Irma Leidig with her “granddog” Remmie, who at 90 pounds weighed about the same as she did, on a family boating outing on Beaver Lake. (Contributed photo)

At an age when many retreat into retirement, Irma Leidig moved halfway across the continent to Springfield and started over with an extraordinarily active family and civic life.

Irma — everyone, even her own kids and grandkids, called her Irma — lived her first 76 years on the East Coast, where she and husband Chuck raised six children. But following Chuck’s death in 2006 after 52 years of marriage, she picked up and moved from Maryland to Missouri where one of her daughters, Carol Esther, resides.

“Right after my dad died, she said she wanted to come here,” Carol says of Irma, who died Feb. 16. “I told her, ‘Well, conventional wisdom is to wait one year before making any big move.’ So one year to the day she moved out here. My siblings were like ‘What is she doing?’ and I was like ‘Good question…’

Six months later, the answer tragically appeared: Carol’s husband, John, was diagnosed with lethal brain cancer. “I believe God brought her here. She had learned my kids’ activities, their entire routines. She just slid right in the door and, being a mom of six herself, she didn’t skip a beat and helped me take care of my four.”

Over the next three years, while John’s health deteriorated to the sadly inevitable outcome and Carol had to go back to work as a registered nurse in order to get health insurance for the family, Irma exhibited what Carol describes as “grit and resilience” and an unflagging sense of adventure. 

“I had to be the sheriff,” says Carol. “Because it was left to me to finish raising these kids, I had to walk the line. But my mom was always a breath of fun and liveliness for the kids — they had such a good time with her. And, at the same time, she was a refuge for me.”

However, that’s not all Irma did.

Even before she actually made the move, Irma established a professional relationship with local realtor Lucille Garrison. “I showed her several houses,” Garrison says, “and she’d say, ‘Well, I’ll have to change this’ or ‘I’ll have to change that.’ But finally we found one she liked, and she bought it. It had space to do the flowers and flowers and flowers that she grew. When you went to visit her in the summertime, you always had to go out and see what was blooming.”

Irma also became involved in a local chapter of PEO that promotes opportunities for young women and counts ownership of Cottey College in Nevada, Mo., as a key cause. Mary Christiano, another PEO member here, says Irma’s flowers often graced PEO events.

Christiano also knew Irma through their common membership in the local Opera Guild, the fundraising arm of what until recently was the Springfield Regional Lyric Opera (now renamed the Ozarks Lyric Opera). She says Irma was a reliable helper in putting on the group’s annual spring luncheon and conducting other fundraising activities.

That doesn’t surprise Garrison: “Irma was one to get really involved with any organization she belonged to. If they had a money-making project or needed items to auction off, she was fantastic at that. She could walk into a place and — I don’t know what kind of magic she had, but she had it — she always could get something donated.”

Jane Bennett knew Irma through both PEO and the Opera Guild. “She was filled with enthusiasm for everything she undertook,” says Bennett, noting that Irma urged others to take leadership roles. “Irma proposed me for guild secretary, a post I held for several years.”

Irma also was a supporter of the visual arts. “She was involved with Friends of the Springfield Art Museum,” notes museum director Nick Nelson. “She helped with fundraising, and she was a tireless advocate for the organization. She was very much interested in art education, and she enjoyed the annual All-School exhibition.

‘Irma really was a force of nature’

“Irma really was a force of nature,” sums Nelson, “She had more energy and grit than people half her age — including me.”

Irma bundled that energy in a small package. She stood an inch under five feet tall. “A little go-getter,” is how Garrison describes her.

“We did ‘Go to lunch’ at least once a week, or more often if she could get me to go,” Garrison says. “Sometimes we’d just go out driving — I’d take her to different places to show her things or do things. We’d go to symphony concerts, and of course she was big into opera. She loved going to auctions and estate sales and antique malls. We just had a good time together.”

Irma didn’t always have to go out to have fun with friends; on Sunday evenings, they came to her home. She hosted weekly potluck dinners and card games with eight or 10 single women friends. She taught them to play “Hand and Foot,” a game that she brought with her from Maryland that is a variation of Canasta and requires multiple decks of cards. 

Irma Leidig attends the graduation of grandson Joseph Esther from the University of Missouri-Columbia. From left are Irma, grandchildren Maddy, Joseph, Windsor and Eliza Esther, and daughter Carol Esther. (Contributed photo)

Her youngest Esther grandchild, Eliza, was only 8 years old when Irma relocated to Springfield. Eliza fondly remembers watching the women play cards — even joining in after Irma taught her the game — on many of the nights she stayed at Irma’s house during the decline of her father’s health. “And if we’d gone to the lake on a Sunday,” says Eliza, “we had to be sure to be back in time for her to make the card game.”

Eliza, like her mother Carol, detects divine providence in Irma’s move to Missouri. “I think it was a miracle,” she says. “I don’t know what possessed her to do it other than it was a godsend.” Recalling Irma’s willingness to make her granddaughter’s favorite meal of alfredo pasta, Eliza says: “She did everything she could to make me feel like I had a normal life, despite the circumstances.”

Eliza is now 25 and starting a career in investment banking in Charlotte, N.C. Her sister, Maddy, also is in the investment banking industry. Carol thinks the girls may have inherited a “gift for numbers” from Irma, who, although not a CPA, was the bookkeeper for a group of cardiologists in Maryland for 30 years.

“She had to run a tight ship at times,” says Eliza. “My brothers (Joseph and Windsor) were teen-agers when she moved here. But mostly she was absolutely fun.”

All four of the Esther siblings attended Greenwood Laboratory School. Irma proved so popular among her grandchildren’s classmates and friends that she was invited to address the school’s Thanksgiving assembly in 2009. The text of that speech provides insight to some of Irma’s motivation.

She warmed up the crowd of youngsters by noting that when she was their age in the 1930s, “there were only a few cars in our neighborhood, few telephones, no TVs, and computers hadn’t been invented. Imagine this: There were no cellphones! What did we do with our thumbs?”

Recalled growing up in Great Depression

Then Irma, noting that her father had abandoned her mother, her younger sister and herself during the throes of the Great Depression, turned serious. 

She told of the first Thanksgiving she could remember, which occurred when she was 5 years old.

“Mother worked hard to provide for us. My sister was sickly and often hospitalized. Most of the time I was left to my own devices. Being both curious and optimistic, I faced each day with enthusiasm, always seeking excitement and never missing an opportunity for adventure. Too often, I found mischief. …”

One day her mother announced that we were going to a Thanksgiving dinner given by the Salvation Army. Irma was dazzled by the large trays of delicious food — turkey and all the trimmings — that were delivered to tables, followed by a band marching around the hall to accompany joyous singing by the crowd. 

“The excitement, the thrill of it all,” Irma remembered — even after she later realized that the “band” was comprised of only a tuba, two horns, a drum and a set of cymbals. “On that day,” she insisted, “it was as wonderful as any symphony I have heard since.”

On her way out of the hall, Irma was handed a candy bar — and promised another if she’d return. So a few days later, she did. “The nice ladies greeted me as if they had been waiting just for me. They gave me books to look at and, sure enough, when I left there was the anticipated candy bar.”

So on her next visit to the Salvation Army mission, she took along her sister and a cousin. “I even let them share one of the three candy bars given to us. I have to admit I kept two for myself…”

When the laughter prompted by that confession died down, Irma gave credit to the Salvation Army for instilling in her a love of reading and “setting me on a straight path.”

In her earlier years as a wife and mother, she said, “We worked hard and played hard, and we played by the rules.” She and her husband served on school boards, volunteered at church, helped with scout groups, etc. After coming to Springfield, some of the first activities in which she engaged was volunteering to read to second-graders at Greenwood, and working at the refreshment stand at school athletic activities.

Irma Leidig at the graduation of grandson Windsor Esther from medical school. (Contributed photo)

She met several of her grandchildren’s friends that way. “I was a stranger in town, but I felt so welcomed and loved. You will never know how good those greetings and hugs felt to me.”

She urged the students to do the same for others.

“Having an attitude of gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it,” she told the school assembly. “Thank your teachers and administrators, thank the secretaries and the man who keeps the school clean. A simple wave and a ‘Hey, thanks for all you do for us!’ will brighten their day — and yours.”

Carol plans to hold an open house here in the near future for her mother’s friends to share memories of Irma. Because Joseph Esther is on an extended tour as a naval officer aboard the nuclear submarine Seawolf for the next few months, the family has decided to wait until autumn for all six of Irma’s children, 15 grandchildren and others to gather on the shore of Chesapeake Bay in Maryland and spread Irma’s ashes, according to her wishes.

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