Perhaps it was always in the cards that Bunny Marotta would be a seeker of adventures.
Her given name was Juanita, after the 1888 children’s book, “Juan and Juanita,” which chronicled the siblings’ return to Mexico after escaping capture by Comanche Indians.
But according to family lore, some of the Swedish relatives in her hometown of Trade Lake, Wis., couldn’t pronounce the name Juanita. So someone nicknamed her after a bunny doll she carried around as a child, and it stuck.
Marotta died Feb. 12, less than a month after being diagnosed with late-stage pancreatic cancer. She was 96.
The oldest of six children, Marotta spread her wings early. She went to college at Gustavus Adolphus in St. Peter, Minn., her father’s alma mater, and taught school in small towns in Minnesota and Iowa after graduation.
In 1943, with World War II raging, Marotta signed up for the Women’s Army Corps, and became part of the nation’s first group of women other than nurses to serve with the Army.
The military quickly recognized her smarts and sent Marotta to work in the military intelligence unit at the Pentagon, where she helped plot the location of Japanese warships and submarines, said her son, Vic Marotta, of St. Louis Park.
“It was top secret,” he said, “and they were right in the middle of the action. It was the most exciting time of her life. She made lifelong friends from her time in Washington, D.C.”
One Christmas, Marotta and a friend rode a “troop train” full of recruits to New Orleans to buy some soldiers a holiday dinner. While there, Marotta met her future husband, Ernie, a soldier from Malden, Mass., who was on leave. After the war, the couple lived for a time in his hometown before moving in 1951 to St. Louis Park, where they raised three children. They retired to Arizona in 1976 and Marotta lived there several years after her husband died, in 1987, in both Tucson and Green Valley, Ariz.
“My mom was a pretty progressive person,” said Mary Marotta, of Taylors Falls. “She told stories of going to basic training camp in Florida. … I think it opened her eyes up to a whole different world — that it’s not just a bunch of Swedes in Wisconsin. The world was very big.”
Inspired in part by Rachel Carson’s 1962 seminal environmental book, “Silent Spring,” Marotta went back to school in her late 40s and earned a master’s of science in botany from the University of Minnesota. Her thesis centered on bog ecology at the Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve, the school’s 5,400-acre research site near Bethel, Minn. Later in life, Marotta hoped that her research might someday help scientists better understand global warming.
“I spent a good deal of my childhood traipsing around those bogs with her checking thermometers and resetting instruments she had placed in various locations,” her daughter said. “Oh, and fighting off horse flies!”
Marotta experienced the natural world as an artist as well as scientist, and credited her mother’s ancestry — a stew of Chippewa as well as French and Swiss lumbermen — with her strong connection to the earth.
She was a nationally accredited flower judge, and wrote and illustrated books on horticulture. She made paintings of wildflowers, and until the last year, could bend her 5-foot-2 frame at the waist to take a close-up photo of a flower she found particularly exquisite. Despite her age, she took quickly to digital photography and computers to write stories and catalog plants.
She is survived by another son, Fred Marotta, of Prior Lake; and sisters Anne Hatch, of Seward, Alaska; Jean Sampson, of Taylors Falls; Beulah Lindberg, of Siren, Wis; and Grace Kalantari, of Edina.
Services will be held from 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday at the Taylors Falls Memorial Community Center, 312 Government St., Taylors Falls, Minn.