the insurance we needed.
My friend was the office manager at Clack Corporation near Windsor and she said there were no part time positions. She called me one day to say there was a full-time job available. She said, “If you want it, it’s yours!” They were in the water softening business and are still going today.
This was in 1978 and they were just getting into computers. I worked in data and accounting, entering the inventory in and such. We had big computers, I had to put big rolls of tape in them and do the back up every morning. Nowadays, things are automatically backed up.
They had a plant in Arkansas and sometimes I had to be flown down there in the company plane to help them get set up and learn the ropes.
Once, they wanted me to fly into some town and rent a car. That didn’t sound fun. My husband had retired and went with me. He spent time at the airports while I worked. On the way home from that trip, we stopped in Branson and saw some shows.
During those years, I worked and carried the insurance for the family. That was good, because Don often ended up in the emergency room!
I’d say, “Oh, what’s he up to now?”
At one point, I was ready to quit working, but they talked me into going part time. I stayed on and finally retired in 2002. I worked until I was 70! I loved the work and working with such nice people. I really enjoyed it.
In our retirement, Don and I would travel often. We went to Florida, took a trip to Arizona with another couple, traveled to Hawaii, Mexico and we took a trip to Switzerland.
We also visited New Zealand to see the Hamiltons, Stuart’s family.
Don didn’t like winters up north and he didn’t like Arizona because there was no green. We went to visit friends in Texas and they talked him into trying to get a place down there. It was out in the middle of nowhere, though. The location was near a small airport…ideal for him.
We sat down and talked about it. He said, “I’ve worked hard my whole life and this is my dream.” I told him that I didn’t want to spoil his dream, but I wasn’t going to move down there out in the boonies!
We then visited other friends, down near the border in Harlingen, Texas. That was more of an urban area and we settled there. It was a great community. There was a nice club and there were always events going on. It was also near an airport, so we would fly down there and Don was happy.
I wasn’t as isolated in that community and my friends and I would go volunteer at the schools. We enjoyed working with the kids. By that time, I was old, especially to the kids, probably their great grandmother’s age!
There were a lot of people down there from the Midwest. We had time to be socially active. We would do crafts and things and we had a bridge club. None of us were very good at it, still we’d play often. I’m in touch with some of those friends. There are only a couple left.
We lived there until around 2017 when Don passed away.
In his later years, Don didn’t have the health to travel to Texas anymore. When Suzanne and Stuart were newly married, Stuart drove us down to Texas and helped us sell our things and our home.
I took care of Don when his health was failing. It was challenging to be a caregiver. Still, you do what you have to do. The kids were very worried about me and wanted me to have a vacation. So, Suzanne and I took a nice Alaskan cruise trip, while Stuart and my son, Mark, came to help take care of Don. This was at Christmas that year and the guys took Don for a nice, long drive to see places where he had grown up and things.
That was his last trip out of the house.
Even before we came home from Alaska, the kids told me to be prepared because they believed it was too much for me to continue caring for Don. He went to the Waunakee Manor Care Center for just a couple of weeks. It was almost his 87th birthday in 2017 when he passed away. We were all with him.
We had a wonderful life together, married for 65 years!
Life as a Senior
My brother, Bobby, passed away a year or two ago, and my half-sister, Carol, is still around. We visit now and then.
I’m going to be 92 this year and very few of my friends are left. Some are in the nursing homes. Some of them don’t even know who they are. I wonder if we just live too long.
We do have a wonderful community center in DeForest. I take exercise classes to keep my balance and strength and I go down there for various activities. They have entertainment quite often, too.
I’m still able, thank the Lord, to go get my groceries and go to DeForest. But I don’t go much farther than that.
Mark lives in Eau Claire and Suzanne is in Janesville. Mark visits pretty often and I get to Janesville and to Colorado to go see the grandkids sometimes.
Now I have great grandchildren. I didn’t think I’d see the day!
We recently took a trip, Suzanne and I, to Ohio to visit some family. I’m finding that’s even a bit of a challenge. The bed was terribly high and I couldn’t even get into it! I thought to myself that this might be the end of my travels to other peoples’ houses!
Looking Back and Life Advice
As far as greatest inventions, I’d say the computer has been one of the most impactful. I do pretty well with it and it keeps me connected to extended family.
I don’t know if losing my mother has made me strong in life or not. You just have to deal with what comes along and make the best of it. Look for the good things and don’t dwell on the bad things. Put them in the past. I also believe that I couldn’t have made it through without my strong faith.
My next goal is to stay alive, I guess! I’ll take it one day at a time. I’m especially eager to see my newest great grandchild arriving this fall.
Additional photos from Joanne's life through the years. Click on photo to enlarge and see description.