An Extraordinary Life: ‘The vowels make all the difference’

Former Wil County spelling bee champ understood the meaning of love

When Wanda Johnson of Elwood was first admitted to the nursing home last year, she spoke to each person who came into her room in the same way.

She gave them a spelling test.

Sue Markgraf of Mundelein, Wanda’s oldest daughter, said her mother had won a spelling bee when she was in grade school and was always an outstanding speller. Sue’s theory is that her mother, during this stage of mild dementia, defaulted to a time in her life she understood well.

In fact, Sue said Wanda used to say, “the vowels make all the difference,” which Wanda often said in terms of the word “love.”

Sue knows Wanda wasn’t stressing the construction of the word “love” but its meaning.  Wanda was very invested in her family and missed them terribly during her last year of life, Sue said, since they were unable to visit in person due to COVID.

Where did this commitment to family originate? Sue believes it started with Wanda’s mother, who never knew her own mother. Wanda’s grandmother had died of tuberculosis when Wanda’s mother was very young, so Wanda’s aunts raised her, Sue said.

Wanda’s mother later married a man who was also very committed to family and his family was important to her, Sue said.

“She gave that gift of family and value of family to her three children: my mother, my aunt and my uncle,” Sue said. “So my mother was also very committed to family. There was not a Sunday I can remember growing up that we didn’t have dinner at my grandmother’s house. My grandparents lived right next door to the church.”

During church services at Trinity United Methodist Church in Joliet, Sue could smell her grandmother’s roast as it cooked, she said. Sue’s own husband Christopher grew up in the same neighborhood where her grandparents lived; that’s how Sue met him, in childhood, she said.

“My grandmother and his grandmother were girl friends from church and the neighborhood before my parents were born,” Sue said. “My point is that family values were inherent in my mother and her family and then, consequently, in me and my husband. We all grew up with the same values.”

Sue said Wanda met her husband Jerry while they both attended Joliet Central High School. Immediately after graduating high school in 1956, Wanda worked as an executive secretary for the United States Atomic Energy Commission until 1960, when she was expecting Sue.

Although Sue admires her mother’s work ethic (“Her love of work and her love of business transcended through the years,” Sue said), Sue is also intrigued by the nature of her mother’s work.  Because Wanda never talked about the nature of her work or her duties and she worked in a building that was heavily guarded, Sue said.

“She adhered to her confidential agreement with them until her dying breath,” Sue said.

In fact, when Wanda and Jerry were dating, Jerry was in the Navy and was the radioman for his ship. So they communicated by letter, Sue said.

Sue said Jerry would write, “Hey, Wanda, what are you working on?” and she’s write back, “Can’t tell you.” And then Jerry would write, “Can’t tell you either.”

Wanda and Jerry were married on Sept. 18, 1959. Jerry worked for the former Rudy’s grocery store (now Mike’s Furniture) and later purchased the Rudy’s building and opened JV Supermarket on Cass Street in Joliet.

In time, Jerry also opened Festival Foods in Bourbonnais and Food Expo stores in Kankakee and Streator, Sue said. Wanda was his bookkeeper, she added.

The couple had four children: Sue, Sharon Hentsch, Sandra Chellios and Steven Johnson.

“My mother continued to work, and she was also a stay at home mom,” Sue said. “There was never a time I can remember that she was not there when I came home from school. She was very, very accomplished with numbers and business administration…she was really remarkable in that way…It’s not only a testament to my mother and her faith in my dad and love of her family, but also her drive to succeed.”

Sue said her mother instilled that love for excellence in her children with her attitudes of “You do your best and you put a smile on your face. And you do your job.” Sue said she never saw her mother unhappy in her roles or complaining about any part of them.

“She just did what she had to do,” Sue said.

Wanda used the fruits of her interior decorating class at Joliet Junior College and her natural good taste “to take care of our home,” Sue said. Wanda loved to cook and if she had a spare “hour or two,” she’d bake brownies or give her mother-in-law a ride to the bank or grocery store, Sue said.

She made military-style beds, dressed impeccably and had a great sense of humor. Wanda was  so meticulous and focused that if someone called her on the telephone, she’d have to promise to call them back.

“It wasn’t that she didn’t want to talk to you,” Sue said. “But she wanted to finish what she was doing so she could give you her full attention.”

Wanda’s success discounts none of Jerry’s hard work or knowledge. Jerry was a remarkable businessman, Sue said.

“But my mother was our glue,” Sue said. “My mother was the wind beneath his wings and, in many ways, the glue of our family. Back in the day when women were trying to fond their way in the workplace, my mother was already doing it. My mother knew the balance between work and family.”

Included in that balance was Wanda’s dedication to her church, Trinity United Methodist Church in Joliet, where Wanda and other family members often “pitched in” to cook for church dinners, Sue said.

“My mother was the last one out of church on Sunday morning,” Wanda said. “She was very invested in the women’s group and I can remember going to mother-daughter teas at Trinity.”

Although Wanda certainly had friends, she especially enjoyed spending time with her family. She loved traveling with Jerry and playing cards with him and their friends, Sue said.

“They had a beautiful marriage,” Sue said. “And they did it together.”

Sue feels what makes her mother extraordinary is the fact she helped to build a strong family legacy even though Wanda’s own grandmother never knew her own parents.

“To have family the way we do now came from an investment in family, that my mother, my aunt and my uncle also gave to their families,” Sue said. “It’s inspiring that you can go on and have a remarkable career but understand what’s really important is that family has value. That’s a lesson for today.”

Wanda was 82 when she died Nov. 11.

• To feature someone in “An Extraordinary Life,” contact Denise M. Baran-Unland at 815-280-4122 or dunland@shawmedia.com.