In 1944, when Vija Vilks was 15, she and her family left her native Latvia to escape Russian occupation. They started to leave by land, but Vija told her dad she had a dream that the family should leave by sea. Without hesitation, Vija’s family went to the seaport, sold what they had for pennies, including horses, and boarded the ship General J.H. McRae.
“They found out later that all the roads had been blocked by the Russians,” said her daughter Andrea Roth. Their ship survived an airstrike on its way to refugee camps in Germany, where they stayed for five years. “She loved living there,” said Roth. “She described it as a place with Italians singing and Hungarians dancing.”
She finished high school in Germany and came to the U.S. with the assistance of the International Refugee Organization, graduating from Johns Hopkins School of Nursing in 1954. She wanted to become a dentist or doctor, but the path was not open to women at that time, Roth said.
She married Henry Vilks in 1958 and moved with him to Brooklyn Center in 1960. She eventually became head nurse and supervisor of the emergency room at North Memorial Hospital. “She always put the patients first,” said Mary Watson of Otsego, an RN who worked with Vilks. “She was so kindhearted and dedicated and always supportive of her co-workers.”
Sally Staggert of Champlin, also a co-worker, described Vilks as a striking woman who never had a hair out of place, whether she was ending a shift or toiling in the garden.
She had many talents, but relaxation was not in her repertoire, according to son Clint Vilks of Chaska. “My wife would ask her to go for a walk and Mom would say, ‘We can talk while we’re pulling weeds together.’ ”
She refused to slow down even in retirement. Several years after Henry Vilks’ death, she refused a marriage proposal. “I asked her why she didn’t marry him and she said that all he wanted was someone to sit next to him in a rocking chair while they let the world pass by,” Roth said. She eventually remarried in 1981.
Though quite ill a week before she died, Vilks worked in her garden. “When she was sick, she moved slower, but she’d be out watering every day. She loved to bring fresh flowers into the house. She could always get my orchids to rebloom when I never could,” Roth said.
Her Latvian pride, including a thick accent, never waned. She sang in a Latvian choir and regularly traveled to Latvian song festivals in Boston, Chicago, Toronto and Latvia. She was also a volunteer nurse at Garezers, a Latvian camp in Three Rivers, Mich., near her home in Grand Rapids.
Her family and friends loved her pierogi of handmade dough filled with ham, onion and bacon. She’d load up a suitcase with them whenever she traveled. When she unpacked, there was always a TSA tag inside stating they had opened her bag. “Guess they didn’t recognize those round stuffed delicacies,” Roth said.
Vilks’ family had its land taken away by the Russians during the war. The only child, Vilks regained ownership years after the occupation. She gave it to a cousin.
Growing up in hard times made a lifelong impression. When cheerleaders toilet-papered the houses of the high school football team that son Steve played on, his mom saved the paper and put it in a shopping bag in the bathroom.
Vilks died Aug. 4 of congestive heart failure. She was 87. Two days before, she asked a nurse, “Why am I still here?” The nurse told her that God was getting her room ready. “Why is it taking so long?” she asked.
She is survived by her husband, Arvids Davidsons of Grand Rapids, Mich.; daughter Andrea of San Diego; sons Steven Vilks of Naples, Fla., and Clint Vilks of Chaska; and four grandchildren. Services have been held.