Do you ever think about how people will remember you? What your friends and family will say about you after you’re gone? If you live to be 100, what are the adjectives an interviewer might use to describe you?
In Millie Becker Duffek’s case, card-shark was not the first adjective that came to my mind when I greeted the soft-spoken centenarian who has been a member of Bethany Lutheran Church in the Dells for over 50 years. Nor was it foremost in my mind when she talked about the importance of honesty. “Always tell the truth,” she regularly says to her 17 grandchildren, 29 great-grandchildren and soon to be 2 great-great grandchildren, some of whom affectionately call her GramCracker. “Keep your word and maintain your reputation,” values that have served her well during her decades of work in and around the area.
Millie’s granddaughter, Annie Delmore-Keller, who was by her side, described her as the “strongest woman I’ve ever known.” Growing up on her parents’ farm near Davis Corners, Millie Nelson credits her parents, Nels and Edith, with being the greatest influence in her life, and says that “even though we didn’t have many material things, I always had my brothers and sisters.” Millie finished 8th grade with Helen Bloss at the Graham School, but chose to leave high school after the first semester so she could earn $2.00 a day (plus homemade lemonade) working at a neighbor’s farm off of Highway B. Her job involved standing on a wagon and spreading the pitched hay evenly so fellow workers could add more. When I mentioned that it must have been hot, sweaty work, she simply shrugged, rubbed her thumb and finger together and said, “It was $2 a day.” Throughout her life, Millie shared her earnings and bought things for her family still on the farm, including her mother’s first washing machine.
After leaving home, Millie did “every job there was to do,” including cleaning rooms at the Stanton Hotel, cooking at Thompson’s restaurant, packing containers at the Cheese House in Lake Delton, and cooking breakfast at Edwards Pancake House (now Mr. Pancake) which to this day still uses her secret buttermilk pancake recipe. After she married her husband Roy and began raising their three children, she continued to work and went on to own the Fireside Restaurant in downtown Dells. She also ran the Steak Corral restaurant while maintaining her job at Badger Ordinance.
People describing Millie are also sure to include her love of fun and playful sense of humor. Once, when she and her friends lost their transportation to a movie, they hooked up the horses from one of the local funeral parlors hearse and off they went.
Fiercely independent also comes to mind when describing Millie. After her second husband, Joe, died, she spent many winters in Florida, and remained in her own home until she was 96. Millie also maintained a love of the outdoors, especially fishing and hunting, and her skills in the kitchen are legendary. She often showed her love of people by cooking and baking for them. She lives by the motto, “You can never have too much butter.”
It was when Annie mentioned her grandmother as a card-shark that I really saw the sharp-minded woman perk up. Millie described loving to play cards with family and friends, and in later years, joining a group that regularly played Euchre at the Kilbourn library. When Annie said that Millie also enjoyed going to the Casino, or “the neighbors” as Millie calls it, those same brilliant eyes danced again. Ah, I realized. She has developed some poker playing strategies that are working for her and, like her pancake recipe, she’s keeping them secret.
If you stop in to visit with Millie at the Meadows in Baraboo, maybe she’ll let you in on a secret or two. Meanwhile, I’m going to ponder my own descriptors and recall how Millie’s granddaughter’s eyes welled up with tears as she choked out the words everyone wants to hear. “I wouldn’t be the person I am today without my grandmother’s presence in my life; she’s my hero.”