Not many of us will see our 100th birthday, nor do some of us even want to, but on May 22, 2016, my mother, Josephine (Jo) Langreck Heying reached that pinnacle. How does that happen that some of us live to that ripe old age? Genetics? Healthy living? For my mother, I think it has been her zest for life, to do and experience and in some instances, conquer, all that this world has to offer.
There are the obvious stories she can recall, when the radio and television became fixtures in the modern day home, the Great Depression, World War II and the Korean Occupational Forces that her brothers served in, the first landing on the moon, the death of JFK, the invention of the computer, the internet, and now the smart phone that allows her to instantly view pictures of her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. All those historical events that she has experienced have been well documented by others, and, although her stories of those events are interesting and important, my reflections are more of a woman who was ahead of her time, and who does, to this day, desires to get out of the chair she is mostly confined to, and get back to work.
Fortunately for my family, my mother has a talent for writing and she has documented the stories of her life growing up on a small farm in St. Lucas, Iowa , her marriage to my father, H.L. Heying in 1937 and their life together for 64 years in two books, “Bittersweet Years” and “This Man This Woman under the Golden Dome”. As I reflect on the past 100 years of my mother’s life, those books have quite the story to tell.
Josephine was the second child of 11 children born to John and Katie Langreck. Her father was a carpenter by trade and in addition to that trade he farmed, had a cream route and sawmill. He was well known to be in the forefront of anything mechanical, so as new farm equipment came out he would be one of the first to bring it out to the farm and make modifications to improve its use. John took on many of the neighbors field work as the transition from horses to tractors occurred. Katie, her mother, was a talented seamstress and helped with the chores on the farm in addition to raising the family. John’s sisters who lived in Wisconsin would send their used “flapper” dresses to Katie and she would remake them into beautiful dresses for her children. Nothing ever went to waste.
It was under the guidance of these two hard working parents that my mother and her siblings flourished as children and later as adults, each with their own special talents. As they grew, they were given responsibilities to help with the farm and the family. By the third grade, my mother, and her older sister, Lena, were given the responsibility to care for the younger children and prepare the noon meal while her parents worked in the field. Perhaps it was the fact that my mother was the second child, or perhaps it was just something she was born with, but my mother was always up to a challenge, even at a young age. But sometimes those challenges did not always go as planned. She recalls such stories as cooking the noon meal for the family at that early age. She wanted to impress her family, and her older sister, with a very special soup. After gathering all the vegetables out of the garden, she decided to do an extra special job by grating all the vegetables instead of cubing them. Needless to say, the soup turned into a thick slop, but she had nothing else to serve, so she served it anyway. When the family sat down to pray, she prayed harder than anyone else that it would be edible! Unfortunately, her prayers weren’t answered and the soup was collected back up. Even the dog wouldn’t eat it! A lesson learned!
Even though there were always chores to do, there still was time for play, as she recalls in her book. Play was all self-entertainment. Families would get together and someone would play music, furniture would be moved aside for dancing. There was tag, football and swinging from the ropes in the haymow during hay season. In the summer they collected scraps of wood and made doll houses and furniture for their dolls. They would string up blankets on the clothes lines and perform plays for their parents. Their imagination directed their play and they were never lacking for things to do.
Education was very important to the Langreck family and my mother loved to learn. When her father would cut logs in his sawmill, he would challenge the children to figure out the best way to cut a log to get the most board foot out of it. Not an easy task, but it put them on the track for learning to solve problems. School was a 2 ½ mile walk both morning and night, many times no matter the weather. But my mother loved everything about school. After she graduated from 8th grade, which was the standard at that time, she and her sister were hired out for helping with whatever the neighbors needed. She eventually begged her parents (with encouragement from the nuns) to let her go back to school, which she did. We believe she was one of the first women to graduate from high school at St. Luke’s in St. Lucas, IA. She went on to study music at St. Theresa’s in Winona. WI and got a job helping the nuns preparing meals for the head of St. Mary’s college and his guests. Little did she know when she came home at Thanksgiving that year she would not be going back. There was a young man at home, waiting with a diamond ring.
Just shy of her 21st birthday, my mother married my father, H.L. “Larry” Heying on an icy day in January 1937. The story of their marriage and their life together is what most would call the “American Dream.” Starting out with nothing, and my father having just lost both of his parents, they farmed the Heying home farm for one year and then struck out on their own, with barely a dime in their pocket. Their first endeavor was at running an implement business in Fayette that lasted just a few years. In 1940 they heard about a 155 acre farm just west of West Union that an insurance company owned and was selling cheap. The land had lain fallow and was somewhat of a slough, but they decided to purchase the land and, with the help of family, the soil was enriched and tiled. The generous help of three families in town gave them credit for groceries and gas those first struggling years, without which they couldn’t have survived. Looking for other ways to supplement their farm income, my father heard about the chick sexing trade (a process of sorting male from female chicks) that was very profitable. He took a course in Waterloo and then apprenticed for 5 years. My mother, even though chick sexing wasn’t a glamorous job, looking at the back end of a chick, decided to learn the trade too. My father would bring cull chicks home and teach her. Soon my parents had a chick sexing route of their own, servicing 18 hatcheries. From there the story of their American Dream flourished. My mother took over the chick sexing, handling a route of her own for 30 years, while my father became more involved in chick sales for Hy Line chicks. Eventually they would purchase their own Hy Line Chick hatchery franchise and later expand into a shell egg processing business.
My parents worked side by side to build a business and raise their family. They had a true partnership, always discussing their plans together. Those years a women working outside the home was not looked on very favorably. If that bothered my mother, she didn’t show it. No job was too big or too small for my mother. She could drive a tractor and plow a field as well as swing a hammer and shingle a roof. Her artistic abilities would shine in her unique design of her home and business building, which she also helped to build. If there was a problem, she figured out how to solve it. It mattered not that she was a woman in a man’s world. She spoke her mind and you always knew where you stood with her, even if you didn’t like it.
As a woman working outside the home, my mother still made raising her children a priority. Yes, there were “hired girls” as they were called at that time to help with the childcare, but both my mother and father were always there for us and we all were loved and cared for very deeply. They shared their profound faith in God with us, taught us to respect and care for others and gave us responsibilities at an early age, just as their parents had done. My mother’s love for education did not go unnoticed to us. She taught us to solve problems even when they seemed unsolvable and made sure we all went on to receive college degrees that she herself never had the opportunity to have.
In the 1960’s my parents would get involved in politics, with my father being elected State Senator in 1964. My mother accompanied my father to Des Moines as his secretary and soon was helping to write legislation in addition to her secretarial duties. In 1968, my father decided to run for re-election for the Senate and my mother decided to run for the Iowa House of Representative seat. Some party advisors tried to convince my father to “encourage” my mother not to run. He would not hear of it. He respected my mother’s decision and supported it. Unfortunately, it was not a good year for campaigning. In June of that year, the hatchery and egg processing business burnt to the ground. Time needed for campaigning now was directed in rebuilding their business, and both my mother and my father lost their elections. My father would run again in 1972 and win, and my mother’s abilities to write legislation and her conservative fiscal beliefs became well known in the legislative circles. In 1983 then Governor Branstad appointed her to his “Task Force on Efficiencies and Cost Effectiveness in State Government.” Later, she and my father would be influential as charter members of the “Iowan’s for Tax Relief,” which still is a driving force in Iowa today.
There are many other examples of my mother shattering the “glass ceiling” without even knowing that there was a glass ceiling to shatter. She was instrumental in building a business from a small chick sexing route to a multi-million dollar integrated poultry operation, as she termed it, “From the Cradle to the Table.” She developed, along with my brother, a portable pullet growing cage and with much persistence, received a methods patent for it. She worked tirelessly to ensure that the land purchased by the state for the Volga Lake, actually got a lake. And in the 1970’s, even before it was fashionable to know where your food comes from, she organized the Fayette County Farm Tours where over 80 families came from the Chicago area to spend a week living on a farm, and touring various dairy, swine and poultry farms. These are just a few of her many accomplishments.
I know that my mother has enjoyed every minute of her hundred years, even the hard times, the sad times and the stressful times, and would love to get right back in the game to this day. She has always said that her goal was to live to 120, and if anyone could do it, she could. I am obviously very proud of my mother and all that she has achieved in her lifetime. She didn’t let obstacles or the fact that she is a woman stop her from reaching her goals. She worked hard, she prays always. She loved her husband and lovingly cared for him as he suffered from Parkinson’s disease the last years of his life. She loves her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren deeply and even to this day, is worried about their welfare. She has a zest for life that is unparalleled. She was and is a woman ahead of her time. Thank you, Mom, for showing us the way. Happy 100th Birthday. I love you.
Therese Jo Heying Slack | May 2016