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Writing women's history one mother at a time... since 2004.

Elizabeth Jurenovich’s story of Sally


Sally Vanderwerf

She was a study in contrasts, this identical twin born to a Jewish prizefighter and an Irish Catholic teenager, who went on to become a Presbyterian minister’s wife. Her name was Sally Marie, and from childhood through adulthood, she was intelligent, articulate, mercurial and playful. 

She grew up in a privileged (albeit divided) home in Los Angeles with two much-adored younger brothers; she adored her father, yet struggled to win her mother’s approval. Sally and her twin Wendy attended dance classes with the daughter of Johnny Weissmuller, and later junior high dances with Dustin Hoffman. Sally defiantly joined the Presbyterian Church at age 14, and decided to become a missionary nurse. 

Sally developed a passion for nursing, and earned her nursing degree from St. Mary’s in San Francisco. She was as proud to write the credentials “R.N, B.S.N.” after her name as she was to add the “Mrs.” before it. She had to complete a year of service to an American college or university before receiving her overseas mission’s assignment; she opted for the University of Dubuque, where she met a shy seminarian named Calvin, fell in love, and never made it to the mission’s field outside the US, being called instead to become a pastor’s wife. She insisted that the wedding take place in California, because she was so sure her Iowa fiancé would want to stay there, but he was a Midwestern boy through and through, so after the nuptials, they returned to the Midwest where they lived until later retiring in Texas.

Sally took great pride in being the “lady of the manse” in Illinois and Iowa, continued her hospital nursing career, and also became a mother of two. She devoted herself as well to a number of other meaningful past-times, such as fostering inner city children during the summers, choral directing, quilting, needlepoint, proofreading for a local printer, replicating restaurant recipes, couponing, and volunteering as a transcriber for the American Braille Library of Congress. 

Motherhood was something of a challenge for Sally, who had endured an abusive childhood herself. She was a doting and creative mother, but she struggled with balancing her own depression with her very high expectations for her children, and she tried valiantly to shield them from the evils of the world, which in her mind included such dangers as cartoons, catsup, soda, rock music and blue jeans. Her son was diagnosed with Legg-Perthes Disease at a young age, so Sally devoted herself to caring for her handicapped child. She wanted both her son and daughter to become accomplished musicians, so she and her husband sacrificed greatly to provide both children with the best of music lessons and boarding school scholarships to Interlochen Arts Academy in northern Michigan. 

Sally definitely ruled the roost; she had very definitive ideas of what was proper and improper, appropriate and inappropriate, right and wrong. Only classical music was allowed to be played in the home, there were no magnets permitted on the fridge, and Sally insisted on always answering the phone “Presbyterian Manse, Sally Vanderwerf speaking.” There was no going barefoot in the house, and Sally herself prided herself on wearing lipstick, a girdle and pantyhose every day, and she never (ever) left the house without her purse and a scarf or rain bonnet.  She struggled with a daughter whose values differed from her own, even as she loved her fiercely, and that relationship was both complex and contentious, much like her relationship with her own mother. Her son, however, shared her intellect and passion for classical music and became a professional violinist with a doctorate in music,an accomplishment which forever gave her immense joy.

Always wanting to contribute to the nursing field, Sally took it upon herself to write a 462 page dictionary entitled “Medical Terminology for the Practicing Nurse,” which was published by Elsevier in 1998. Sally had no computer, and typed the entire manuscript by hand; the page filled boxes on the dining room table of the church manse, and the foreign publisher paid her only limited royalties. That didn’t matter to Sally, who was nonetheless proud of having become a published author. 

Much to her disappointment, though, the nursing profession changed dramatically over the years, and Sally’s “old school nursing values” became archaic. Nurses stopped wearing starched caps and white stockings; they ceased standing when a doctor entered the room, and patient care standards slipped as well, in her opinion. She moved into psychiatric nursing and did some traveling nursing for awhile. Yet Sally aimed to singlehandedly impose her definition of professionalism upon the medical field, to no avail, and this made it impossible for her to continue in nursing. It was heartbreaking for her, as she felt her calling in life was being unfairly denied her. She took a part-time sales job at Foley’s, just to keep busy, and always the overachiever, Sally won numerous awards for sales, service and credit card recruitment, even as she grieved the loss of her “real”career.  

In her final decade, Sally was diagnosed with breast cancer, which she overcame, and then ovarian cancer. During this time, she became a grandmother of four (three boys and one girl) and this brought great joy into her life. She devoted herself to filling the guest room closet with tiny new clothes of varying sizes for varying seasons; when Calvin asked her why, she responded “Calvin, you know why…” and sure enough, Sally’s determined foresight enabled her to lovingly outfit her grandkids for many years after her passing.

In her final months of life, her illness was clearly winning the fight, but Sally was bound and determined to successfully sing in her community chorale’s performance of the German Requiem, and against all odds,she prevailed. It was surely one of her proudest moments.  

Sally died one month later, in July 1994, at the age of 66.On her last day, her husband Calvin played a recording of Handel’s Messiah in her Texas hospital room at her request, and as she took her final breaths with closed eyes, Sally raised her arms towards the sky; Calvin later said he’d wondered if she did so to conduct the choir, or to respond to the loving arms surely welcoming her into Heaven. 

(Knowing well her mother’s lifelong faith and her propensity for overachieving and multi-tasking, her daughter will forever be convinced the correct answer was “both.”)




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