edited by Nancy Bordine, Vice President of Women’s History Project of Northwest Michigan
The Women’s History Project of Northwest Michigan kindly contributed the following edited oral history, originally recorded in 2002. It is certainly timely; on October 9th, we will again regret the loss of Gretchen Votruba, who passed away on that date in 2004 at 88 years old. Gretchen was a volunteer with Child and Family Services in the Grand Traverse Region from 1960 until her passing. She was honored several times for her tireless dedication to the children and families she worked with, most notably in 1989 when she was honored by the State of Michigan as “Michigan’s 150th First Lady,” and again in 1995 when the Traverse City Chamber of Commerce awarded her their Distinguished Service Award. Gretchen’s example is one we should all keep in mind as the needy winter months descend.
My daddy’s job took him to Cleveland when I was about 18 months old. I used to spend every summer with my grandparents. I would head up to Marshall as soon as school was out, and stay ‘til the day before it started.
Grandpa and I used to do the shopping every day because we didn’t have any refrigeration. Fortunately, we were right next door to the milk station, so I could run over there and get milk at noon time. We’d keep it in well water that was wonderful and cold!
Grandpa and I would go to the creamery to get butter. The floors were wet down there and I was always barefoot. That sure felt good after Main Street, because some days you had to hop because it was hot.
My dad taught me to drive ‘cause they didn’t have driver’s training in school. When I was at home, he’d take me out in some of the new developments and places where the traffic wasn’t bad, so I could learn to turn decent corners and learn to park. The fact is, I think he made me change a tire. I had to change a tire before I could take the car alone.
I went to Olivet to go to college. I started out being a camp counselor in the summers, and worked for the Battle Creek Campfire Girls. I became a Campfire Girls executive, but I didn’t like living on the dole from the Community Chest, so I went back to school to get a teacher’s certificate. I started teaching in ‘38.
I knew Traverse City from having spent summer up here at Camp Arbutus. I just liked it and one of the other girls decided she liked it too; so the two of us moved up here in 1943.
I was teaching school during World War II. We worked on saving grease and getting out ration cards because they used the school as an easy place so people wouldn’t have to go so far to sign up to get their sugar card or their meat card. I had the first Girl Scouts troop here too. We got started and went out collecting grease.
I met my husband when his family were members of the First Congregational Church. I lived in an apartment on the same block when I first came to Traverse City. I knew his wife and I knew their kids. Catherine died in ‘46; their youngest was only two at the time.
Bill was coming home from a Rotary Minstrel Show; he had black face and all. I was walking home across Union Street Bridge when he stopped and gave me a ride. We had a good visit that night, and then we started going together. We’d do things on Sundays with the kids and his mother. She’d have dinner and then we’d go for a ride. The kids always thought they had to be in the water, at least on Memorial Day, even if it was cold, they would make a quick dip. We got married New Year’s Day 1952, at the First Congregational Church Chapel.
Bill’s father had come from Czechoslovakia when he was seventeen. His family went to the Bohemian settlement in East Jordan because they knew some people up there. He and his brother used to walk to Traverse City for supplies, and they’d carry a stool or a rocking chair home on their backs for their mother.
One time his father and his brother got on the wrong trail when they were leading a cow back to East Jordan. They found themselves at the end of Old Mission Peninsula. They had to tramp all the way back and come up the other side to get to East Jordan.
Frank was his name, that’s where the ‘F. Votruba’ comes in on our store name. Frank was one of the builders of the Opera House Building. A matter of fact, ours is the only store still going from 1891.
My work with Child and Family Services took me all around the country. I drove miles and miles getting new babies from hospitals, as well as sick kids. All of a sudden I’d get a phone call, ‘We’ve got a sick kid over in Elk Rapids… can you get over there and get him?’ I entered two or three children into the hospital at different times when they had to go in. I still see some of the kids around that I knew when they were little. It was nice because I enjoyed all the foster parents. They were really wonderful! The kids were so cute and the other kids in the families were so understanding.
Oh, I used to take them and buy them shoes from (sic) when they needed ‘em and get haircuts and different things like that. That was real rewarding. Goodness sakes, we did travel miles and miles.
I’m still volunteering there, and I’m still donating to them. They wanted to hire me at one time, but I said, ‘That would take all the fun out of it, and I don’t think Bill would approve of it. He’d rather I just do it to help.’
1989 was the 100th anniversary of our State. The Michigan Women’s Commission, under Governor Blanchard, selected Michigan First Ladies by counties. Each county go somebody in there. Most of ‘em have two; Grand Traverse was big enough to have three.
Child and Family Services nominated me. We were honored at a luncheon down in Lansing. I was so flabbergasted; it was a real honor, ‘Michigan 150th First Lady Award.’ My award said, ‘Traverse City’s quiet giver, honored. Gretchen is a rare, warm, giving person. Everyone should have a friend like Gretchen.’
The Women’s History Project of Northwest Michigan’s mission is to preserve and recognize the contributions of women to their families and communities in northwest lower Michigan. The Board of Directors are always looking for new interviewers for their oral history program, as well as recommendations for women to be interviewed. Copies of the oral histories and transcriptions are held at the archives of the History Center of Traverse City. For more information, visit the Women’s History Project website at http://www.whpnm.org/.