Gerd Fredrickson, 1961-2022. (Photo: submitted by family)

The first thing one learned upon meeting Gerd Fredrickson is that Gerd is pronounced Yard.

“Everybody would mispronounce it, and she’d have to correct them,” recalls Theresa Witt of her longtime professional colleague and personal friend. “She’d say, ‘It’s Yard — like front or back or barn.’ She was really cute with that.”

Born in Finland as Gerd Maj Elizabet Norrgard 61 years ago, Gerd moved to Springfield in the early 1980s as the young bride of Lee Fredrickson and began a busy life as a mother and a nurse that came to an unexpectedly swift end on August 9.

She and Lee met when he visited Finland as an evangelist. He hailed from northern Michigan and took pride in being the son of parents who were only a couple of generations away from Finland. He requested that his 1982 missionary tour abroad include that country.

Gerd Fredrickson, 1961-2022. (Photo: submitted by family)

“So meetings were arranged for me in Finland, including one in a little Baptist church in Vaasa,” Lee recounts. “Gerd attended that church, and she attended the meeting I held there. We met, and she invited me to stay at her and her mom’s house while I was there.”

Gerd was working as the equivalent of an LPN (licensed practical nurse), and Lee says he was attracted by “her genuine love for people. I could sense that she had compassion for people and that she always wanted to do her part in helping others. She was a very giving person — I think that’s what most people would say about her.”

The attraction was mutual, but: “We felt that God had arranged our meeting, but we knew that it probably would be impossible to ever meet again because I was coming back to Tucson, Arizona, where my parents were living then.”

However, a few months later, Gerd’s aunt, who lived in California, engineered a job for her there as an au pair helping care for the young daughter of a San Francisco dentist. Lee and Gerd had exchanged a few letters since he’d returned home, and the correspondence escalated to telephone calls when she moved stateside. 

Lee had relocated to Springfield by then to take a job as a design editor for the Baptist Bible Tribune at Baptist Bible College. He and Gerd scheduled a meet-up at his parents’ house in Tucson over the July 4th weekend of 1983. Late the next month, he invited her to Springfield, where he asked for her hand in marriage. 

“When she called home to tell her mom that I’d proposed, Gerd said, ‘Remember, Lee is pure Finnish.’” That sealed the deal. The wedding took place in early November, slightly more than a year since their first encounter in Finland and after they’d spent just a month of days in each other’s actual company. 

Early years in America

The next few years were hectic as the couple’s family quickly grew by three — two daughters and a son — and Lee started his own business here, 21st Century Press, publishing Christian books. 

Gerd Fredrickson earned her U.S. citizenship while retaining traditions of her native Finland. (Photo: submitted by family)

Among other adjustments, Gerd had to polish and adapt her English. Finland’s two main languages are Swedish and Finnish, the latter judged to be the fourth most difficult language in the world to master. Gerd spoke mostly Swedish, although she’d had exposure to English — the British variety — in school.

On that first meeting in Finland, Lee says, “We communicated with a Swedish-to-English dictionary. Whenever I’d say a word that she didn’t understand, she’d get the dictionary out.” Here, he says, “she learned American English by watching ‘Sesame Street’ on TV with our kids.” Eventually, she became an American citizen.

Gerd earned her GED and attended one year at BBC “to get the basics,” Lee says. After the kids were old enough to attend school themselves, she enrolled in Southwest Baptist University’s nursing program, earned her degree as a registered nurse in the early 1990s, and went to work at St. John’s (now Mercy) Hospital. 

That’s where she met Theresa Witt about 20 years ago in the office of vascular surgeon Dr. Jon Reese.

A beloved and skilled nurse

“Gerd was Dr. Reese’s nurse in the office; she was the one who kept things rolling,” recalls Witt, who was a provider in an advanced nursing practice role. “Gerd was absolutely skilled as a nurse, and she was very organized. She ran a tight ship. She kept Dr. Reese on schedule — as much as anyone could — and she filled the role with a smile. 

“She had that Swedish accent (a pleasant “sing-song lilt” is how Lee describes it) with a soft and soothing voice, although she could be stern when the occasion demanded. But with that accent she could get away with saying things that other people couldn’t.”

Gerd Fredrickson returned to school and, while raising three children, in the early 1990s earned her degree as a registered nurse and began a 30-year medical career in Springfield. (Photo: submitted by family)

About 10 years ago, Gerd moved to the hospital’s gynecology department. “She was one of the veteran nurses, but she never took a formal leadership role, never was director over the floor or anything like that,” says Witt. “However, she was a mentor to a lot of students who were coming through, and also to nurses who ended up being there.”

Lee says that Gerd “loved being a bedside nurse, loved that she was able to work with hundreds and hundreds of patients over the years. And she became well-loved by many of her patients. Often when we’d go out to eat, someone would come up and say, ‘You took care of me in the hospital’ or ‘You took care of my mom,’ and they’d thank her. It happened many times.”

Inspiring role model for kids, and a comfort to grandchildren

Her children today are thankful for the role model and inspiration she provided. One way or another, all three are following in Gerd’s footsteps.

Daughter Anna Saliba, who with her husband Jonathan does ministry work in Bogota, Colombia, says she admired how her mother “never let anything stand in her way in overcoming obstacles like learning a new language and coming to a new country. That really inspired me to do what God wanted me to do, which was to become a missionary in another country and learn another language.”

Anna also is grateful that Gerd shared her Finnish heritage and love of baking with Anna’s two daughters, one of whom has a severe milk allergy. “Mom would look for recipes with ingredients that were safe with the allergy. She would make sugar cookies that the kids could cut out and decorate and gingerbread cookies that were part of her Finnish heritage.”

Lee says he enjoyed a rice pudding, prune tarts and other traditional Finnish goodies that Gerd recreated from her upbringing in Finland.

Another treat for the grandkids were three goats and some chickens that Gerd and Lee kept for a while in the back yard of their home in a tidy subdivision just southwest of the Springfield city limits. 

“We called it the Fredrickson Tiny Homestead,” says Lee. “We kept them mostly for the kids. They would come over and play with the goats and chickens. It was a source of fun. We’d have goat milk, and we made goat cheese and goat soap. We had plenty of eggs from the chickens. We kept honeybees for a while, and so had plenty of honey, too.” 

Son Karl, who is media director for a large church in Virginia, says he benefited from his mother’s encouragement to “try new things and never be fearful about it. She was always supportive of any choices I made.” 

He also admired Gerd’s eagerness and energy — such as last year when he and his wife, Lily, had their first child and, in a phone call, mentioned that Gerd and Lee would be welcome anytime to come see their sixth grandchild.

“I told my wife that it was nice of her to invite them, but that they probably wouldn’t come, at least not right away,” Karl recalls. “But maybe five minutes after the call ended, Mom texted and said: ‘If we get tickets tomorrow, would that be OK?’ And they flew out the very next day.”

Loved through the last

The Fredricksons, with Gerd and Lee surrounded by their three children and their spouses, plus their six grandchildren, in the final family portrait taken early this year. (Photo: submitted by family)

Daughter Ingrid Shores, who lives in Springfield with husband Cody and their three daughters, followed her mother into nursing as a career. 

“She always cared for other people, always was very thoughtful, and she definitely instilled that in us as kids – to care for others, to use our gifts to help people.” 

Ingrid was graduated from nursing school last December and, like her mother, went to work at Mercy. By then, however, the family knew Gerd was in trouble healthwise.

Lee says she’d suffered a head injury in a bicycle accident in September. After a 30-day leave from work, she tried to return to her hospital duties — but only lasted one day because her arm strength had waned.

Ingrid’s graduation ceremony — at which she received the Florence Nightingale Award for emulating the legendary nurse’s character and dedication to the profession — was bittersweet.

“Graduating students are able to choose one person who has been influential in our lives to put on our nursing pin during the ceremony, and I definitely wanted Mom to pin me,” Ingrid explains. “We knew something was going on with her neurologically, but we didn’t know that it was going to be our last year together. I had to hold on to her to help her walk across the stage, and she almost couldn’t raise her arms to pin me. But she did it. And it was so very special.”

In January, a definitive diagnosis was determined: Gerd was suffering from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (commonly called ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease). It gradually paralyzes the body because it degrades communication between the brain and muscles.

Theresa Witt says Gerd was keenly aware of the grim prognosis. And, as nurses do, they had frank discussions about it.

“I told her, ‘This is going to get worse, and you know that. And it’s scary. But you’ve done so much for everybody else for years. You’ve surrounded so many people with care and helped them get through things that were difficult. Now let other people help you; let them be there for you now. You’re getting the return on what you’ve done; you’re reaping the rewards of being there for other people.’

“She was really as calm as you could be while knowing that it was going to be a rough road,” Witt says. “She told me, ‘I’m not afraid. The Lord is taking care of me. And so is my family.’ And I said, ‘Don’t forget your friends are, too!’”

When Gerd died, she was in her comfortable chair in the living room of her home, surrounded by family. And her August 12 visitation and funeral service were crowded with professional colleagues, fellow members of Graceway Baptist Church, neighbors and other friends.

“Gerd made a lot of friends,” says Lee. “Once you knew her, you were always her friend.”

Mike O'Brien

Mike O’Brien is a longtime newspaper reporter, editor and columnist and is also a college journalism educator in Springfield. To suggest a person who might make a subject for Lives Remembered, email him at LivesRemembered@sgfcitizen.org or obriencolumn@sbcglobal.net. More by Mike O’Brien