Memories of Marion

I moved to Marquette County, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, on a cold March day in 2005. I had been away for 20 years, having graduated from Northern Michigan University in 1985. The university is in the city of Marquette, which hugs the shore of Lake Superior. During those 20 years, I had lived in Tennessee, New York and Oregon, but I was looking forward to returning to Michigan and seeing Miriam Hilton, in whose home I had lived as a student boarder.

I arrived on a Sunday and took possession of my house on Monday. When my phone was connected that afternoon, the first call I made was to Miriam and she invited me to attend a dinner at her house that evening. She entertained a group of people every Monday night and I can still remember taking my seat at the big, oval dining room table and meeting the other guests. Art Pennell was at the head and Miriam was at the foot. In between were Rowena Jones, Florence Barrington, Babs Sparhawk, James Hendricks, Marilyn Klahn, Lydia Hoff, Marian Schwitzgoebel, Janet McKie, Joanie Livingston, Millie Kingsbury and Marion Sonderegger. They were the charter members of what was affectionately known as “The Monday Night Supper Club.” Already in their 70s and 80s, only two of that original group are still with us.

As I was being introduced on that March evening, four people were already familiar to me. I had taken a Shakespeare class at the university taught by Art Pennell, Rowena Jones had been my advisor during my senior year, I had once helped Joanie Livingston carve jack-o-lanterns and Marion Sonderegger and I had been exchanging Christmas cards for 20 years.

When I arrived in Marquette in the late summer of 1983 to begin my junior year of college, I was glad that I was occupying a room in the Hilton’s home instead of living on campus. It was an ideal environment for an English major, as Earl Hilton was a retired professor and had spent 30 years in the English Department. And Miriam was herself an intellectual who had written the definitive history of the university. They often entertained, and the people who were invited to dinner were writers and educators and members of the local artistic community. Marion Sonderegger and her husband, Richard, were there often and I always looked forward to seeing them. I got to know them rather well, even though most of the conversations at the dinner table were well over my young head.

When I pulled up in front of Miriam’s house on East Arch Street for the first time in 20 years, the first thing I did was grab a snow shovel. Clearing the walkways after each snowfall had been my job when I was a student boarder, and it felt good to be helping her again. I was just finishing the chore when Marion Sonderegger arrived. I recognized her immediately, dropped the shovel and ran to her with open arms. I kissed her cheek as we embraced. “You’re all grown up!” she exclaimed. “Well, you haven’t seen me since I was barely 20,” I responded. “I’m now over 40!” It was a happy reunion.

I attended those Monday night dinners for the next twelve years, until I moved from Michigan to Ohio, and Marion was rarely absent. And I got to know so much about her — that she was descended from one of Marquette’s most famous founding families, that her grandfather, John Longyear, had made his fortune in lumber and coal and had founded the Arctic Coal Company, that a town in Norway known as Longyearbyen was named in his honor, and that her grandmother was involved with the first braille edition of the King James Bible. I didn’t learn these interesting facts from her, but from other people. Marion was not one to boast about her pedigree. She was a down-to-earth woman with a keen mind and a vibrant personality who could move comfortably in any circle of society. She was a dedicated member of the First Presbyterian Church and sang in their choir. She was also a member of the Marquette Choral Society, which I did not know until I attended their performance of the Magnificat in December of 2005 and spotted her in the tenor section.

During those Monday night dinners, a variety of topics was always discussed. Those were not people who were content to talk about recipes or the weather forecast. They could converse easily about art and literature, music and philosophy, world history and current events. Marion was an opera devotee and could discuss that musical genre with great authority, or so it seemed to me. James Hendricks was also an opera aficionado and it was amusing to hear them discuss the finer qualities of Verdi’s “Rigoletto” or Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” She and James (with Babs Sparhawk tagging along) even traveled to Europe to attend a performance of Wagner’s Ring Cycle at La Scala in Milan. They regaled us for weeks afterward with stories of their adventure.

Miriam did not encourage political discussions at her table, preferring to maintain a friendly and neutral atmosphere, but once in a while politics would creep into the conversation. I remember as the George W. Bush administration was in its last year, his name was mentioned one evening which prompted a lively discussion between conservative Marion and Millie Kingsbury, who leaned to the left. They were both intelligent, well-informed women with very strong opinions, and they could defend those opinions with compelling arguments, while the rest of us sat quietly and listened, our heads turning back and forth from one to the other, like spectators at a tennis match.

Marion’s position at the table was always at the northeast corner, and I was usually next to her. As she got into her 90s and began suffering from aphasia and other problems, I would put the food on her plate and cut the meat into small pieces. It must have been very frustrating for her, having been so articulate and independent, to be reduced by age and illness to needing help, but she always smiled with thankfulness. She was still attending the dinners when I moved to Ohio in 2017, but soon afterward she moved to an assisted living facility, where she died in May of 2021, just a few months shy of her 100th birthday.

A Monday night dinner in 2014. Marion is seated upper left, and I’m next to her, wearing the dark blue shirt. Our hostess, Miriam Hilton, is at lower right.

Marion’s firm opinions and strong personality did not make her popular with everyone, but I was very fond of her. My father taught me never to forget a kindness, and Marion had been exceptionally kind to me when I was very young, and I have never stopped being grateful. During the final semester of my senior year, I applied for a $500 university grant. I had been asked by silent film star Patsy Ruth Miller, with whom I had been corresponding for a couple of years, to assist in the writing of her memoirs. It was an extraordinary opportunity for a young person like me, and I needed to visit her to discuss the project and also visit the University of Wyoming, where her memorabilia was housed. A lot of research was necessary, but I didn’t have the money to make those trips. I discussed my situation with Leonard Heldreth, who taught film history courses at the university, and he thought a grant was the perfect solution. We worked for a month writing the application and crossed our fingers when it was submitted. Unfortunately, the grant was awarded to a nursing student instead. I was devastated and thought the book-writing project was doomed.

Earl and Miriam were well aware of the situation, as I had talked about little else for weeks, and they were as disappointed as I was when I was denied the grant. A few days later, when I had almost entirely given up hope, I sat down for the evening meal and as I picked up my napkin, a little piece of paper fluttered down to my lap. It was a check for $500, and it was signed by Marion Sonderegger!

“She must really like you,” Mr. Hilton said with amusement. “She can’t even use that $500 as a tax write-off!”

I was able to make those trips, first to Wyoming where I spent a week pouring through the Patsy Ruth Miller material and then to Stamford, Connecticut, where Miss Miller lived by the seashore. The book was published in 1988 and I sent a complimentary copy to Marion signed “to my fairy godmother.”  

Every year I would include a personal message in a Christmas card, telling Marion that I would always remember her kindness.