It was a day in June, only months before her death, that Inez Florence Oehlke reminded the citizens of Woodbury once again that old age means nothing to a youthful mind.
The historian and civic activist was on her latest mission, a quest to convert one of the city’s last remaining barns into a heritage museum. She appeared at a City Hall meeting with her daughter, Janet Anhalt, and close friend Margaret Wachholz. It seemed that all of Woodbury knew her, said Wachholz: “She was 96 and still making a difference.”
Now, planning for the 100-year-old Miller Barn will have to continue without Oehlke, who died Monday of natural causes after living nearly a century on land that became Woodbury.
Oehlke was a legendary champion of the east metro city and its history, making public appearances to talk about it right up until the end of her life.
“She was truly a civic icon and leader, just a wonderful lady and an amazing public speaker. She could captivate a whole room,” said Lisa Weik, who represents Woodbury on the Washington County Board.
Dick Hanson, a Woodbury Foundation board member, recalled a speech Oehlke gave at the foundation’s gala in 2014. “She was a magnificent storyteller about the history of Woodbury,” he said. “Her personality and her charisma were on full display there. ... She deserved that word ‘icon.’ ”
Inez Scheel was raised on a Washington County farm. She met Glen Oehlke at a dance in Cottage Grove, and after they married in 1947 they moved to his parents’ farm where Woodbury Drive and Bailey Road now converge at a busy traffic roundabout.
They farmed there for 53 years before deciding to sell their land to two churches, St. Ambrose Catholic on one corner and Resurrection Lutheran on the other. The farmhouse and barn still stand and are used by Resurrection.
Inez Oehlke’s reputation as a speaker and historian grew over the years. She and other civic leaders, including Mayor Orville Bielenberg, founded the Woodbury Heritage Society in 1984. In a recent video made of her life, she appealed to Woodbury residents: “Volunteer! There’s always a place where they can use you.”
Anhalt, of Big Lake, Minn., said that her mother’s skills as a speaker began with her first drama reading in first grade, and that public speaking became her way to teach residents about their city’s rural history.
In 1975-76, Oehlke chaired the committee that published “Woodbury: A Past to Remember,” a commemorative book to mark the national bicentennial. “She just loved history, knowing where people and things came from,” Anhalt said.
And Oehlke never regretted Woodbury’s vigorous development, thinking it “actually wonderful” because she could see the need for growth.
In 2014, she was honored as Woodbury’s Citizen of the Year. She was proud to greet new residents as an ambassador at Woodbury Villa, where she had lived since 2005.
“She deserves a lot of credit in this world that she didn’t even seek. She was never loud or boastful,” Anhalt said.
Wachholz, who visited Oehlke almost every day, said she donated money and help to all churches and denominations “with a beautiful open heart.”
Oehlke’s death on Labor Day was notable because “she was always for the people who put their shoulder to the wheel,” Wachholz said. “She was the most humble woman. To see other people shine was so important to her.”
Oehlke was preceded in death by her husband, who died in 2000, and their son, Vernon. Beside her daughter, she is survived by a sister, Lorraine Raths, of Woodbury; four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Services will be at 11 a.m. Friday at Gethsemane Lutheran Church, 2410 Stillwater Road E., Maplewood. Visitation begins at 10 a.m.