“She has gone beyond the sun…”
Our Latvian matriarch, Vilhelmine (Willie) Vanags passed away September 8, 2022, at the age of 91, due to complications brought on by Covid. She is preceded in death by her husband of 67 years, Visvaldis (Valdi). She is forever remembered by her three children, daughters Mara (Steve) Dworak, Ilze (Mark) Hager, and son Juris (Barb) Vanags. Her spirit lives on in the lives of her 12 grandchildren, 19 great grandchildren, sister Janina Jansevics, nieces and relatives in Australia and Latvia.
Born March 22, 1931, in Izvalta, Latvia, Willie was the oldest of 3 children who along with her parents, fled Latvia before the invading Nazi forces of WWII. The small clan journeyed to freedom via Germany and concluding with their Atlantic passage to the United States. Willie served as the family interpreter during their time in displaced person camps and towns along the way. After landing in New York, the family was reassigned from Evansville, Indiana to Martin, South Dakota where they were sponsored by a farm family and worked as hired hands. Willie had an insatiable spirit to improve her lot in life. She left Martin for Alliance, Nebraska, where she worked as surgical nurse’s aide.
Soon after, the family moved to St. Paul, Minnesota in search of greater job opportunities and join the newly formed Latvian immigrant community. Willie’s new jobs included working at the Armour meat processing plant and St. Joseph’s Hospital. It was during this time she rekindled her relationship with her future husband, Visvaldis and eventually would marry and raise a family of their own. The young couple broke traditional norms by moving out on their own, living in the then, far outpost areas of Wheelock Parkway of St. Paul then building a new house in Shoreview, where they began their young family. A fatal auto accident claimed the life of her younger brother Janis (Johnny) and was the impetus to sell their Shoreview home and move back with her parents in the Capitol district to provide some relief from their agony.
The family would spend the summers on their small hobby farm outside of Stillwater, where she felt closest to her memories of her childhood, Latvian home. The farm was the site of many a Jani celebration (Latvian summer solstice celebration), that included singing Latvian folk songs, jumping over the bonfire for good luck, eating piragi and drinking a beer or two.
Willie’s Catholic faith played a large role in raising their children. They attended both English and Latvian Catholic mass on a regular schedule. She sent their children to Catholic schools in the St. Paul area throughout their formative years, from Assumption, to Brady, or St. Agnes Catholic schools, Willie made sure the tuition was paid.
She resumed her working career at the White Castle hamburger chains, beginning at Rice Street and eventually moving to the Lexington and University location. Again, Willie’s drive to a better life led her to work at H & R Block as a tax preparer. Still not satisfied, she accepted a position at St. Paul’s Ramsey hospital, where she became an integral part of the beginning of the Women Infant Children (WIC) assistance program. Willie retired after 20+ years of service to the city. She was formally recognized for her service by then St. Paul mayor, George Latimer.
Willie instilled within her children her deep respect and pride of the family’s Latvian culture. She was active in the Latvian community serving on many boards, volunteering, and participating in Latvian events. She loved gathering with their Latvian friends for Latvian holidays, birthdays, or special occasions.
The last 6 years of their lives, Valdi and Willie moved into the retirement community of Keystone Place at Lavalle Fields in Hugo, Minnesota, to stay during his onset of Alzheimer's disease. The two were a popular couple at Keystone thanks to Willie. She participated in many activities and was a favorite dining companion among her fellow residents. Willie valued learning new things, as evidenced in her constant pursuit of knowledge. She was the kind of person who knew a little bit about everything and was able to hold a conversation on any subject that might be raised. She was a voracious reader and a news/current events/politics junkie. Willie also loved the old, classic black and white Hollywood movies. If you ever had a question of who starred in a movie, the name, the plot, the characters, chances are she knew the answer.
Willie was a pushover for anything advertised to improve your life, be it creams, books, or gadgets, she always believed there was something better just around the corner. That you can always do better and improve your lot in life. And it is that which perhaps will be her greatest legacy to our family – her eternal optimism and hope in the future.
We will never be able to fully appreciate all the perils and hardships she endured, but maybe we can understand how she not only survived but thrived in life – by the gifts of her Faith, love of freedom, Latvian heritage, and her hope in the future.
We will miss her human presence in our daily lives, but we are blessed by a bounty of memories and life lessons that she leaves within the hearts of those who loved her.
Our families are forever grateful for the kind care given her at Keystone Place at Lavalle Fields in Hugo, MN and Regions Hospital in St. Paul, MN.
Dievs, svētī Latviju!
As published in Pioneer Press- Sunday 9/1//22
March 22, 1931
September 8, 2022
Preceded in death by husband Visvaldis; children Mara (Steve) Dworak, Ilze (Mark) Hager and Juris (Barbara) Vanags; 12 grandchildren; 19 great grandchildren; sister Janina Jansevics and nieces. Willie started her career at White Castle and ended as one of the pioneers with the WIC program. Mass of Christian Burial Saturday, September 17, 2022 at 11:00 am at St. Genevieve Catholic Church, St. John Site, 14383 Forest Blvd, Hugo, MN with visitation starting at 10:00 am. Private interment at Resurrection Cemetery.