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'She was Grace': The official obit for Garrison Keillor's mother

  • Blog Post by: Tim Campbell
  • July 27, 2012 - 10:07 PM

 

 

Warm, plainspoken, occasionally frank and with a tugging undercurrent of fondness. That's the tone of this memorial, released Friday afternoon by Garrison Keillor's "Prairie Home Companion" team, which could be a model for any family struggling to sum up the life of a loved one in graceful prose:

Grace Keillor died Friday morning at her home in Brooklyn Park. She was 97. She was the mother of writer Garrison Keillor.

“Mother had a good long life and was still lucid a couple weeks ago and even had a good laugh about a dream she had had,” Keillor said. “She died in the house Dad built in 1947, with her children around her holding her hand and singing hymns.”

Grace Ruth Denham was born in Minneapolis on May 7, 1915, the day the Lusitania sank on its way to England. She was the last survivor of the 13 children of William and Marion Denham, who emigrated from Glasgow, Scotland, in 1911. She grew up on Longfellow Avenue in the Powderhorn neighborhood, attended Roosevelt High School, trained as a nurse and went to work at Eitel Hospital, across from Loring Park.

In 1936 she married John Keillor, who had courted her by singing hymns with the word “grace” in the title. They attended the Grace & Truth Gospel Hall on 14th Avenue South. John went in the Army in1942 and Grace and her three children lived with various relatives in St. Paul, Bettendorf, Iowa, and Anoka.

“Throughout her life, when adversity hit, my mother was strong, determined and persevering,” said her daughter Linda. “She did what had to be done — whether it was selling cookies door to door during the Depression, learning how to plant a garden or caring for a very sick husband. Besides her sense of fun and her love of family, what sustained Grace through good times and bad was her unwavering faith in Jesus Christ, whom she firmly believed loved her and gave his life for the salvation of all of us. She loved having children. And when times were tough, she sheltered us from the fact that we were living life sometimes at the very edge. When John suffered a severe concussion after falling off a barn roof and when he battled spinal meningitis and some of her younger children had to move in with relatives, she painted it all as if it was going to be an adventure."

For the next two years, my mother and her three children — Philip, Judy and Gary — moved from home to home to live with various family members in Minnesota and Iowa. It wasn't easy but she taught us throughout her life how important her family — both Keillors and Denhams — were to her. She was Grace, grateful for the help they provided.

After John's service in World War II, he bought an acre of cornfield in Brooklyn Park, a stone’s throw from the Mississippi, and dug a basement and built a white frame house on it. They raised six children in that house and kept a half-acre vegetable garden. After his retirement from the Railway Mail Service, they enjoyed travel to Scotland, Nova Scotia, and around the U.S.

 

 

The Keillor family, with Garrison on his mother's lap.

John Keillor died in 2001, after 65 years of marriage. Grace lived on in the house surrounded by tall trees they had planted in 1948, entertaining her family, playing Scrabble, reading, singing hymns, and praying for her loved ones. In the last five years, she was cared for at home by Sharon, Nicole, Ramona, and Diane.

She is survived by five children: Judith E. Locke, of Greenville, S.C., Garrison (Jenny) of St. Paul, Steven J. (Margaret) of Askov, Stanley W. (Kay Gornick) of Mendota Heights, and Linda Keillor Berg (David) of Minneapolis, and by 14 grandchildren and 21 great-grandchildren, as well asmany nieces and nephews. Preceded in death by son John Philip Jr., siblings Mary, Marion, Ruby, Jean, Margaret, William, James, Ina, George, Elsie, Joan, and Dorothy. Services will be private. 

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