Elsie Skjei Bergerson left a farm in Minnesota to become an Army dictationist during World War II.
She returned from the war a widow, spent the next 45 years as waitress at some well-known Minneapolis restaurants, saved enough money to buy her parents a house and put aside enough time to be a second mom to dozens of nieces and nephews and their children.
Bergerson died on July 7 at 92 after suffering a stroke at her home in Madison, Minn., where she'd lived since leaving the city in 1990. She is survived by three siblings, Carol Bergerson of Madison; Sylvia Pridal of Marshall, Minn.; and Jim Skjei of Rosemount, 28 nieces and nephews, and 51 grandnieces and grandnephews.
"We lost our leader," Constance Sorenson, one of her nieces, said at a memorial service earlier this month.
Bergerson was the first of six children born in Louisburg, Minn., to a fastidious mother and a father who farmed while enduring the pain of shrapnel and mustard gas injuries from World War I. She wanted more than Louisburg, a town of 120, could offer.
"She wanted to get to the big city. She wanted to see the world," Deborah Lysholm, another niece, said.
After Bergerson graduated from high school, a friend pressed her to enlist in the U.S. Women's Army Corps together. The pals arranged to meet at a recruitment office on a Saturday. When the day came, her friend didn't show, but she enlisted anyway.
"That was all right," Lysholm said. "Elsie was so strong-willed and so self-confident that if she didn't really want to do it, no one could have talked her into it. And to her dying day, she was very, very patriotic."
She received a letter during boot camp from her hometown boyfriend, Reginald "Bud" Bergerson, also in the Army, with a marriage proposal.
They wed at Fort Dix, N.J., and he soon shipped off to Africa. She later went to France, where she worked for a general as a dictationist and typist in an office carved out of a partly ruined building. In the office, the Army required her to wear a uniform. But when she delivered messages, she changed into civilian clothes to walk through crowds without drawing attention.
When she transferred back to a U.S. post, she learned Reginald had been killed in action. Widowed at age 21, Elsie kept a photo of Reginald on her bedside table the rest of her life. She had beaus but didn't marry again, her brother Jim said. "Elsie was a friend to all and a mother to many," he said.
She left the Army in 1945 and got a job at Harry's Cafe in downtown Minneapolis. The city's elite, politicians to bankers to ball players, were regulars. Later, she split shifts between Harry's and the North Star Inn.
Years of balancing trays stretched her tendons so much that "her fingers touched the back of her forearm. When she smoked she had to be careful. Her cigarette nearly burned her forearm," Sorenson said.
Her sister, Sylvia Pridal, said Bergerson believed the hard work brought her independence. "She never laid up treasures on this Earth, but she did buy a house for our parents in Madison," Pridal said. "We always called it Elsie's house."
She taught her nieces and nephews etiquette, how to set a table, what not to drink and how to act like a woman or, for the boys, how to treat one. "We're from the farm, but she was such a lady," Sorenson said.
Lysholm remembered a day as a child when Aunt Elsie picked her and another cousin up from dance class and treated them to lunch at Harry's. Suddenly, she hoisted the girls on top of a table, called the room to attention and had the girls tap dance. When they finished, the diners erupted in applause and the girls went back to eating. "Her customers loved her," Lysholm said.