Merrill’s first female Mayor leaves a legacy
TINA L. SCOTT
Merrill’s first female Mayor, Patricia “Patsy” Anne Kirby Woller (1942-2021), passed away last week Tuesday, Jan. 12, after a lengthy illness, leaving a legacy. That legacy extends far beyond her political accomplishments and the many historical firsts she achieved in her life here in the community she loved so much. Still, all of those accomplishments and firsts are significant and put Patsy into the Merrill Women In History Hall of Fame, and they are worth mentioning here. Her Hall of Fame citation reads, in part:
“Since her election to the City Council in 1986, Patsy has garnered quite an array of political ‘firsts’:
– First Merrill woman elected as Council President, 1988-1992
– First person/woman in Merrill’s history to be elected as Alderman and Mayor in the same election
– First woman Mayor elected in Merrill, 1992
– First Merrill Mayor to be elected for a four year term”
Yet while all of these firsts are remarkable and will serve as inspiration to other girls and women who aspire to get into politics, they’re just a tiny peek into the legacy of which I write.
In preparing to honor and celebrate the life of the woman they loved and called mom, Patsy’s family shared with me her notes from a speech she prepared many years ago. Patsy’s own words help best tell the story of the life she lived. So I am going to quote some of them in this tribute to her.
But let me start where most good stories start … at the beginning.
Patsy Kirby was born and raised in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and recalled herself as a pretty shy kid. Every summer she spent time with her family at Kure Beach, North Carolina, and splashed in the ocean. It was her favorite place in the world, she told her children.
By the time she was in high school, though, “I was more and more sure of myself … I thought I had the world by the tail,” Patsy wrote. She had her life all planned out. But, as I’m sure Patsy herself would tell you if she could, things don’t always go as planned.
“When I was 19,” Patsy said, “I met a nice young man from Wisconsin.” She met Denvert Woller, who was in the service, on a blind date. “A year later, we were married and [three days afterward] moved to my new husband’s hometown – Merrill, Wisconsin. I looked forward to the perfect life.”
“But I had never been away from home, and I was in for a real shock!” Patsy said.
“Marriage wasn’t like I had imagined. Clean clothes didn’t magically appear in the closets, maids didn’t come in, in cute little costumes and clean my house while they sang and danced around. That only happens in the movies. I had to do all the washing, ironing, and cleaning.”
“And I felt so alone,” Patsy wrote.
“I didn’t have my family around. They were 1,300 miles away–with all my friends.” Of course, Patsy said her husband tried to introduce her to people and help her make friends. And at that time she worked at Hanson Glove in Merrill. “But I wasn’t very good at it because I still thought the world was going to come knocking on my door,” Patsy said. “I wasn’t supposed to have to make things happen.”
“I loved my husband and our new home, but I wasn’t willing to grow or to get involved with any outside interest, so my life just wasn’t very exciting.”
“Then our daughter, Robin, was born,” Patsy related, “and I became so busy with her that I didn’t have time to feel sorry for myself.”
In her cocoon
Patsy became a stay-at-home mom. “But I became much like a caterpillar, safe and secure inside this self-made cocoon. And my world existed only in that shell’s confines,” she wrote. “As long as my world was safe and secure with my little family, I didn’t care what went on beyond that cocoon. I never paid any attention to what was going on around me … I didn’t want to get involved, even with my neighbors; I didn’t have time.”
“That is,” she said, “until something happened that changed my life.”
“We were expecting our second child, when complications arose.” she recalled. “I was taken to the hospital where I was to lie flat on my back, for 54 straight days, packed in ice.”
“I was not only worried about our baby, but now, for 54 days, the only contact I would have with our daughter, Robin, was over the phone – because back then children under 12 weren’t allowed into the hospital except as patients. And she was only 6.”
“It was really hard to be separated from her by the brick walls of that hospital,” Patsy continued.
“But then something wonderful happened. One day, I was told by the nurse that they were going to move my bed closer to the window and that there was a surprise waiting out there for me. When I looked outside, there stood two of my neighbors with my little girl.”
“My husband worked shift work, and when he was at work, my neighbors took care of my young daughter. And every day or so after school, someone would bring her to see me from outside my window.”
“And because I needed transfusions, 14 wonderful people donated blood for me. Some of those blood donors were those same neighbors. People I had hardly acknowledged as existing,” Patsy said.
“Their blood saved my life, and their willingness to get involved probably saved my mental well being,” she continued.
“Our baby was born, but because she was born too early and too small to survive, she died at two weeks of age,” Patsy shared. This was in August 1970. Patsy and Denvert had to bury their infant daughter, Vicky Lynn Woller.
Afterward, she recalls, “I received 83 cards from people I hardly even knew. That was when I first realized what it means to others when you get involved. And that is when I decided it was time to start giving something back!”
Spreading her wings
“As my health improved, I started to slowly but surely break out of my shell and really pay attention to life around me. My first venture was to become a blood donor through church,” she said. Patsy became a huge advocate for donating blood and later helped set up and promote Merrill’s First Annual MASH Blood Drive event on the Courthouse lawn in 1992.
She joined a bowling team. Their team name was “Maid’s Day Off.” She started to spread her wings outisde of that cocoon.
“As our family grew with two more children, Brad and Missy, I became involved in Parent Teacher organizations and choir,” Patsy said. “I even joined the women’s barbership chorus.” This referred to when Patsy joined the Sweet Adelines. She would later help form and join Harmony and Lace, and she was also activite in the Trinity Church Choir. Singing was indeed one of her passions. “I became President of the barbershop chorus and Trinity’s Parent Teacher League,” Patsy wrote. “The more I got involved, the more my life became fuller and richer.”
It was then, Patsy revealed, that she “realized that the biggest obstacle in my life all along had been me!”
In addition to caring for her own family, Patsy also cared for other children while their parents worked. When her children were old enough, Patsy took a position as an outside sales associate for the Merrill Foto News, and she worked here for more than 10 years. She would credit her job here for sparking her interest in politics and helping her to make many lifelong friends.
She also credited her husband, Denvert, for inspiring her to get involved in the community and politics. “I guess I’d have to say that my husband had a lot to do with that, because the more I became in tune with the world around me, the more I complained about how this or that was done and how Merrill needed to do more for kids and the taypayers,” Patsy related. “I think he really just got tired of listening to me because one day he said, ‘Instead of complaining, why don’t you get out and do something about it.’ So I did.”
“I got involved … Boy, did I get involved!”
The rest, they say, is history. Or perhaps that should say, that is when Patsy started making history in Merrill. She ran for Alderman in the 6th Ward and was elected … for multiple terms. She became Council President. She started serving on City commissions and committees like Citizens Convervation and Emergency Government Committees. She became a member of the Board of Directors for countless organizations to include Bell Tower Residence, the Red Cross, Park House Group Home, and others, She became temporary acting Mayor in 1991 in the absence of then Mayor Kenneth Sparr when he underwent surgery and needed to recuperate. And, of course, she became Mayor, garnering the support of the Merrill community who elected her not once, but twice, as Merrill’s Mayor. The first time it was for a two-year term, and then, after the City decided mayoral terms should be four years, for a four-year term.
In a male-dominated arena, Patsy left her mark on the City of Merrill, advocating for the best interests of the community with regard to many important and lasting developments: the T.B. Scott Free Library addition, the Merrill Area Recreation Complex, and Emergency 911 service to our area, just to name a few. She presided over challenges during a tough time in our City’s history, when finances came under scrutiny and members of the City leadership were under investigation and involved in lawsuits relative to misappropriating City funds. It wasn’t a walk in the park the years Patsy was Mayor.
But through it all and in the years that followed her departure from office, she never quit advocating for Merrill. She ran for and served on the Lincoln County Board of Supervisors and broadened her horizons into County government, for 17 years. She wrote letters to the newspaper advocating for Merrill and worked hard to get the City into the Top 10 cities so Merrill could benefit from the status and publicity that would shine into our little area of the Northwoods. (We didn’t make the top 10, but we did make it into the top 30.)
Patsy’s legacy will live on in the blooming flowers that beautify the City of Merrill every spring and summer. She, along with Donna Block and other avid gardeners, started a program to create flower gardens in common areas of the City. They helped find volunteers to do the actual gardening, distributed decorated collection cans around town to fund the purchase of flowers and seeds, and dug in the dirt themselves. Park City Gardens and their volunteers now carry on this beautiful labor of love, and our lamp posts in the City also boast beautiful blooming baskets of flowers all summer long. The project, along with the flowers, have grown.
Still, Patsy’s lasting legacy isn’t in the flowers themselves, that bloom and fade, as we all will. Patsy’s legacy is in the belief that one person can make a difference, if only she (or he) will break out of their cocoon to get involved. “This world isn’t perfect,” she told students in her speech so many years ago. “But just think about what it would be like if no one ever took the time to get involved.”
“There are two kinds of people,” she added. “Those that do and those that could. Be someone who does.”
Be someone who does
Patsy did. And rarely quit doing until her health slowed her down. Even after she retired from politics, she served on Boards like the Good Samaritan Foundation. When she realized the City would not have the funds to put on 4th of July Fireworks shows, she networked with local merchants to raise the funds to keep lighting up those July skies.
Patsy rarely set out to do things on her own. Rather, she brought people together and made things happen as part of a partnership or a community effort. That extended into private business as well as politics. Patsy has been partnered with others in business, as well. First, she and her partner-in-life, husband Denvert, started “The Grand Stand,” an ice-cream and sandwich shop on Grand Avenue.
Then she partnered with friend, Harriet Slaga, to found the Merrill Courier, a newspaper they started together in 1996 out of the back room of Harriet’s used book store in downtown Merrill. The Merrill Courier became the city’s legal newspaper and was credited with providing many local writers a creative outlet and a place to get published, in addition to covering the news.
When they sold the newspaper in 2005 and most people would be retiring, these two ladies started new endeavors. While Harriet opened a used booktore, right next door Patsy set up shop as “Patsy’s Candy Tree,” a small Main Street candy shop. But the idea wasn’t just to have a hobby during retirement. No, Patsy’s motivation was to inspire other entrepreneurs to start their own Main Street shops in the hope of revitalzing Merrill’s downtown area and attracting tourism to the area.
When the idea of business ownership and politics no longer called to her, Patsy made a difference spending time with children as a part of Trinity’s Afterschool Care Program, and then she became a welcoming, smiling face, still sharing a friendly Merrill welcome with visitors to our community as the morning hostess at the AmericInn.
Even when life seemed at its busiest, Patsy still made time for the things that meant the most to her in this world: her family. Quality time with them – at the holidays or on special occasions, in day-today living, or at the family cottage in Harrison. One year her daughter surprised her with a trip back to Kure Beach, North Carolina, (the place where Patsy spent part of her summer every year as a child) so she could walk on the beach. Her family was the center and heart of Patsy’s world.
“The world never owed me anything,” Patsy said as part of her speech. “And good things just don’t appear like magic. We have to reach out to make good things happen. I was lucky to have warm, giving, forgiving neighbors.”
“One time I was at the hospital giving blood, and I looked up and right above me was a sign taped to the ceiling that said: ‘If you want to be remembered after you’re dead – Either write things worth reading, or do things worth writing!’”
Patsy, in this final tribute to you, I think you’ve done both.
And your final and lasting legacy isn’t in making history or politics or any of those things some people aspire to be remembered for – your lasting legacy is love: the love you had for your community; for your husband, children, grandchildren, and other family members; for your friends throughout the years; and for your Jesus. May that love, and that legacy, always live on.