A Short History of the Life of

Evelyn B. Wallraff

1920 - 2001

by Dean Wallraff

Begun Oct. 21, 2001

My mother, Evelyn B. Wallraff, died this last February of a sudden heart attack during the night. When we called to let them know about her funeral, her friends all said that they would like to go the same way - quickly, unexpectedly, after a full life of 80 years. But I don't think I'm just being selfish when I feel cheated out of a few more years with her. She would still be alive if she'd gotten to a hospital. She went to bed early that evening, complaining of heartburn, which she often had. But it wasn't heartburn. She didn't like a fuss made about her, or to bother others, but her young college-student boarder could easily have driven her to her HMO's Urgent Care Center, just a few blocks away. Instead, she was found dead in her bed the next morning when the housekeeper arrived.
     Her death was unexpected - she seemed just fine when my wife, Benita, and I had seen her at Thanksgiving. She was in good health; she played tennis and participated regularly in water aerobics. She ate healthy foods, didn't smoke or drink much, and didn't have anything much wrong with her. She'd had a heart attack after tennis 20 years before, which had prompted her to quit smoking. She'd had no recurrence in the mean time, though her blood cholesterol level was high. Her doctor had suggested medication to lower it, but she was stubborn about taking pills. My sister, Barbara, and her husband, Julian, had taken a cruise with her at Christmas. She had a couple of accidents (such as tripping over her luggage in a dark room at home the night before she left), and got an infection that she didn't want to treat, because of her stubbornness about pills. But she came home and seemed to be getting on fine with her normal life.
     So it was a shock when I got a call from Barbara last February, and she said that the Tucson police called her after the housekeeper found Evelyn dead in her bed. The four of us flew to Tucson and spent a strange and very busy week arranging her memorial service and deconstructing her life. I spent the week talking to her friends, cleaning out her house, and reading her memoirs. This juxtaposition showed me how much her home, in which I grew up, reminded us of her, so that it almost felt like a desecration to clear it out and sell it. But it also reminded me how little her inner universe of thoughts, feelings and memories was represented in the objects she kept around her. The great tragedy of death is the sudden loss of the micro cosmos of the decedent's inner life. A whole world just blinks out of existence.
      Her memoirs, which she kept on her ancient Mac computer, seemed to be complete, about 120 pages long when printed out. I don't know if she intended to show them to us during her lifetime. She'd recently asked about scanning some photos, to be interpolated, but hadn't brought them on her last visit to us. Either she wanted to add to her memoirs, and never got around to it, or she was stalling, never intending that we should see them while she was alive. There were no big surprises - she'd told us the last big secret a few months before. It was amazing how much she remembered, or was able to piece together from souvenirs she'd kept, about her life. I was also surprised how well she wrote. My father, Fred, wrote several books, and Barbara is a prolific author and an editor at the Atlantic Monthly. Over the course of Evelyn's lifetime, writing has evolved from a skill possessed by every educated person into a specialty skill like computer programming, done mostly by experts, so it surprised me to see her make so few grammar and spelling mistakes.

Growing Up
Evelyn was born at her parents' home in Chicago on Oct. 21, 1920 in Chicago, Ill. Her father was Paul Peter Bartels (the surname simplified in Ellis-Island fashion from Bartoszewitz). His profession is listed on the birth certificate as "picture mat cutter." Her mother is listed as Bernice Agnes Baczkinski. Both sets of grandparents immigrated from Poland in mid-19th century.
Her mother was a homemaker extraordinaire, an excellent cook and seamstress, who painted and played the piano by ear. Her father was a master picture framer and restorer, who worked for a large art dealer on Michigan Blvd. She had four brothers, Leonard, Ray, Ed and Clem, who ranged from 10 to 16 years older.
      She attended the elementary school that was catty-corner from her house, starting school a year early. Evelyn had to make a big leap academically when she entered Alvernia High, the local Catholic high school run by Franciscan nuns, because its standards were so much higher than those of the public schools. She also started taking piano and music theory lessons at the nearby Alvernia Conservatory; these continued through her college years, resulting in a B.A. in Music.

College, Job and Marriage
After graduating from high school, Evelyn received a full scholarship to Rosary College in River Forest, Illinois (a Chicago suburb), an all-girl Catholic college run by the Dominicans. She majored in biochemistry, but also acted in French classic plays (Molière, etc.), wrote poetry, sang in the glee club, attended Chicago symphony concerts, learned to play tennis, and did a lot of ballroom dancing at the Aragon ballroom in downtown Chicago. She didn't date men until she was a junior in college (at the age of 17!).
      When she started working on her Master's degree at the University of Chicago, she had a 3-hour one-way commute to school via two streetcars and the El, so she decided to move move into an apartment to be shared with a girlfriend from school, Mary Fran Doyle. This resulted in a terrific fight with her mother, who accused her of being a loose woman. Evelyn suspected her mother secretly hoped she'd stay at home, become a teacher in the Chicago school system, and keep house for her in her old age. But instead, this row ruined Evelyn's relationship with her mother, who refused to attend the graduation ceremony at which she received her Master's degree.
     In 1943, the head of the Bacteriology department at the University of Arizona, Dr. Mary Caldwell, who was a graduate of the University of Chicago, was looking for a temporary replacement for a faculty member who was going off to fight in World War II. Evelyn got the job as instructor. When she arrived in Tucson on the train, she was shocked by the heat, and by Tucson's small size. She was excited by the mountains, which were new to her, and by the western and Mexican atmosphere in the town. At first, her job consisted mostly of running the laboratory sessions for the bacteriology courses, and then she moved into teaching some of those courses.
     Evelyn met my father, Charles F. ("Fred") Wallraff, when he asked her to help him chaperone a fraternity party. They danced together on that first date and other chaperone dates, but he wasn't nearly as good a dancer as she was. Evelyn and her roommate, Elsie Hunter, invited him over for dinner from time to time, and they would play music together. He was a cellist, and she'd accompany him on the piano, though she was a much better player. He taught her to drive after she bought a second-hand Dodge. The relationship blossomed into romance when Fred's first wife married Fred's former best friend, and Fred was released from paying alimony and child support. (He had been living on 40% of his $2,500 yearly salary). They had an exciting courtship and were married in September, 1946. The marriage put an end to Evelyn's teaching career at the University of Arizona; anti-nepotism laws forbade her and Fred to work at the same institution.

Kids and Career in Tucson
Evelyn says somewhere in her memoirs that the years when the kids were growing up, and her and Fred's careers were going great guns, were the happiest of her life. I'm sure they felt much too hectic at the time. Here's a quick summary of Evelyn's career in microbiology:

  • 1942: MS in biochemistry from University of Chicago
  • 1943: instructor in Dept. of Bacteriology at University of Arizona
  • 1947: forced to leave U of A because of marriage to Charles F. Wallraff (state nepotism laws didn't permit spouses to both work at the university); worked at Hollbrook-Hill Southwestern Clinic and Research Institute, as rheumatoid-arthritis researcher
  • 1951 - 1955: quit working to have two children
  • 1956 - 1960: graduate school at U of A, culminating in PhD in microbiology
  • 1961 - 1969: Principal Researcher at Tucson VA Hospital, performing research on valley fever skin testing and serology, and alveolar macrophages, publishing numerous scientific papers
  • 1970 - 1985: taught microbiology at Pima Community College in Tucson

I was surprised how my mother lost all interest in microbiology when she retired. Fred tried to stay involved in philosophy after his retirement, writing papers and corresponding with others in the field until Alzheimer's got him. He was deeply, personally interested in his field. But I think Evelyn's career was a way to use her considerable intellectual abilities, to show herself and others what she was capable of. It was also a way to improve her economic status. She came from a lower-middle-class Polish family in Chicago, and was the only one of her siblings to make it to the upper middle class.
     Both my parents were extremely attractive when they were young, like movie stars. (I must have gotten all the other genes in that area!) It was my father's second marriage. He was 37 when they were married, 12 years older than Evelyn. I would like to have talked with my parents about their relationship. They were both very private about such things, which is why I could have lived with them for 20 years and still not know what it was like. As a child, of course, I didn't understand how romantic relationships worked, so I didn't profit from my daily observations as much as I would now.
     Still, my impression is of two very emotional people somewhat repressed and closed off from each other. In her memoirs, Evelyn clearly recalls feeling emotionally neglected. Fred was even more emotional than she was, very sensitive, awkward at dealing with people, not good at sympathy or understanding of others, and Calvinistic. I would guess that once they were married, Fred assumed that Evelyn had accepted her role (she had agreed to it, after all), and didn't need constant reassurance and romantic attention. However, I do remember him kissing her and saying "I love you" fairly often when I was young.

Fred's Decline
I remember what a fine lecturer my father was. In his last year of teaching, and my last year of college, I took the first semester of his course in history of philosophy, which covered ancient and medieval (western) philosophy. It was hard to tell, but at that point, when he was in his early sixties, his mind was starting to go. I saw his mental descent highlighted in yearly stroboscopic snapshots, since I lived in Boston and visited annually at Christmas. At first, after his retirement, he wrote articles for philosophy journals, and corresponded with other philosophers. When he couldn't do this anymore he read challenging books, like James Joyce's Ulysses. Then it was popular novels, then Time magazine. At the end, he'd just watch TV news.
     His physical condition and his value as an equal companion and friend declined comparably over this same decade and a half. At the end, he required constant care; he'd broken his hip and was unstable on his feet, but couldn't remember this, so he'd try to walk and then he'd fall and break something else. Evelyn had tried caring for him at home between two of his hospitalizations, but, even with a practical nurse taking over for eight hours a day, she was exhausted by this 24 X 7 duty. So Fred spent his last months in a nursing home, always unhappy and wanting to go home, never knowing where he was, or why he was there. Evelyn felt tremendously guilty about this, of course, but it was the only thing she could do.
     When Fred retired from teaching at the University of Arizona, Evelyn was still teaching microbiology at Pima College full time. She got bored teaching the same junior-level courses over and over during this period, and cut her load down to 60% for a few years before she retired. Taking care of Fred became her job.
     She had a heart attack in 1980, a precursor to the one that killed her. She'd just been playing tennis, told her friends that she felt a constriction in her chest, and they took her to the hospital, where she had the attack. This was very lucky. It was also luck that Benita and I were in town for our annual Christmas visit, so we could take care of Fred. I'll never forget how utterly disconsolate he was at the idea she might die. This was partly because he loved her, and partly because he knew he needed her to take care of him. Always practical and unsentimental, her first words on waking up were a reminder to Fred that some of the bond coupons in the safety deposit box needed to be clipped and deposited.

Her Later Years
She seemed to have enjoyed her life in her last decade, since Fred died. His death was a big turning point in her life because she'd been married for 46 years, and Fred required a lot of care at the end. He had Alzheimer's, so he couldn't remember that he had trouble getting around, and would fall and break more bones. He died unexpectedly one night in a nursing home, and the most important focus of her life was gone.
     She eventually set up a new life, focusing first on getting in shape physically. She pretty much stopped drinking, started eating healthy food, and got lots of exercise in the form of tennis and water aerobics. She set about designing a new life, just for herself, but never really felt she got there - she was still trying to "find herself" at the end. Evelyn's life in the last decade contained these elements:

  • Tennis and water aerobics: water aerobics wasn't social for her (she hated the ones who came just to talk), but tennis was. She belonged to several groups who'd meet on a given day of the week to play doubles; a lot of these people were her friends.
  • Bridge: she loved games in general and was a good bridge player. She belonged to several groups, one for almost 50 years. A lot of these people were her friends, too. She didn't seem to like activities that were purely social, such as visiting friends, preferring the structure and activity of the games.
  • Television: the television was turned on when she was at home, and she had a daily routine of game shows, news and soap operas. She wouldn't spend the money for a cable hookup except once every couple of years for a month or so, to watch the U.S. Open tennis tournament.
  • Travel: usually with Benita and me, or Barbara and Julian. Travel provided activities and structure to her visits with us. For longer trips she preferred cruises, since this took a lot of the work out of travel. It also provided a structure for socializing with strangers. She loved to tell her story and situation to the fresh batch she'd meet at breakfast. Evelyn would also visit us in Los Angeles, or Barbara and Julian in Boston, sometimes going to Elderhostels near those cities.
  • Investing: she ran her own portfolio of blue-chip common stocks, so she watched investment shows like "Wall Street Week," and read Forbes magazine.
  • Playing the piano: she'd earned a bachelor's degree in piano about the same time she graduated from Rosary College with a B.S. in chemistry. She liked playing romantic music, especially Chopin, on her nice Steinway grand.

She didn't have strong intellectual interests. She almost never read books, and lost all interest in her academic field of microbiology when she retired from teaching. She was looking for romance, and was very attractive for a woman of her age, but the demographics were against her. She was a great friend to me, and to my wife Benita, and she was wise and non-judgmental. She was not religious, though she attended the Unitarian Church. It was always through feeling that she tried to expand beyond the mundane everydayness of life.

What was she like?
My old friend and college roommate, Mark, asked by my wife-to-be what my mother Evelyn was like, answered that she was, above all, "emotional." He and I would dine at my parents' house each week for a while when we were in college. They weren't getting along well - Fred was just at the beginning of his twenty-year slide into Alzheimer's, and criticized Evelyn because she drank and watched too much television. While the dinner was (over) cooking, she would drink glass after glass of wine, watching the news on TV with my father, or playing Chopin very emotionally on the piano. A love of this dreamy emotional state is something I share with her. She played by herself, with my father's cello, and with informal chamber music groups all her adult life. The piano was for her, above all, an emotional outlet. Her feelings overflowed into this Romantic music. Especially during periods when she and Fred weren't getting along well, it was her main emotional outlet.

Here are some of her other characteristics, big and small:

  • She was cheap. She grew up in the great depression, so she held onto her money, and would spend very little on herself. But she was generous with gifts.
  • She ran a food museum in her kitchen. She would keep dribs and drabs of ancient leftovers, and mix them into terrible new concoctions.
  • She loved to travel, especially with her children, so she took us on great trips all over the world.
  • She was always interested in new things. She took up watercolor at an elderhostel a few years before she died. She started writing poetry again. She wrote her memoirs.
  • She loved to gamble. She played the lottery weekly, and kept all the receipts, so she could deduct them on her income tax if she won. She liked to go to Las Vegas, or on cruises where there was blackjack. She was a strangely superstitious and irrational player, for a scientist.
  • She would seldom do anything just for social purposes, though her social life was important to her. She saw her friends at bridge and tennis, seldom at purely social gatherings. To visit me in Los Angeles or Barbara in Boston she needed an excuse such as a birthday or an elderhostel.

I think she was searching for something more up until the end of her life. She said during her later years that she was trying to "find herself," and I take this to mean that she was looking for something or someone that would offer her a deeper emotional connection to the world, something beyond what she'd gotten from her career, her friends, her music, and her family.