Sally Jean Milroy's compassion nourished a long career in nursing. Her curiosity inspired her to start a cattle ranch and vineyard. As a mentor and elder in the Dakota Indian Community, she was a natural.
"It was a part of her being, she did it unconsciously," said granddaughter Jessamyn Kerchner.
Milroy, who died Oct. 4 at age 87, was born in Ellsworth, Wis. She spent most of her youth in that state and on the Lower Sioux Indian Community land near Morton, Minn. Kerchner said a missionary at the Bishop Whipple Mission near Morton saw Milroy's potential and helped enroll her in a three-year nursing program at Hamline University in St. Paul.
"He was very impressed with her intelligence and thirst for learning and wanted to give her an opportunity," Kerchner said.
Milroy's daughter, Lori Watso, said her mother grew up without many modern conveniences, including running water, so when she got to Hamline and moved into a dorm reserved for nursing students, she used a telephone and rode a streetcar for the first time.
"She was intimidated and called her father to come get her because it was a whole different world," said Watso, who also became a nurse. "But in no time she absolutely loved it."
Milroy graduated in 1952. For decades she worked in roles from nursing administrator to instructor and public health worker at Redwood Falls Hospital, Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park and Indian Health Service in Lame Deer, Mont. She spent the bulk of her career at Pilot City Health Center, a groundbreaking facility that specialized in underserved communities in Minneapolis.
In 1980, Milroy was selected to participate in a new nurse practitioner program and specialized in maternal child health. Kerchner said she was a skilled practitioner, but as a Native American caregiver she was able to connect with her patients in a special way.
"She was ahead of her time in terms of being an inclusive voice and giving patients the assurance they'd be heard and taken care of by someone who understood them," said Kerchner. "She had the empathy to listen to them and soothe them, and always put her hand on their arm to make them feel at ease."
In 1978, Milroy settled in the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community. After retiring from Pilot City, she became health care director and brought the first direct health care services to the Sioux band, Watso said.
She and her brother also started a cattle ranch on ancestral Dakota land she had started acquiring many years earlier. And though she wasn't a connoisseur of wine, she launched the Echo Creek Vineyard and Winery on land that wasn't conducive to grazing and farming.
Kerchner, who was a partner in the winery, said her grandmother had a natural curiosity about many things, but developed a deep interest in the ecology of the land. She worked with the University of Minnesota to develop cold climate grape varieties, and they traveled the country visiting other regional wineries.
Milroy eventually acquired and managed more than 1,800 acres, much of it along the Minnesota River on land that had been part of the original Dakota reservation.
"It was extremely important to our mom," said Watso, "that we had a place to go to where our ancestors were and that we held that place in their memory and in her memory."
Milroy was preceded in death by her parents; four brothers; husband Dean William Beaulieu and a son-in-law. In addition to Watso and Kerchner, she's survived by her brother, Gerald Blue, and daughters Lisa Rowles and Lesli Beaulieu; six other grandchildren and two great grandchildren. A service of remembrance has been held.