Minnesota's Greatest Generation

Linda A. Cameron: "Thanks, Mom and Dad"

Editor's note: It has been my great privilege to serve as a researcher and web editor for the Minnesota's Greatest Generation project since its beginnings in 2005. While on this journey, I have encountered many extraordinary "ordinary" people who are justifiably proud to be members of this generation, and who have given me a greater appreciation for the good life I have enjoyed thanks to the sacrifices and contributions they have made. It has also led me to think about my own parents and what their legacy has been to my brother and me, and to my three nephews. This is their story.

My father, William John Cameron, was born in 1926 in the small town of Luverne, Minnesota. His father, Earl, ran a grocery store and later was a Schmidt Beer distributor. His mother, Ann, the American-born daughter of Dutch immigrants, was a housewife who doted on her only child.

My mother, Marjorie Jean Pelton, was born in Minneapolis in 1930, just months after the stock market crash, to a banker father (Ted), and a housewife mother (Margaret). Because her father was able to keep his job, the family was able to weather the Depression and help support Ted's father and mother, who suffered economic hardship when they lost their automobile dealership.

Dad had the usual carefree small-town childhood, which was cut short with the entrance of the United States into World War II. Before his graduation from high school in 1944, my father enlisted (at age 17) in the Army, and went on active duty in December of that year. His training took him to New Jersey, where he served in an office as a clerk typist. (He used to joke that he was "the best hunt-and-pecker in the Army!") Unlike many of his friends, he didn't have to go overseas, and never saw combat. Dad remained stateside until his discharge in August 1946.

The G.I. Bill enabled my dad to attend college, the first of his family to do so. His dream was to become a veterinarian and, after completing his undergraduate studies at the University of Iowa at Ames, he was accepted into the second class of the newly established Veterinary School at the University of Minnesota. He met my mother, then an undergraduate Spanish major and a member of Phi Beta Kappa, at the University and they were married in March 1952. He received his D.V.M. degree in 1952, and set up a small animal practice in his hometown of Luverne. My brother, David John, was born in 1954, and I came along eighteen months later.

Children of the Great Depression, my parents were raised to live on a budget. My mother remembered once driving with Dad to visit her parents in Minneapolis "with just 29 cents in the checkbook." A banker's daughter, Mom was a whiz at stretching their tight budget. I remember her washing and drying plastic bread bags to reuse in freezing garden produce, and using her finger to scrape out every last bit of egg white when baking so as "not to waste anything". She canned produce from my Grandpa Cameron's garden, knitted caps and mittens for my brother and I, and tore worn out garments into rags for cleaning. I wore hand-me-down dresses from the doctor's daughter across the street, and blue jeans from the son of my dad's employer. With animal loving parents, we always had a dog (nearly always Boston Terriers, which both mom and dad had as children), and I grew up with a horse of my own - my fondest wish as a child. We had a stay-at-home mom who was always there when we came home from school, and a dad who always seemed to find time to play with us. Regardless of how strained the family finances may have been, my brother and I always felt loved and secure, and seemed to have everything our hearts could desire. (The Norman Rockwell World War II era paintings, "Freedom From Want" and "Freedom From Fear", seem to be very real reflections of our childhood.)

Dad's career evolved into avian pathology, first in chickens with Northern States Laboratories in Luverne and, later, in the growing Minnesota turkey industry. He accepted a position with Koronis Mill & Supply Company and moved our family to Paynesville, Minnesota in 1967. Coming from the only county in Minnesota without a natural lake (Rock County), my parents were thrilled to have the opportunity to build a year-round home on Lake Koronis – and to provide what my brother and I both feel was an idyllic life for their children and grandchildren.

Dad's work as a diagnostic research veterinarian was his dream come true. He often remarked, "I am the luckiest man alive because I get to go to work every day and do something I love." He would continue by saying, "That's my wish for you kids. Follow your hearts and do what you love." I have followed that advice and have never regretted it.

Like many of his generation, my father's life was troubled by alcoholism. Thanks largely to the courage and persistence of my mother, whose faith, strength and wisdom served as an incredible example, Dad was able to beat the alcohol and return to a normal, productive life. He continued his career in a new position with Willmar Poultry Company, commuting 50 miles roundtrip each day to work.

As my brother and I grew up and left for college and lives of our own, our parents – like so many of their generation – immersed themselves in volunteer work. Both were very active in the local Methodist Church. Mom directed the youth choir and served as state treasurer for United Methodist Women. Dad taught Sunday school for several years, was on the Administrative Board, and was active in the men's breakfast prayer group. Mom served on the State Centennial Committee for Rock County in 1958, was Rock County Republican Chairwoman in the 1960s, and worked as an election judge in Paynesville. Both Mom and Dad belonged to the local golf course (Dad was a fanatic golfer – part of his lasting legacy to my brother and nephews), and Mom loved her bridge club. They looked forward to a happy retirement, when they planned to rent an R.V., pack up the dog, and hit the open road to "see America".

They never made it.

At no time in my life did I see my parents' true character and strength more clearly than when they were both diagnosed with cancer, just a year apart. Both my mother and my father accepted this challenge with the same grit and determination and sense of humor that they had every other trial in their lives, and when terminal diagnoses were handed down to each, they accepted them with a grace that could only have come from their unshakable faith. (My mother's mantra was always, "God never gives us more than we can handle.") Losing them both in 1993, and facing life without the benefit of their guidance, was an awakening I will never forget. I have called to mind their teachings and example many times over the years, and will always be grateful for the values they instilled in me, and the faith they handed down to me.

I couldn't have asked for a greater legacy from my parents.

In these uncertain times, it is comforting to me to know that my parents' generation was able to rise above the challenges forced on them by the Great Depression and World War II. It gives me hope for a future that today appears clouded by economic recession, political divisiveness, and continuing world conflict. They could do it. So can we.

Thanks, "Minnesota's Greatest Generation"!

(And thanks for everything, Mom and Dad.)