Mary LaVigne was a hardworking, loving and generous wife, mother and grandmother. She was selfless and big-hearted, willing to give whatever she had. She was upbeat and kind, finding some good in everyone and everything. Knowledgeable and talkative, Mary eagerly shared her wisdom for the benefit of others and once commented, “I wish I could give my knowledge away.” Coupled with her desire to save for the future, Mary’s understanding, honesty and simplicity is the wealth she leaves her beloved family.
Mary was born to John and Catherine Swetz (nee Selner) on December 8, 1925 in Wood County, Wisconsin. She came of age during the Great Depression when countries around the world experienced long years of scarcity, including the region of Bohemia, which was the family’s heritage. In North America, families readily made sacrifices, but because the Swetz family were dairy farmers, they fared somewhat better because they were self-sufficient enough to always put food on the table. In fact, Mary described her childhood like the immortalized novel, “Little House on the Prairie.” The family lived in a one-room house with a sleeping loft upstairs and a barn, chicken coop and outhouse on the property. When Mary was 10, the family built “the big house” with running water and an inside toilet that their mother would let the family use only at night and in winter. Such frugality was an enduring value of the Depression era that impacted Mary throughout her life.
Mary was the younger sister of Sophie and Irene and the older sister of Helen and Emily. Sadly, Helen died at 3 months of age, when Mary was 3 years old, yet the girls enjoyed a childhood that shaped them into strong young women, physically and emotionally. There was always something to do on the farm, and all the work was done by hand. Mary’s mother saw no need for the girls to be in the house during the day because there was so much to be done outdoors. Farm life was extremely difficult, but Mary thrived in that environment and years later expressed the sentiment that she wished she had never left the farm.
For her elementary education, Mary attended a one-room school house in the township of Siegel. During high school, she stayed with her Grandpa and Grandma Swetz in Wisconsin Rapids and attended Lincoln High School. On weekends, she traveled back to the farm to help with the never-ending tasks of the dairy. Mary was a dutiful young woman and did not have much time to socialize, but she did enjoy dancing. It was at a dance that the course of her life took a dramatic change.
While dancing at the Vesper Ballroom in Vesper, Wisconsin, Mary met a young man by the name of Donald LaVigne. Coincidentally, he drove a milk truck, and the two began a relationship that eventually moved them to Milwaukee where Don’s parents lived. On April 26, 1947, the loving couple married and lived in several places throughout the city. They were always with Irving and Ida LaVigne, so once again the bond of family was secure as it had been in Mary’s childhood.
In Milwaukee, Mary sought work through employment services and took on various jobs—in a tannery, at a laundry and with a printing company. Yet she coveted a position at Briggs and Stratton, a small engine manufacturer, and made constant application to work there. In 1965, her persistence paid off and the company gave her a chance. She was 40 years old at the time, and her solid work ethic proved the company right in hiring her. She gave her best for 26 years, and when she retired in January 1991, Mary was justifiably proud of her accomplishment.
Mary and Don were blessed with three children: Diane was born in August of 1947, Laurie in November of 1956 and Darrell in March 1958. As a mother, Mary lived for her children, often going without in order to provide for them. She worked full time during the week, but Sunday was family time and she never broke that commitment. They spent that day going to the park, viewing the displays in the department store window or doing something simple just as long as they were together.
Working a full fifty weeks of the year, Mary took her two weeks of vacation on the family farm. However, she didn’t lounge around; rather she helped her parents with whatever needed to be done. Involving her children in the same honest work, Mary built their character and instilled in them the values of productive labor and family loyalty.
To her children and extended family, Mary also imparted her vast wisdom. They often called on her to settle an argument, because they trusted her to have the right answer. From early on, Mary’s mother had told her to put on her thinking cap and she would be able to figure things out, and she did. Added to her understanding was Mary’s curiosity. She was eager to read and delighted to learn something new each day. She was like a walking encyclopedia and could retain information remarkably well. From the storehouse of her memory, she shared what she had learned with those around her. However, there were times when the family asked Mary to take off the thinking cap because she was dispensing too much information. Her son-in-law Antonio once said to her, “Ma, I’m not going to ask you what time it is because you will also tell me how the watch was made.”
Such knowledge and attention to detail made Mary a great story teller. She shared her life’s experiences with multiple generations who can be proud of the heritage that is theirs through Mary Swetz LaVigne.
On December 14, 1986, the love of Mary’s life passed away. Don’s death was very difficult for her, and when she developed some health problems in retirement, Mary looked to her children for support. For a time, she moved in with her daughter Laurie in Milwaukee and then with her son Darrell in Wisconsin Rapids. That was a unique time for all of them, and they were grateful for the bond that was strengthened between them. Mary and Laurie became best friends as they shared poignant moments and special trips with just the two of them. Mary also had the opportunity to get to know her grandchildren even better, letting them in on her life, telling stories and attending to even the littlest details of their lives. For example, insisting that the children color within the lines in a coloring book was understandable for a woman who insisted on balancing her check book without a calculator. The love between grandmother and grandchildren was apparent when grandson Russell coined the name BoBo for his grandmother—a nickname of true endearment.
Mary entered into her rest on Saturday, July 25, 2015 at Columbia St. Mary’s Hospital in Milwaukee, Wisconsin at the age of 89.
Mary LaVigne (nee Swetz) was preceded in death by her beloved husband Donald LaVigne. Cherished mother of Diane (Elmer) Marthaler, Laurie (Antonio) DeLeon, and Darrell (Jaclyn) LaVigne. Loving grandmother of Melissa, the late Judith, Tracy, Troy, Russell, Selise, Eric, Adam and Amanda. Dear sister of Emily Ruffing, the late Sophie Fawley and the late Irene Rohmeyer. Further survived by 16 great-grandchildren, 2 great-great-grandchildren, other relatives, dear friend Pauline Hayes and other friends.
Visitation Wednesday, July 29, 2015, at the funeral home from 4:00 PM – 8:00 PM. Prayer service at 7:00 PM
Suminski LifeStory Funeral Homes
Niemann / Suminski
2486 S. Kinnickinnic Ave (414) 744-5156
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