Cheri Register didn’t expect her memoir about the 1959 Albert Lea meatpackers’ strike to interest many readers beyond her corner of the Upper Midwest.
So when she learned that college students in Hawaii were reading “Packinghouse Daughter,” she e-mailed their instructor to find out more. In return, the instructor sent Register the students’ papers on her book.
“I read about Japanese and Korean immigrant grandparents who had labored long hours in pineapple fields and canneries,” Register wrote on her blog. “And some students admitted to reconsidering their fondness for that Hawaiian delicacy, Spam.”
During her decades-long career, the two-time Minnesota Book Award winner created a body of writing that resonated widely while maintaining a deep connection to family and place. Appreciated for her curiosity, humor and strength, Register died March 7. She was 72.
Register was born and raised in Albert Lea, the daughter of a millwright. She was curious from a young age, and constantly writing — friend Linda DeBeau-Melting recalled exchanging letters as they passed each other in the hallway at school.
After graduating from Albert Lea High School, Register went on to earn B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Chicago. An active member of the women’s liberation movement, she helped found the Women’s Studies department at the University of Minnesota and taught there until 1980, when she left to write full-time.
Register’s writing spanned experiences from her childhood to adoptive motherhood to her decades-long struggle with Caroli disease, which was diagnosed when she was 19. At the time, she was told she wouldn’t live to see her 30th birthday.
“How ironic it was to be diagnosed, finally, with a congenital liver disease, to learn that I had been marked as eagle’s prey in the womb, without blame, and thus with no chance to absolve myself,” Register wrote in 2003.
In the early 1980s, Register adopted two daughters, Grace and Maria, from South Korea. Though both said they didn’t realize the full scope of their mother’s work until they were older, they recalled knowing as children that Register was a writer. When they visited a bookstore or the library, Maria Register said she would search out her mother’s books, even though she couldn’t yet comprehend them.
“Both of us grew up with an appreciation for language and a love of words,” Grace De Jong said.
Register also taught writing, and chronicled her students’ successes on her blog.
“As a teacher, Cheri had this way of inspiring you to believe that you could write a book, that your ideas were worthy, that your skills were going to be enough to do it and that whatever it was you had to say mattered in the world,” said author Diane Wilson, who took Register’s class at the Loft Literary Center and later became her mentee.
Register was active for years at Westminster Presbyterian Church, where she served as an elder and led documentation of the church’s history.
“She loved to tell a good story,” said the Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen.
Register also loved to travel, and traveled extensively overseas. But she always had a particular fondness for the wetlands and prairies of Minnesota, DeBeau-Melting said.
“She could just sit and look at the horizon for hours,” she said.
Register is survived by daughters Grace De Jong of San Francisco and Maria Register of Minneapolis.
A service will be held March 25 at 2 p.m. at Westminster Presbyterian Church.