Life Story / Obituary
Nel passed away on the morning of March 15, in the arms of her heartbroken, only daughter, as the sun came up at her cottage in Michigan. Thanks to the fervent prayers of her many friends, mercifully, she did not suffer. Leukemia was her third type of cancer and she fought them all courageously and without complaint. Miraculously, she recovered from septic shock, pneumonia and being placed on life support only a month ago and planned to re-start her treatment and battle fearlessly until the end. Cancer nearly met its match this time. No one was ever tougher.
Nellie Lou was born on her family’s farm in Diagonal, Iowa. She never used that name because it sounded “too country” although she was known to strategically use being from a farm to win any argument on just about any subject. Once she said “Look, I’m from a farm,” the argument was basically over and you had lost. The practical skills, resourcefulness and work ethic she learned there, served her well her entire life.
Nel was the product of a loving Christian home, with 4 siblings and 2 talented parents, especially her mother, Clara, who she always looked up to. Clara was a strong Irish woman. She was elected mayor shortly after women got the vote, she was the first woman to drive in Ringgold County, she was the best shot and could reload a rifle from her apron full of bullets without missing a beat, to shoot whatever varmints foolishly got into the grain. With no medical training whatsoever, she delivered hundreds of babies when the doctor would call on her. She was also an accomplished piano player, embroiderer and a prize- winning baker. She made all their clothes and cooked for the family and all the farm hands three times a day. All this with no running water or electricity. Her father, Charles, a proper Englishman, was a teacher, cattle farmer, the best fiddle player around who was so polished, he was often called to Chicago to fill in with the symphony. He would take young Nel on the train with him and it was from her folks that she developed a lifelong love of music. Nel was happily learning from her dad, but laid her own fiddle down the day he passed, never to pick it up again.
Nel was an outstanding student, especially at math. She had a natural gift and her talent was often put on display by the superintendent, working problems on the board at different schools at dizzying speed. I’m not sure what purpose that served except to discourage the other children. She had her own way of seeing numbers that was befuddling to other people. While stuck in traffic, she couldn’t stop herself from adding up the numbers on a truck’s serial number and then remarking that it was the same as the license plate number plus the number of wheels on the truck and the highway we were on, minus the radio station frequency we were listening to. A friend once called her The Rain Man, and you definitely didn’t want to get in a blackjack game with her. She once played a young man just for fun at a neighbor’s holiday party and humiliated him so badly in front of some girls he had been impressing, that he became so enraged, the host had to call the police.
Unsurprisingly, Nel skipped 2 grades and found herself at Iowa State University at 16. It was there that she met Nick, a handsome young man from New York, whose parents and aunts had escaped from Kiev in the Ukraine region of Russia. He proposed immediately after they learned of Pearl Harbor while at the movies. He knew he had to enlist immediately. As a ROTC student, he went in as an officer, and was eventually placed with the Russians, our allies, as a translator. Nel lost her beloved father at this time and left Ames for an Army base in Louisiana where she once mailed giant cockroaches back home to her mother who had accused her of “storying” and exaggerating their size and grossness. During this time, she worked as the manager of the club for enlisted men. When her husband asked her why she didn’t get a job at the Officer’s Club, where they went, she replied that the enlisted men’s club was more fun and less stuffy. Nel did whatever she was asked to lift the spirits of the servicemen. There was nothing like a pretty girl posing with dachshund puppies on the front page of the base newspaper to cheer the boys up.
After WWII, the couple settled down in Des Moines with their son Nicky. A decorated war hero and armed with Master’s Degrees in Mining and Civil Engineering, the couple’s future looked bright. However, because of these degrees and the natural resources they had to exploit, the Russian government decided to aggressively pursue Nick with promises of extreme riches, a luxurious mansion and a lavish lifestyle if he would just move his young family to Russia. Nel’s family was against it. Nick’s family pointed out that they had all risked their lives to escape and it was a foolish idea and nothing more than a trick. He didn’t have one family member on his side. Young Nel said “They might not always be our allies” and they divorced over this. He ultimately decided not to go and Nel moved on. They remained dear friends and close family until his passing in his 90’s. Her deep love and respect for her in-laws made the current war very personal and painful for her. She carried in her phone an affectionate letter from February 16, 1952 from her father-in-law in his charming broken English. She re-read it often, grateful that no family remained there to suffer.
Nel’s career life started with working in the actuarial department of an insurance company while still in her teens, registering cattle for The American Polled Herford Association, then a lucrative job opened up in the convention and trade show business. It involved travel and sounded like fun. Her mother and sister could watch Nicky while she was away, so she lied about her age, and got the job.
Freeman Decorating was just starting up again after conventions were forbidden during the war years due to rationing. The job required her math skills, office skills, salesmanship and the toughness she had learned from her mother. It wasn’t easy to be a beautiful young woman around men at a convention where they are not always on their best behavior. Plus, she had to collect money from them and not back down. Nel worked hard and soon became the chairman’s “right-hand man.”
She noticed that there was a lot of business in Dallas and suggested they open an office down there. Buck Freeman finally agreed and rented a small storefront. Her mother covered a beat up, used desk they found with fake leather trimmed with tacks, she upholstered a couple of chairs and they had an office. Eventually Dallas became the international headquarters of Freeman, a global events company that contributes one trillion dollars a year to the US economy with its shows. Nel was proud of her work there and was once flown in and honored at their convention as the Oldest Living Employee. She was, but not as old at they thought because she had lied about her age in the first place! It was at a banking convention in Des Moines that a handsome banker from Chicago noticed Nel. Single in his mid-fifties due to the demands of caring for his bedridden stepmother and travel for his job, he enlisted the help of her cousin, an old friend of his who was married to a singing cowboy in the movies, to fix him up. Nel was the first girl he’d met with the brains, drive and personality as big as his own. They developed an easy friendship and a romance. He proposed by explaining that he had had a good year and she had several dependents he could use, her mother, son and herself. Despite this awkward proposal, they were in love and married in December 1958. Life was good for Nel and Roland. She retired from the convention business and threw herself into charity work and raising their only child, Elizabeth, named after his dear mother who passed away when he was only 11. Roland traded in his convertible for a station wagon, added on to the rustic cabin he had in Michigan that he used for hunting, and they entertained and enjoyed many happy weekends at the lake. For the first time, kids and pets joyfully became part of his life. “You marry a farm girl, you’re gonna have pets,” he’d say with a smile. He often jokingly compared Nel to Ellie May on the newly popular Beverly Hillbillies TV show because of her legendary love for being surrounded by animals at all times and, I suspect, her beauty.
Nel brought her energy, charisma and business expertise to the world of volunteer work and quickly made a name for herself in the Beverly neighborhood of Chicago. She became the local Daughters of the American Revolution Chapter Regent (President) the year that she joined and president of nearly every organization she belonged to. Roland’s life was cut short in 1977 by a sudden, fatal heart attack. Nel found herself alone for the first time in her life, a young widow with a child heading to college and the newly elected State Regent of the DAR in Illinois, a job that involves traveling to visit every chapter in the state. Roland had made her arduous schedule, planning to drive her and visit his old banking friends around the state. Nel pushed on and stuck to the schedule he made while also visiting other states when she was invited to their state conventions. Soon she had a national chairmanship in DAR and was moving up on the national level.
Nel married Dick Thompson, an old friend from Chicago in August, 1980. After a short time dating, Dick, who was going in as the new President General of the Sons of the American Revolution, decided it would be more enjoyable to have her companionship for all the national and international travel the job entailed. Nel moved to beautiful St. Petersburg, Florida and, as usual, became active in volunteer work down there. They lived a fabulous life with frequent international travel, for the SAR and for fun. Her most memorable trip was to China, not long after it had opened up. She brought back many treasures, lifelong memories and, of course, fabulous stories.
During this time, Nel served as Treasurer General of the Daughters of the American Revolution and lived in Washington, DC, a volunteer job and a town she was very fond of. She enjoyed many shows at the DAR’s spectacular Constitution Hall, near her office. She and her friends attended a raucous show by Eddie Murphy, a comedian she enjoyed on Saturday Night Live. It was a little more raw than she expected and she later described it as “saucy,” but they had a good time anyway.
Dick passed away after just five short, but happy, years of marriage. That same year, Betsy graduated from Western Michigan University and decided to start her career in St. Pete so Nel wouldn’t have to be alone. Nel continued her volunteer career with full force, becoming the Chairman of the Florida Orchestra Designers’ Showhouse, her favorite fundraiser, and many other positions listed below.
In 2001, Nel decided to slow down a little and move to rural Ocala, Florida. She focused on taking time for some sewing and craft projects and traveling to bluegrass festivals to see her many friends. Her plan was to move to Michigan permanently to be closer to friends and back in her beloved Midwest that she was used to.
Cancer cut that dream short, but Nel lived a full and happy life, enriching the lives of her many friends with her legendary South Side Irish storytelling, her wit, her charm, her strength, her beauty, her love for animals and music, her sweet nature and positive attitude. She was a larger-than-life personality and the best Mom anyone could ever have.
Gone too soon.
Nel was preceded in death by her parents Clara McAninch Wroughton and Charles Wroughton, siblings, husband Roland C. White, son Nicholas G. Dozoryst and niece Jaynee Gilderbloom.
Nel is survived by daughter Elizabeth Louise White, niece Dixie Anna Gilderbloom and daughter-in-law Nancy O’Halloran.
Daughters of the American Revolution
Treasurer General, NSDAR 1980-1983
Illinois State Regent 1977-1979
Honorary Illinois State Regent for Life
Director of Division IV
Regent DeWalt Mechlin Chapter
Honorary Regent for Life, DeWalt Mechlin Chapter
Editor Illinois State Yearbook and Proceedings
Illinois State Conference Coordinator
Illinois State Recording Secretary
DAR National Board of Management
National Chairman Program Committee
NSDAR Speakers Staff
Trustee Tamassee DAR School
Advisory Board Tamassee DAR School
Advisory Board Kate Duncan Smith DAR School
Chairman of the following Committees
Americanism and DAR Manual for Citizenship
Children of the American Revolution
DAR Good Citizens
DAR Magazine Advertising
DAR Service for Veteran Patients
Junior American Citizens
NSDAR Executive Club Member
Recipient 3 Red Apples as N.S.C.A.R. Museum Major Benefactor
Projects Completed While Illinois State Regent
Child Family History Sampler, restored and given to NSDAR Museum
Cookbook published and paid for with proceeds reserved for the benefit of DAR Schools
Completed renovation of Boys’ Dormitory Cottage at Tamassee DAR School
Children of the American Revolution
Senior National Vice President of the Great Lakes Region
Senior National Membership Chairman
Senior State President
Honorary Senior State President for Life
President Beverly Chapter of the Infant Welfare Society of Chicago
President Board of Directors of the Florida Orchestra Guild
Chairman Florida Orchestra Designers’ Showhouse Benefit
President St. Anthony’s Hospital Auxiliary
President All Childrens’ Hospital Guild
President Bay Area Civic Opera Guild
Beverly Woman of the Year (elected by 4 different organizations as their
President Morgan Park Academy Mothers’ Club
Citation from Mayor Richard Daley for Outstanding Youth Work
Episcopal Church of the Mediator
President St. Catherine’s Guild
Member St. Anne’s Guild
Chairman Interfaith Dinner for City
Leader World Day of Prayer for City
Life Member Order of the Eastern Star
Girl Scouts Chicago Council
Leader on Brownie, Junior and Cadette levels
Union League Boys Club of Chicago Women’s Board
American Red Cross Motor Corps Driver for Veteran Hospital Patients
Charter Member Beverly Art Center
Charter Member Ridge Historical Society
Life Member Art Institute of Chicago
A funeral service will take place on Thursday, March 23 at 3:00pm at Dykstra Funeral Home - Saugatuck Chapel, 520 Lake Street, Saugatuck, MI. A graveside service will follow at Riverside Cemetery in Saugatuck.