Guest Columnist

Farewell to the queen of Johnson Avenue

The intersection is seen at Johnson Avenue Northwest and Wiley Boulevard Southwest in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, March 6, 2018. The city plans to amend the intersection to make it safer and more accessible for different kinds of traffic, including  pedestrians to cyclists. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
The intersection is seen at Johnson Avenue Northwest and Wiley Boulevard Southwest in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, March 6, 2018. The city plans to amend the intersection to make it safer and more accessible for different kinds of traffic, including pedestrians to cyclists. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Friends and family recently paid their respects and said their final farewells to Dorothy Gongwer — friend, neighbor, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and great-great-grandmother.

The proud 102-year-old matriarch had lived in the same house almost as long as I’ve been alive. Dorothy loved being outside.

She mowed her own lawn well into her 90s and painstakingly picked up acorns, by hand, as she scooted along the ground on a padded seat. She saved the nuts for the squirrels over winter. However, it didn’t take long for the chipmunks and mice to find her winter stash in the garage.

Dorothy was very proud of the four-foot stone Highway 30 marker — one of the last ones of its kind in the area — located at the edge of her yard. It stood for decades and only came down recently when Johnson Avenue was being widened.

Some of things she saw and people she knew were amazing. While working at the Mayo Clinic early in her nursing career, she saw penicillin used for the first time on a patient with pneumonia.

Dorothy said it was the most miraculous recovery she had ever seen in a patient: “He was up and walking around a few hours later after the injection.”

Dorothy met Grant Wood and knew many of the movers and shakers in Cedar Rapids. Besides serving as a nurse in many capacities for years, she also ran a preschool for 20 years. It seemed like she cared for a whole generation of CR west-siders.

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I knew Dorothy best as a neighbor when my family moved next door to her 15 years ago. I have to admit she made me nervous when she’d be out chopping ice or scooping snow in the winter. If I was outside, I’d usually try to hang around to make sure she made it back inside safely.

During the past few years, after garbage pickup day, another neighbor and I often would return her yard waste container from the street back to her garage. If she’d see me, Dorothy would stick her head out the door and call out, “Thank you.” We’d exchange smiles and waves.

If she saw me working outside or driving in, I’d see her hand waving at me through the window. Not sure if she saw me wave back, but I hope so.

The only time, Dorothy slightly scolded me was when she thought I had shot one of the neighborhood squirrels with my BB gun. I was innocent and told her so, then reassured her I would never shoot at one of her squirrels.

Rabbits and the small ground squirrels were another matter. She agreed that they were appropriate targets. In fact, Dorothy used to trap ground squirrels and dispose of them.

One time, she handed me a bag with something frozen inside. “Do you mind putting this in your garbage?” she asked. I told her no problem and looked at the bag, curious about the contents. “Oh, that’s just a few ground squirrels I’ve been keeping in the freezer until I had enough of them to throw away.” I disposed of the frozen varmints with no other questions.

After her eyesight started to fail, Dorothy most often could be found parked in her chair right next to her giant TV while eating her favorite snack of either goldfish crackers or ice cream. She loved to watch college sports, especially the Hawkeye or Cyclone women’s basketball teams.

Dorothy achieved one of her goals — to see the street work completed on Johnson Avenue outside her house. She made it by a year.

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When work began on the street, Dorothy loved to watch the semi trucks roar past, then slowly back down after they belatedly discovered the “road closed” sign was telling the truth. She appreciated it when I cut down a small branch on one of my trees that was impeding her view of the trucks creeping slowly backward.

The neighborhood will go on, but it seems quieter now. It’s lost some of its soul. It will take me a long time to not look for that hand waving at me in the window or hear her voice calling out a greeting.

Out of respect for her, the squirrels will be safe on my watch.

Myron Williams is a retired Iowa Farmer Today editor who lives in Cedar Rapids.

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