Mary Louise Mielke was the wife of Wabash Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science Paul Mielke ’42, but I attended her memorial service Thursday in the College’s Detchon International Hall wanting to learn much more than that.
As it turns out, “faculty wife” wasn’t a bad place to begin.
As her son-in-law John R. Roberts noted, being the wife of a faculty member during the 40 years Mary Louise served this College “was like being a minister’s wife: a job with no position description, certainly no salary, but with heavy obligations and expectations.
“She was legendary with generations of Wabash students who were hundreds, thousands, and even continents away from home. She gave them a home, Sunday dinner, and perhaps even the mother’s care they needed.
“The way she touched their lives may have seemed to them like random acts of kindness. But there was no randomness to it. That was Mary Louise. She had a remarkable spirit of kindness, caring, and giving.”
Her daughter Margery recalled the hundreds of “hungry, lonely homesick sons of Wabash” her mother welcomed into their home.
“She loved those Wabash boys as if they were her own sons,” Margery said.
So it was right that Detchon Hall was packed last Thursday, that President White and Professor Mielke’s close faculty colleagues were there along with friends and family to honor this woman who served Wabash in the ways that define a college community at its heart. Mary Louise was one of those who gave our students those outside of the classroom moments that endear this place to alumni, the acts that make one’s alma mater literally a “fostering, nurturing mother.”
She did so with hospitality, “remarkable kindness,” good food, her performance and teaching of music, with her work as a librarian.
But that was just the tip of very bright and warm flame.
You felt that warmth as her daughter Kathy read Emily Dickinson’s “Nature, the gentlest mother,” one of Mary Louise’s favorites:
“Nature, the gentlest mother,
Impatient of no child,
The feeblest or the waywardest,
Her admonition mild…”
You heard it as the soprano voice of her granddaughter and professional opera singer Elizabeth Andrews Roberts—no doubt the most beautiful voice ever to grace this room—energized the air with Schubert’s Litanei. You could imagine a grandmother’s wonder and pride at such a voice coming from the grandchild she once held as a baby.
You heard it in the words of her daughter Margery as she recalled not only her mother’s many talents, but also a surprising sense of adventure : During World War II, Mary Louise led her girl scout troop on a 400 mile journey from Crawfordsville to Beaver Island, Michigan on single-speed bikes with balloon tires.
You heard it when Margery recalled how her mother loved not only playing music, but teaching it, how she enjoyed playing flute in the kitchen with her son Paul and daughter Kathy, and how she was tickled when the dogs joined in!
“In her mind, the perfect quintet was bassoon, oboe, and flute, with soprano and alto dog.”
She was a musician, a natural teacher, a librarian, a quilter and seamstress, and a lover of words—whether reading Virgil, doing the New York Times crossword, or reading aloud to her children and grandchildren.
“How can so much goodness, loving-kindness, and generosity of spirit be housed in such a small person?” Margery Mielke Roberts wondered aloud.
And that’s what most moved me Thursday—seeing how those talents and virtues continue to be housed in Mary Louise Mielke’s children and grandchildren. I’ve never been to a memorial service where the “departed” seemed so present in those she loved—in the singing, in the reading of her favorite Latin quotation by her granddaughter, Caitlin, in the embraces between readings, in the shared laughter at family jokes, in the carefully crafted quilts laying on the the table in the corner.
“We never doubted for one moment that she loved us; that was her great gift to us,” Margery Roberts said. “Her love was the bedrock on which we built our lives.”
It still is. As Mary Louise’s granddaughter, Jessica, added: “My grandmother taught me some of the most important things I will ever know—how to knead bread, how to knit, that words matter, and that loving means forgiving.
“Last summer I asked my husband what he thought the soul was, and he said, ‘the human capacity to love and to forgive.’ If that is so, my grandmother was a soulful woman.”