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  • Writer's pictureTeresa Nguyen

Joanne Quam

Interview by Teresa Nguyen

November, 2023

Author’s note:


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 (Bennett) Bookhout on August 31, 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.

Photo of Joanne with her brother, parents and grandfather

All the farmers in the area were in the same boat, and clothes weren’t a big thing back then. We didn’t think of ourselves as being poor. Most people had big gardens and seemed to do okay. Farmers helped each other.


Early Role Models


My mother's sisters, Aunt Blanche, Aunt Myrtle and Aunt Hazel were my early 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 when I was six years old.


Both my mother and her sister, Blanche taught grades 1-8 in a one-room country school. This was well before I came along.

Joanne's maternal aunts and uncle

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 (teacher training college) and started teaching near Lodi, Wisconsin. Teachers were not allowed to be married and lived with local families.


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 if she spent it on an education and did not use it. Her fiancé, my dad, raised and sold piglets to help finance college for his future sister-in-law, Blanche. After Aunt Blanche became a teacher, my parents married.


Aunt Blanche lived on the farm with my family and taught school at a nearby country schoolhouse where she had to start the fire in the stove and get water from the well, in addition to her teaching duties. 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 (Levi Bookhout) had died and we were leaving the cemetery in Madison when 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. My Aunt Myrtle and Uncle Gordon Stewart were also there at the hospital visiting them when we came in from this accident!


Joanne as a young child

I can remember my Aunt Myrtle holding me in the waiting room. They kept my dad a while because he needed stitches. 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, Bruce Morrison, whose wife, Blanche 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 aunts and uncles. 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. One memory I have of my mother was when she would take meals to my Grandpa Bookhout 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 of 1938.


I can still see the coffin in the farmhouse living room and the chairs all set up for the visitation. There were all those visitors and I remember the neighbors were there. At the funeral, 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.” The funeral was held at the Lutheran church in Morrisonville.


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 wearing her grandmother Grace's ring

I only have a few things that belonged to my mother, just a few papers and some jewelry. My daughter, 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.


Stepmother Ruby


Our family was fortunate to have Ruby Hatlem, a young woman in her twenties, who lived nearby, come to help when my mother was ill. There was so much work to do in the home on a farm. Women helped with farm chores, cared for children, made meals for the family and the hired help, did laundry, and grew and preserved food for the winter.


Eventually my father married Ruby. Ruby embraced our family and her role in it. She became the “glue” of our family and passed along her Lutheran faith and Norwegian traditions, as well.


My father and Ruby had a daughter, Carol, together. She is nine years younger than I.



Life on the Farm


I grew up on a 300 acre farm on the Arlington Prairie. It was located in Columbia County near Morrisonville, Wisconsin. It was a pretty big farm, at that time, so we always had hired help. Sometimes they lived with us in the big farmhouse. We had cows, pigs, chickens and crops. We had a lot of chores, as farm kids do. I had to 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.

The family farmhouse where Joanne grew up

Early in the 1950’s the University of Wisconsin bought our farm to be part of the Arlington Research Farm. They eventually burned down the farmhouse, replacing it with a newer, smaller one to save energy. It certainly didn’t take the place of the old house and it was sad to see it go.


When I was young, my father paid tuition to send us over to Morrisonville to go to school for grades one through eight, 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.

Joanne feeding a deer as Cousin Barbara watches

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 World War II. That day we were out at my Aunt Blanche’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.


Once the war started, farm help was hard to get. Gasoline, flour, sugar and so much more was rationed at the time. I remember they sold war bonds. 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, in Morrisonville. We had to go to DeForest for High School, which was just three miles away. There were 35 students in my high school class. I graduated in 1949.


Joanne Quam - high school graduation

At that time, there weren’t school busses, so 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 who remained lifetime friends.


In high school, I attended the DeForest football games. Sometimes we’d catch the train to come home to Morrisonvile after the game. 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 Blanche, who lived near the train station.


Sometimes, we’d take the Greyhound bus into Madison to go shopping. We could walk out to Hwy 51, about a mile, and the bus driver would know to pick us up and take us to the capitol square. It was just a half hour ride into the city.

Joanne Quam

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 the editor during my senior year. I kind of liked that.


First Job


It was expected that as soon as I graduated, I would get a job. Most people did not go on to college. The expectation, especially for women, was that they would marry soon after high school and start a family. That’s just the way it was. My ambitions after school were to do something in business, clerical work or something similar.


I took a job working in the office at Oscar Mayer (a food processing business) in Madison. I used to do keypunching, when the sales orders came in.

Oscar Mayer Plant in Madison - State Journal Archives

My friend and I roomed together. In those days, it was common to rent a bedroom in a family home. We shared the kitchen and 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 1959. I left briefly to work on an Army base in Georgia, typing lesson plans for soldiers, while my husband did his training before going to Korea for his military service.

Joanne & Don

Meeting Don


I met my future husband, Don Quam, while I was in high school. My brother would stop and pick him up on his way to school, because he had to walk quite a way.


Dating in the 1940’s meant going to dances in different towns or meeting friends after football games at a small diner on East Washington Avenue in Madison. That’s what you did in those days, it was your entertainment. They always had live bands at the dances.


Don and I were engaged to marry in 1951. We were planning to get married in the summer of 1952. Our plans changed when the Korean War broke out and Don was drafted and sent to boot camp at Camp Gordon near Augusta, Georgia. They were told that they would only have a few days to return home to Wisconsin before being sent overseas.


Determined to Marry


My best friend, Luella, and her husband Bob Pitcel, 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! It was a stressful trip. Luella and I drove Don’s car and Bob followed us in their car. The car kept breaking down until we realized that we needed a new battery.


There was a law in Georgia that you had to be 21 to get married and I was still 20. We learned that we could get married in South Carolina without being 21. We wanted to be married in a Lutheran church and it seemed that in the South, one was hard to find. Most churches were Baptist or Methodist. Eventually, we found a Lutheran church over the border in South Carolina, but the pastor at that church was on vacation. We had to find yet another church!

Don and Joanne Quam - Wedding Reception, 1952

As luck would have it, just before we were going to get married, the car 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 but, in the end, we married! It was a very small wedding with just our best friends there as witnesses. I borrowed a dress from a friend. The marriage lasted for 65 years until Don died in 2017.


In November of 1952, he was able to come home to Wisconsin for just a few days, before he shipped out. We had a wedding reception in my parent’s home.


The Korean War


Don boarded a flight in Madison to go to Seattle to meet the other soldiers waiting to board a ship. When his parents and 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. As I drove away a fitting song, “Now is the Hour” by Vera Lynn played on the car radio.


Click on the link to hear the song: "Now is the Hour"


Don in South Korea during the Korean War - A picture of Joanne hangs on the wall

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 by snipers!


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.


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 16 months and was discharged close to when the war ended. We went to the Edgewater hotel in Madison, 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.


In 1954 we bought land from My Aunt Blanche and Uncle Bruce Morrison who farmed on the edge of Morrisonville and we began building our home. Don and I would work on the house on weekends and evenings. We finished it and moved into it in 1955. I have lived there since we built it.


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.


The Woman Behind the Business


I took on the bookkeeping for Quam Builders. Don built many homes in the DeForest Area. He also built some apartments that we kept and maintained as income property. During the summer the building business was very busy in anticipation of having inside work ready for the winter.


Sometimes I would take our family dinner to the job site. We would set up saw horses and have a picnic so Don could keep working.


The Children


Mark and Suzanne

In February of 1959, our first child, Suzanne, was born. I was 27 when I had our first child. Most women had a few by then so I was an “older mother”.


In those days, when you were pregnant, you had to quit your job once the employer knew of the pregnancy. 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. About three years later, we had our second child, Mark.


Not many women worked outside of the home when I was a young mother. I was happy being home with the kids and was part of a strong community of women. Many of our activities were school or church-centered. I was involved with the school PTA, taught Sunday school and involved in the kids’ activities. We were also quite involved with our church.


The Quam Family

In 1977 our family hosted a young woman from Sweden through the AFS program. Helen Ringstrom became a “bonus” daughter. Over the years, she has come back to Wisconsin to visit several times. I also visited her in Sweden. I don’t see her very often but the connection remains strong.

Family photo with Helen (second from left)

I liked having cultural experiences, so I made sure to take the kids to Madison to see plays and musical performances. We also went to the Madison library frequently. I took Suzanne to dance lessons and would take Mark to Rennebohm’s to eat, while she had her lesson.


An old Rennenbohm menu

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.”


Don and Flying


Don’s true passion was flying. He loved planes and eventually got a pilot’s license. He was a safe pilot and we often traveled together as a family in the small plane.

Don in his element - smiling while flying

He owned and safely flew many planes through the years. He even refurbished an old plane in our old church building in Morrisonville! Don won an award in 1986 at the EAA Oshkosh Air Show (Best of Type) for the 1949 Aeronca Champ he rebuilt. He flew as often as he could. Sometimes 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 their dad.


We flew to other states, including Ohio, Texas and 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! 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.”


He continued to fly well into his 80s and wanted his grandson, Riley, to fly, too. Riley took some flying lessons, 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 and the hangar to a friend of Don’s.


Mark remembers, “Dad made little benches to fit in the back of the plane and let me and Suzanne sit on the benches in the plane.”


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, Betty Bader, was the office manager at Clack Corporation near Windsor and she said there were no part-time positions. But, she said there was a full-time job available. She told me, “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. 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 and computers are so much smaller.


They had a plant in Arkansas and sometimes I flew along in the company plane to help them get set up and learn the ropes.

During those years, I worked and carried the insurance for the family. 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.


Retirement


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, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway and New Zealand. In New Zealand we visited our son-in-law’s family.


Don didn’t like Midwest winters and he didn’t like Arizona because there was no green. We went to visit friends in Texas and they talked us into finding a place down there. The location was near a small airport…ideal for him but not very appealing to me, so we kept looking for something we would both like.

Joanne and Don in Mexico

We then visited other friends, down near the border in Harlingen, Texas. This was more of an urban area and we settled there. It was a great community. There was a nice clubhouse and events going on there. It was also near a small airport, so we would fly down there and Don was happy to keep his plane there for the winter.

My friends and I would volunteer in the Harlingen schools. We enjoyed working with the kids. By that time, I was old, especially to the kids, probably their great grandmother’s age!

Joanne tutoring at a school in Texas

There were a lot of people down there from the Midwest and Canada. We had a lot of things in common and had time to be socially active. We would go to church together, go out for meals and dancing at the local VFW hall, do crafts and play bridge. 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 wintered there until 2017.


Don & Joanne

Losing Don


Don’s health began to fail when he was in his 80’s. I took care of Don when his health was failing. It was challenging to be a caregiver. The kids were very worried about me and wanted me to have a break from caregiving so Suzanne and I took a nice Alaskan cruise, while Stuart and my son, Mark, took care of Don. While we were away, Stuart took Don on a long drive to see the places where he had grown up. That was his last trip out of the house.

Don Quam and his plane - a photo that captured the essence of Don

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 before he passed away in July of 2017. It was almost his 87th birthday. We were all with him.


We had a wonderful life together, married for 65 years!


Mark, Don, Joanne and Suzanne

Life as a Senior


I am 92 years old and still live independently in my own home. I am thankful for my health.


Very few of my friends are left. Some are in nursing homes. Some of them don’t even know who they are. My brother passed away last year. My sister, Carol Gumbinger and her husband, Keith, live in Kenosha. I have many nieces and nephews.

Suzanne and Joanne

I have friends and neighbors and many connections at the church in Morrisonville. 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 drive to do errands and get groceries in DeForest. But I don’t go much farther than that. I still do some traveling with the help of my family.


Family


I feel very fortunate that I have a loving family. My son, Mark and his husband, Jeff, live in Eau Claire and visit often. My daughter, Suzanne and her husband, Stuart, live nearby in Janesville. We were fortunate to live close to our two grandchildren, Sarah and Riley, when they were growing up. We were able to spend time with them and enjoy their school and church activities, including their college graduations.


Our grandson, Riley and his wife, Katy also live in Janesville. They have two sons, Jack and William. Our granddaughter, Sarah, and her husband, Danny live in Colorado. They have a son named Sam. I didn’t think I would see the day that I would be a great grandmother!


Family joy! Joanne (in green) at granddaughter Sarah's wedding

Looking Back and Life Advice


Looking back in my lifetime there have been so many changes: indoor plumbing, automobiles, TV, landing on the moon and computers. I’d say the computer has been one of the most impactful.


My advice from living a long life is that 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.


United in Christ Lutheran Church in Morrisonville, where Joanne's family has worshiped for generations.

Additional photos from Joanne's life through the years. Click on a photo to enlarge and see description.









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