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Gloria Hendrickson
Gloria Hendrickson

This obituary is a little different. It is primarily made up of stories that my mother wanted everyone to hear.

Gloria Hendrickson, was born in Martintown on August 7th, 1927. An older sister, Corinne, had arrived a couple of years earlier. The family didn’t have much. She and Corinne each had one doll. There were no other toys. So, they played with anything they could find around the house, including an old meat grinder. Gloria used her imagination to act out fantasy stories. She made up plays in which her doll usually had the starring role.

Eventually the family moved to Blanchardville in the height of the depression. But over time, the family fortune improved and her father bought a nice house on the north side of town. Gloria was not an excellent student in high school, but was a member of the Glee Club and had a starring role in every school play that came along. She realized she loved to act. At some point in high school, she started dating Jimmy Hendrickson who only lived a couple of blocks from her. By the time she was a sophomore, she and Jimmy were ‘going steady.’

I asked her once what was her favorite memory of growing up in Blanchardville. She said it was something that took place in December 1943 over Christmas break. She was 16 and Jimmy was 17. It had been snowing heavily all day. There was no wind, so the town looked like a giant snow globe. He knocked on her door in the early evening and asked her if she would like to go and sled down Main Street. She got her coat and they walked nearly a mile to the south end of Main Street. They saw no other cars or people in the evening darkness. Despite the heavy snow, it was a beautiful, silent scene. They felt like they were the only two people in the world. He put the sled down and said “Climb aboard.” She held on tight as the sled gained speed. Main Street is long and straight, and very steep at the south end. It runs right through the downtown before turning at the Pecatonica River bridge. At first, she was scared because they were going so fast. But it wasn’t long before she found it exhilarating. The wind, the snow stinging her face, the cool air, and hanging on tight to Jimmy made her feel so alive. She didn’t want it to end. And in a way it didn’t. Three and a half years later, in August 1947, she married Jimmy. They were together 63 years. And I still have that sled.

Gloria Hendrickson

After living in Blanchardville and Madison, the newlyweds settled in Monroe. I came along in 1949, Gary in 1953, and Jim in 1959. Throughout the 1950s Gloria was a busy wife and mother. But the acting bug never really went away. She had met her friend Helen in the late 1940s while they both worked at Swiss Colony. Those two were the original BFFs, staying friends for the next 70 years. The two of them came up with an act that they thought people might like. They called themselves The Pretenders. They would pantomime funny records and act out the story in the song. They were dressed like two Minnie Pearls, each wearing long out of fashion hill billy outfits. My mother even put black gum over some of her teeth to give her that Halloween pumpkin look. They pantomimed Spike Jones and other comedian’s songs. When they had enough material for a 25-minute act they decided to try it out. The Eastern Star organization was willing to give them a chance. They were too afraid to charge so they did that show for free. The crowd loved it. And then the calls started coming in. The first to call was a bank that wanted to hire them. With the bank on the other end of the phone, Helen put her hand over it and whispered to my mother, “They want to pay us $25!” They never had to advertise. Word of mouth kept them in business for the next 14 years. In that time, they gave nearly 1000 performances. The show only ended in 1966 when Helen moved to Madison. So, the performing was done, but something new came along a few years later.

In 1971 my mother was a cofounder of the Monroe Theater Guild. She worked behind the scenes at first. She helped decorate the sets, find props, create costumes, and do the hundred other little things necessary to bring a show to life. But eventually she decided to start acting again. She loved it. Over the next three decades she acted in or directed over 35 plays. She had roles, often as the lead, in Barefoot in the Park, Nunsense. Steel Magnolias, The Music Man, Fiddler on the Roof, and many, many more. She did all this while raising a family and working full time first at Pennys and then at Merle Norman.

In July of this year, the Monroe Theater Guild had a 50th Anniversary celebration. There are only a handful of small-town theaters in the US that have survived this long. My wife Mary Jo and I were happy to escort my mother to this event. She was the evening’s honored guest. The wonderful 30-minute video about the Monroe Theater Guild had her as its star. It was a fitting acknowledgment of 70 years as a performer.

It’s tough watching your parents’ age. The changes in appearance are easy to get used to. They come on slowly and are not really noticed till you start looking at old photos. What is hard to take is seeing the gradual loss of independence as basic abilities start to wither and fall away from a once vibrant person. In the autumn of 2010 at about the time her husband Jim died, Gloria stopped driving. Driving into the sun was difficult as macular degeneration started to take hold. Balance problems became more than an annoyance. The hands that used to cut fabric for outfits she made could no longer hold a scissors steadily. The legs that allowed prat falls in Nunsense could now barely support her. And the mind that could memorize dozens of lines of a script each day now would forget things. In the last three years of her life, her son Jim lived with her. His help kept her out of a nursing home for at least two years. But the E.R. visits and the temporary Pleasant View stays became more frequent. And she kept getting weaker and weaker. Finally, after a four day stay in Monroe Hospice she died on August 1st, just a few days before her 94th birthday.

My mother wanted everyone to know that she has taken her final bow and would now exit the stage after a very long and very successful run.

Gloria is survived by three sons Greg, Gary, and Jim, five grandchildren, Rachelle, Kirsten, Derek, Nick, and Zach, and six great grandchildren, Logan, Jaden, Jack, Ivy, Walter, and Robert.

At Gloria’s request, no services are planned.

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