A Life Far From Expected

When the pandemic started approximately one million years ago, I had a few immediate realizations. One was that there was a strong likelihood that my grandmother would die and I wouldn’t even be able to attend her funeral, much less say goodbye. That’s exactly what came to pass, and as angry as I still get about it, I also feel good about the last time I saw her. She was lucid, she knew me, she delighted in my children, the weather was beautiful, and we had a really nice visit that I sensed was probably the last one we would ever have.

The thing that happens in your family when you are the one who went to college to study journalism is that you get to be the person in charge of writing the obituaries (thank you to my Writing & Reporting professor Mick Mulcrone and my obit writing partner Julie “Ace” Cortez for all the practice), in this case with lots of assistance from my mother, aunt and uncle. Grandma had high standards, but fortunately she also lived a life that lent itself to a kick-ass obituary. (Also she would not be thrilled that I just used the term “kick-ass,” but joke’s on her because there’s nothing she can do about it now.) I only regret that I did not find a way to work in the story about her hustling the locals at pool in the back room of a County Kerry pub.

LaVerne (Hanks) Reilly Richard

August 13, 1927-September 17, 2020

LaVerne Richard, 93, passed away Thursday, Sept. 17, at the Fairbanks Pioneer Home, after living a life that was as far from what she expected as one can imagine.

Born LaVerne Garnet Hanks in Sturgis, South Dakota, LaVerne grew up in the back of her mother’s drugstore in the Black Hills town of Whitewood, where she loved delivering telegrams around town on her bicycle. In 1942, the family — now including LaVerne’s younger siblings Eloise and Stanley — moved to Tacoma, where her mother became a real-life “Rosie the Riveter,” working as a welder in the Bremerton shipyards. After graduating from Lincoln High School in 1943, LaVerne completed two years of studies in business administration and music at the College of Puget Sound. 

LaVerne married Donovan Lisle “Pete” Reilly on June 15, 1946. After the birth of their third child in 1950, she joined Pete at Boeing, where she worked in administration and he was a mechanic in the experimental division. 

Then, one night, Pete came home and told LaVerne: “Guess what? We’re going to Alaska.”

Wien Airlines had moved its maintenance operations to Nome while the Fairbanks airport was  being relocated, and it was recruiting Boeing mechanics to work at the temporary station. In October 1952, LaVerne and the children traveled to Nome to join Pete with the promise that the family would stay for a couple of years, then return to Washington with more money than they knew what to do with. Instead, in February 1953, the family moved to Fairbanks, where LaVerne would live for the rest of her life.

An active member of the Fairbanks Business and Professional Women’s Club for many years, LaVerne loved working. She spent most of her professional life in the transportation industry — first Boeing, then Alaska Freight Lines, Garrison Fast Freight, SeaLand and Interior Airways. She briefly ventured into the retail world when she opened and managed the offices of the new JC Penney store in Fairbanks in 1967, but she quickly returned to transportation. In 1973, just as the pipeline boom began, she took the position of office manager at Lynden Transport, where she worked until her retirement in 1986 and where she was affectionately known as “Mother Superior” to her colleagues. After retirement, she went to work in the parish office at Immaculate Conception Church, where she worked until she was 80.

Never one to sit idle, LaVerne was constantly occupied with crossword puzzles, playing the piano, crocheting and sewing. An accomplished seamstress, she and her dear friend and co-conspirator Phyllis (Roehl) Freericks Stewart reupholstered most of the stools and banquettes in Fairbanks bars in the 1960s, and she was loved by truck drivers across the Interior for her naugahyde radiator covers and truck seats. As a volunteer in the early years of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, she sewed countless dog booties. Her beautifully tailored children’s clothes have been worn by multiple generations, and her own grandchildren were the recipients of handmade teddy bears, doll clothes and special occasion dresses that are still cherished today — although she always followed her mother’s admonition to “never let your children be better-dressed than you!”

LaVerne enjoyed some of the happiest years of her life after marrying her second husband, George Richard, on Dec. 18, 1975, in a ceremony officiated by Judge Everett Hepp. Together they raised two standard poodles (Buttons and Bows) and savored retirement, traveling, playing golf, and spending time with their grandchildren. LaVerne became president of the Fairbanks Golf and Country Club when it incorporated in 1986, and she later supported George in establishing its junior golf program. When LaVerne turned 60 in 1987, she set out to try experiences she’d always been curious about, like riding on a motorcycle and in a hot air balloon. After George’s death in 1992, she became an avid international traveler, making numerous trips to visit dear friends in County Kerry, Ireland. She was a longtime parishioner at Immaculate Conception, where she was an active and well-loved member of the church community.

LaVerne loved playing the piano, golf, travel, wine, ice cream, good food, Almond Roca, dogs, her grandchildren (and, she supposed, their parents), water skiing, and her 1981 Lincoln Continental. She hated snakes, fish bones, the “Fairbanks dust” that sticks to the sides of everything, and not having a job to do.

From 2014 until her death, LaVerne was a resident at the Fairbanks Pioneer Home, and her family is grateful to the staff for the excellent care she received there. To honor LaVerne’s memory, the family suggests donating to the Pioneer Home Foundation or Stone Soup Café.

LaVerne is survived by her children: Donna Olesen (Tom Richardson) and Steven Reilly (Kathy Chapados) of Fairbanks, Susan Reilly (F.X. Nolan) of Anchorage, and Michelle Arnold (Bill) of Gold Beach, Oregon; her grandchildren Erin Sheldon (Jennifer Quigley) of Seattle, Ian Olesen (Sheri) and Alex Olesen (Marie-Sylvestre Belanger) of Fairbanks, Maia Nolan-Partnow (Seth Partnow) of Milwaukee, Darcy Olesen (Gerry Willomitzer) of Whitehorse, and Galen Nolan (Geneva) of Albuquerque; honorary grandson Michael Hupp; and great-grandchildren Donovan, Silas, Reilly, Penny, Leo, Evelyn, Bruce and Romy. She was preceded in death by Donovan Reilly; her brother, Stan King; sister, Eloise Running; son-in-law, Leo Olesen; and beloved husband, George. 

Like many Alaskans, LaVerne had a large adopted family, and the countless people who knew her simply as “Grandma” will recall — often from personal experience — that she was unfailingly frank and quick to call out lapses in common sense. It would grieve her tremendously to know that most of her loved ones were not able to say goodbye to her in person or attend her funeral Mass, and if she were here now, she’d tell you to quit your bellyaching and just put on the mask!

She will be missed by many people and remembered as a strong and loving mother, grandmother, colleague and friend.

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