By Jennifer Moore-Kerr
In what seems to be a time of ever-increasing strife, this column is a small attempt to build bridges with our neighbors. The broken bridges and steel-clad social bubbles that keep us apart can begin to mend and thin as we get to know the stories that define each other. In this space I will be interviewing community members of all walks of life from throughout the Voice readership area … may you enjoy meeting them, and may this build bridges for us all. Thank you for joining me on this journey.
I began this interview with the most basic of questions: What brought you to the River Valley?
For Deniece the answer goes back a couple of generations. Her father, Bill, had a 14-year-old sister, Villa, who had died as a result of diabetes. The devastation his parents felt drove them to seek out a new environment. The pain of that unimaginable loss might be easier to bear somewhere new, they reasoned. It was that loss, and subsequent decision to move, that began the journey that ultimately brought Deniece’s family to Spring Green. Bill was 9 when his newly bereft family moved to Bear Valley. It was 1927.
Deniece’s love for her parents, Bill and LaVilla (apparently a not-uncommon name in the area at the time!), and her pride in who they were shone through all of the facts and details of their lives. When I asked how her parents met, the words of her Aunt Lee — “Your daddy noticed LaVilla because she was so cute” — brought a delightful smile from that memory to Deniece’s face. Her parents’ courtship and early marriage were intertwined with his service in the U.S. Army. Bill was on furlough in 1942 and just two days shy of LaVilla’s 18th birthday, the young sweethearts were married. The army soon sent them to Louisiana where they, far from the River Valley, began their married life. When her husband was deployed to Germany in 1944, LaVilla returned to her parents’ home in Reedsburg. She was pregnant with Deniece. Then, two months before she gave birth to her first child, LaVilla received the heart-stopping telegram that her husband was Missing in Action. While the details of the following few months are lost to memory, Deniece knows that upon her birth a telegram reading “Daughter born Feb. 13. All is fine” reached her father, and that he eventually returned from the war to bring his young family to their own home in the Spring Green area. As I heard this piece of the story, I was struck by how her family has chosen to remember the joy of new life, rather than hang on to the fear of loss. Throughout this interview I was witness to those forks in the road where Deniece and her family looked for, found and focused on the good life doled out, even in the face of hard times.
As Deniece grew up in Spring Green during the ’50s, first in town in a shared house with an older woman who took the young family under her wing, and then in the country outside of town, she blossomed under the love and care bestowed by her parents and extended family. Deniece remembers feeling scared at the idea of going to school. But the joy she found in learning at the White School, the same school her father had attended in his youth that still stands in downtown Spring Green, quickly assuaged that fear. She thrived there, embracing all that her small school had to offer: from learning to play the clarinet from the renowned band director Lewis Schmidt (Deniece can still be seen some years in the alumni band), to acting in the role of Elena in Chekhov’s “The Boor” under the directorship of Eldon Pratt, to excelling in the forensics club. By the time she matriculated with the first graduating class of River Valley High School in 1963, she had met Ken Feiner whom she would marry and with whom she would raise five delightful daughters on his family farm in Wilson Creek north of town.
When asked if she ever considered leaving the River Valley, her answer was thoughtful. “Ken was always meant to be a farmer here, and I wanted to be with him, so no,” she responded. However, for her, the printed word, which had first drawn her as a little girl in the White School, continued its pull. From writing for the Home News to owning the Office Market where she sells office supplies in downtown Spring Green, and doing her own writing when she has time, she has always expanded her horizons beyond the farm. Her writing, when she shares it, is profound, deeply expressive and beautiful.
I asked Deniece, When you describe this area what most strikes you? She again paused thoughtfully, and then eloquently told of the natural beauty, growing up with the exotic influence of Taliesin, the start of American Players Theatre, and the geologically unique nature of the River Valley. She spoke of the balance between the “natives,” like herself, who have a deep respect for the history of the area, and those who have chosen to live here, often as a place to express their art, or just drawn to the magic of the place. Her eyes sparkle at the memory of seeing Mr. Wright in the 1957 Spring Green Centennial parade with his daughter riding a horse side saddle down the main street in her ruffly dress … it was exotic, and it was right here in her small town.
As Deniece looks to the future for her community, she hopes that it stays much the same at its core … and she hopes that people will continue to value the history, the beauty and the people of Spring Green — the natives and the newcomers. If there were a message she could give people, it would be the too-often stated, and too-easily overlooked, “Buy Local.” She misses the businesses that have been lost over the years like the Dutch Kitchen, the Post House and JoAn’s dress shop. She wishes more people understood that they can influence the future of the community by shopping here, in their own hometown. One of the treasures of Spring Green is that so much can be found right here: from books to clothing to housewares, to office supplies, and so much more. Downtown Spring Green is an important part of Spring Green’s character. It is a community worth investing in.
When asked, What makes you smile? Deniece wanted time to think on this question. Early the next morning my inbox contained the succinct, and heartfelt, message, “My grandchildren, my great-granddaughter, the river, a pretty dress, a good book, memories of my parents.”
I also asked, What brings sadness? Intolerance and cruelty. This answer came quickly and clearly. She finds the current divisiveness in our culture cruel and so wishes to play her part in spanning that bridge. Perhaps sharing her story can be a beginning to that span.
I look forward someday to reading the memoir of this thoughtful, kind woman, and feel blessed to have heard some of her story now.
Jennifer Moore-Kerr is a mom, a free spirit and a barefoot dancer living in Spring Green where she can walk to the river and commune with friends. She can often be found welcoming locals and visitors alike to the Spring Green General Store where she tends the register most days.