On Thursday we received the sad news that my beloved godmother and aunt, Junette Henke, a pioneer woman of Slope County, North Dakota, died of natural causes. I pause to attempt to write a few words of tribute to one of the grandest ladies I have ever known, who influenced me immeasurably, who I will miss ever so much.
Like me, she was the middle child. She was a teacher, educated at Dickinson State Teachers College, and a passionate lifelong learner. One time, when my family was moving to and fro, following my father’s Army career, we were visiting my maternal grandparents at their Slope County farm, and I got to spend the day in Rhame, N.D., in her classroom. Her students, later to be my classmates, were quite curious about me, a vagabond stranger, and I was a little startled to discover that my aunt intended to be especially strict with me, firm to not show any favoritism.
Junette held a teaching position in Hettinger, N.D. (and later in Rhame and Baker, Mont.), but at the request of her mother, my Grandma Lillian, she moved to the West Coast to help her newly widowed elder sister care for her two small children and cope with life (her husband had died in World War II). This became a pattern of her life: setting aside her plans and ambitions to take care of family members in crisis.
Her impact on my life was perhaps most significant in that my mother, her younger sister, spent the summer between her junior and senior years of high school with Junette and Lauretta in Port Townsend, Wash., where my mother met the man who would become my father, in the year just before he left for the Korean Conflict. He was first Junette’s friend and later they were pals — he would always tease her that she was older than him (by about four months). My father took this photo of Junette skiing in the Cascade Mountains from that time period (the early 1950s). Wasn’t she glamorous?
She returned to visit her parents in Slope County and went on a date with the handsome rancher from the Bad Lands north of Marmarth, N.D., Allan Henke (a World War II veteran of the U.S. Navy), who she soon married. (An aside: As a small girl, I thought Allan was The Marlboro Man.) Thus, it was that she made a life in that wondrous landscape that established my sense of place, the Little Missouri River country, in an unorganized township west of the Mound Church. She was a devoted daughter, wife and mother and the rock of our family. She was so very proud of her children and their children and grandchildren, and I know there is a hole in their hearts now.
She and Allan loved to lead the family on Sunday expeditions to explore the countryside and enjoyed attending area auctions, collecting antiques that decorated their home. My earliest memories include drives to Camp Crook, the Powder River country and Medicine Rocks, along with climbs up nearby Pretty Butte and a great adventure driving to the top of Bullion Butte, which included my grandparents’ Ford Galaxy high-centering in a cow trail that then required a shovel fetched from Allan’s pickup to dig out an escape path. (You can see the pickup in the first photo below.)
Other Sundays and holidays were spent around the kitchen table at either her place or ours, with abundant food and with card games and laughter into the night.
When we lived in El Paso, Texas, she brought her elderly parents to visit us and together we journeyed to nearby Juarez, Mexico, and White Sands National Monument.
Another time, during my father’s 30-day leave, we traveled to North Dakota to my grandparents’ farm, there for branding no doubt, and we four children stayed behind when our parents returned to their jobs in El Paso. At the end of the idyl, with school soon to start, Junette loaded us and her two children in her Ford Galaxy and headed south for a rendevous midway with my father.
Somewhere outside of Gillette, Wyo,, in the dusk, the car crashed into a deer, and inside was a jumble of six children, books, games and stuffed animals. She had to put us on a plane to Denver and buy a new car for the return to North Dakota. As with everything in her life, she coped with equanimity.
When my younger sister was a baby and my mother hospitalized far away from the farm, Junette stayed with us and helped my father manage. She became a second mother to my sister, just as she had been to us. She took me to town one day and bought me a brown, glass-beaded bag and another day we drove to Hettinger to pick up the chicks she taught me to care for.
My first money aside from my allowance was egg money earned from selling to town folks and to this day, I cannot crack an egg without thinking of her teaching me to carefully gather and wash the eggs and to feed the chickens greens to keep the yolks bright yellow in winter.
When we would visit her ranch, we’d play endlessly in the stock tank and wander the prairie and pick berries. I have a vivid memory of the fury with which she undertook to slaughter a nest of baby mice she found in the barn.
In those years, her days were filled not just with ranch and housekeeping duties but also with a major project she undertook with Dorothy Pearson, a neighbor of ours, and other community members including my mother. Somehow, living many miles from Bowman on gravel roads, they managed to produce “Slope Saga,” the 1,178-page history of Slope County, wrangling contributions from hundreds of people with ties to the county.
The Bowman County Pioneer allowed them to use the newspaper office in the night after business hours, and then she would race down the road home, sometimes on Highway 12 (the old Yellowstone Trail) and sometimes taking the back roads for a swing by our place. In later years, when I marveled at this accomplishment, she always chuckled and said, “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” I treasure my copy shown here.
Like most of us, she drove fast, with little time to waste, undaunted by rough and gumbo-slick roads. Once, near Mound Church, we came across a huge rattlesnake crossing the road. Snakes were abundant in Slope County as were coyotes. I spent long stretches with Junette in the summer and would awaken on moonlit nights to coyotes howling just outside the bedroom window.
It was on her living room TV that we watched Walter Cronkite report that Nixon had resigned. Another memory, from 1986, was a night I spent at her house after attending a production of a Shakespeare play, “The Marmarth Hamlet,” by the Cornerstone Theater Company in cooperation with the Marmarth Historical Society. (She and Allan were members of the Society.) We took the shortcut from Marmarth to their farm across their pasture on a very dark night and the coyotes serenaded us — it was a great adventure!
One of her philosophies was “a job worth doing is a job worth doing well,” and that has stuck with me all my life. My mother laughed and said that Junette didn’t like to do something unless she excelled at it — baking, sewing, writing and more, and I recognize that trait in my own approach to life. If I don’t do something well, I dislike doing it.
A shrewd businesswoman, she particularly enjoyed financial periodicals and news of the latest medical developments. Her house was always filled with stacks of books and magazines, and it was she who encouraged me to write a manuscript about a historical North Dakota figure. It was with enormous pride and pleasure that I delivered a draft copy of that manuscript to her late last winter, with her role in its creation acknowledged.
She helped my mother with so many tasks, including wallpapering my bedroom and sewing a down-filled sleeping bag, and she sat with Mother and me at the farm’s kitchen table for hours hand-addressing the invitations to my wedding. She baked delicious bread and wrote a column for the Bowman County Pioneer.
Junette was a crack bridge and pinochle player and in great demand as a card partner up until the very last month or so of her long life. I’ll never forget when Jim and I were first dating and he joined us for a family gathering which naturally included pinochle. He caught on very quickly that she was whip-smart and from then onward he angled to be her card partner.
We laughed because her schedule was so busy one had to make an appointment to visit her. But visit her I did, as frequently as I could manage. We could talk for hours about any number of topics, and I soaked up her stories of family and local history in the knowledge that this day would come.
While she was a font of historical knowledge, she would always be eager to know what was happening in our lives now, turning the conversation to the present and the future. Here is a short video of her telling me about the Yellowstone Trail in Slope County, a priceless memory I’m so glad I captured when I was researching a blog about the trail. I could fill volume 2 of a Slope Saga with stories of her.
I have warm memories of gathering around the piano to sing with my mother and Junette, my sisters and cousins, and my first exposure to Broadway musicals was from sheet music on the rack on her piano and organ. In more recent years, we would take Mother and Junette to the Bismarck Mandan Symphony Orchestra, sometimes picking up Sheila Schafer, too. Now that made for a night of good stories including that Sheila and Junette had danced at the same Seattle-area nightclub long ago.
Junette had a strong sense of civic duty and greatly enjoyed serving in the North Dakota Silver-Haired Legislature. I can still hear her saying, “Lead, follow or get out of the way!” with a determined grin.
While she was dignified, she also had a wonderful sense of humor and modeled for us that one could be stylish and elegant while also down-to-earth. For her, being smart was important but so, too, was not taking oneself too seriously. She valued resilience and often reminded us to not dwell on unpleasant memories — “That was back there,” she would say, with a toss of her hand over her shoulder.
I last saw her just before the pandemic lockdown but visited her window at the nursing home down the hall from my mother’s window. We had such hopes that she and my mother would enjoy a few years together there, but it was not to be. I will so miss her melodic voice on the telephone, her chuckle and oh so much more.
We are heartbroken in our loss and my deepest condolences go to my cousins, Leah and Reva, and their families. As is true of so many families worldwide, the knowledge that we will not have a funeral gathering to share our grief and myriad memories is a bitter pill to swallow. She will be buried with her husband at the North Dakota Veterans Cemetery, south of Mandan. When her obituary is published, I will add a link to it here. May you all have such a special woman in your lives and may perpetual light shine upon her.