Named Iowa Athlete of the Year at age 85, a college graduate after 26 years of night classes as she traveled throughout the Midwest for her job, the first woman ever hired by the federal government for such a position, and mother of Jerri Mae Johnson Parks and Stan Zegel, Marijane Auten Johnson Bensmiller Zegel VanNess Torjesen joked that she had as many husbands as the colorful Wife of Bath in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.
Having outlived them all, at age 93 she succumbed to the dementing effects of longevity on April 14 at Trinity Center at Luther Park, where she received excellent care for the past four years. Visitation will begin at 9:30 a.m. On Tuesday April 26 at St. John's Lutheran Church, 600 Sixth Ave. in Des Moines, followed by her funeral at 10:00 when friends will be offered an opportunity to speak. A chartered bus will take mourners to the burial at Masonic Cemetery, culminating with the release of a solitary balloon ascending steadily into the welcoming heavens – a family tradition – and return them to a hot luncheon at the church.
She was elected president of the local chapter of Business and Professional Women and hosted Eleanor Roosevelt as speaker at one of their meetings. She was also elected president of the Des Moines chapter of the American Society of Women Accountants, and of the women's division of the Greater Des Moines Chamber of Commerce.
Mrs. Torjesen was a past Worthy Matron of Acanthus chapter 530 of the Order of the Eastern Star, and a spouse member of the Sons of Norway.
During her life she acquired several step-children: twins Donald VanNess and Carolyn Sue VanNess, and Ann Torjesen White, Gerrard Torjesen, and the late Christine Torjesen.
Mrs. Torjesen had effective use of only one lung after an iatrogenic injury paralyzed the right-hand half of her diaphragm in 1971. Her physician suggested she start swimming to build up her remaining lung capacity, so at age 54 she built a swimming pool at her residence at 26th and Boston. In winter she went each day to the YWCA pool. Her practice was to swim five days per week, using the backstroke for a mile each day.
She started entering swimming competitions at local, state and national levels, especially after her retirement at age 66, amassing over 700 medals from several states, and still holds ten Iowa Master Swimmer records for women in her age group, including those for 50-yard backstroke, 50-yard freestyle, 100-yard backstroke, 100-yard freestyle, 200-yard freestyle, and 400-yard freestyle. Her remarkable achievements were the subject of a feature story in the Des Moines Register on July 8, 1993.
In 2002, aged 85, she was named female Athlete of the Year by the Iowa Games. She is being buried wearing that medal.
She stopped swimming at age 87 when the YWCA closed down its pool in 2004 and her health then began to decline.
Although she started to use the chic spelling "Marijane" when she was 16, she was born Mary Jane Auten on December 21, 1917 in Des Moines to Merlin Everett Auten (1893-1973) of Perry, and Gladys Isabelle Lambert (1895-1944) of Des Moines, who was a granddaughter of Leroy Lambert (1816-1900), a prominent legislator and banker whose home is now the Adel Historical Museum.
Her father, was sent to Tennessee for training as an attorney and admitted to the Bar there, but then (depending on which story one likes the best) was either (1) disbarred in 48 states after he assaulted a process server, or (2) unable to pass the Iowa bar exam. He adopted the trade of his father, Edward Lyman Auten (1869-1946), and became a barber. In later life he bragged that he owned an impressive 14-chair barber shop in Arcadia, California before revealing that two were barber chairs and the other twelve were waiting chairs.
Her parents divorced when Mary Jane Auten was almost five years old, and seven years later her mother remarried, to Donald Lee Jenkins (1888-1945), a civil engineer who frequently moved around the country on various projects. Mary Jane Auten attended boarding school at St. Joseph's Academy and sometimes lived with her grandparents, Ira Grant Lambert (1864-1929) and Dora Alma Thalls Lambert (1869-1951).
She attended now-demolished West Junior High School at 15th and Center Sts., followed by entering the North High School class of 1936 then at 8th and College (now used for Moulton Elementary School). She met a handsome older boy, dropped out of school and they eloped to be married by the pastor of the United Methodist Church in Galena, Illinois, where there was no waiting period. Married to Marion Lamonte (Bud) Johnson (1916-1982) on May 27, 1935, they lived with his parents in Ottumwa and had a daughter Jerri Mae Johnson (1936-2011) almost a year later on March 8, 1936. Realizing that they were both too immature for marriage, they amicably divorced on January 19, 1939.
By then, Marijane Johnson had returned to North High School, completed her studies, and graduated with the class of 1939.
While she was working at United Federal Savings and Loan, a middle-aged customer began to find excuses to visit her teller's line and after a ten-day acquintanceship with him, she married Charles Edmond Bensmiller (1903-1970) on September 23, 1939 at the home of a justice of the peace in Indianola. It didn't take long for her to discover that it was a mistake, and she was divorced from him on March 7, 1941, returning to her previous surname of Johnson to match her daughter's.
She and her daughter moved to Carmichael, California in 1943 to be with her mother, who was terminally ill with colon cancer. Marijane Johnson worked as a civilian employee of the Air Service Command at McClellan Field near Sacramento, a major supply depot, where she was introduced to an infantry officer stationed at near-by Camp Beale, Stanley William Zegel (1917-1979), whom she married in the Camp Beale chapel on March 10, 1944.
Her new surname was also fairly new to her husband because he had been born out of wedlock and given to the William Maas family in Bay Shore, N.Y. by his father William Peter Zegel (1895-1964) and raised as their own, not knowing he had not been born to them. But when he entered the army, birth certificates were required and he learned, to his shock, that he had different birth parents. He took the suppressed truth very bitterly, and for the rest of his life he unfairly referred to those whom he had once called "pop" and "mom" as "Mr. and Mrs. Maas."
Two months after the wedding, First Lieutenant Zegel was shipped overseas, first to New Guinea and then to the Philippine Islands, as an officer in the First Filipino Infantry. The enlisted men in that special unit were all volunteers of Philippine descent who lived here on the mainland. "Johnny," as he always called her, exchanged correspondence with him using V-Mail, in which the military microfilmed correspondence written on a special form, flew only the film across the sea, and, once landed, made a quarter-size photographic print of the original letter to be delivered to the addressee. The letters often referred to "junior," yet unborn but who arrived on October 30, 1944 as Stanley Richard Zegel.
“Johnny” had in the meanwhile moved back to Des Moines, living with her grandmother. When her husband returned from overseas, he entered Drake University and graduated with a Bachelor of Commercial Science degree in 1950. His new job as a salesman for Pitney Bowes caused him to travel the Midwest during the week, and he was inattentive to her when he was back on the weekends. After his step-daughter initiated a confrontation with him, he transferred to Kansas City. “Johnny” then divorced him in 1955.
During that time Marijane Zegel worked as a bookkeeper at Methodist Hospital, Central Iowa Gas Co., and Chamberlain, Kirk and Cline, before returning to the savings and loan industry as the long-time bookkeeper for Polk County Federal Savings and Loan.
She became the third wife of her fourth husband, Francis Willard VanNess (1904-1988) at St. John's Lutheran Church in 1957. A superintendent at Armstrong Tire, he brought two children to the household, and she brought her son, but the kids did not adjust well and differing child-raising philosophies caused the couple to divorce in 1959.
This began a 26 year-long interval without marriage in which she concentrated on her studies and her new job as the first woman hired as a federal examiner of savings and loan associations.
“Van” was involved in Masonic activities, so Marijane VanNess became a member of the Order of the Eastern Star, joining Acanthus chapter 530 in 1958. As Marijane Torjesen she served as Worthy Matron in 1991.
As Marijane Zegel she had started taking courses at Drake University during evenings starting in 1952. She said she took every accounting course offered, and instructors often gave her specialized assignments in light of her weekday business travel throughout the Midwest.
After 26 years, at age 60, a degree as Bachelor of General Studies was conferred on May 13, 1978. The Des Moines Tribune reported in a story about the graduate that the president of Drake University observed that “most of her graduating classmates had not been born yet when she started her studies.”
Her longest and happiest marriage was her last, to her former boss at the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, Charles William Torjesen (1926-2008), which lasted until his death 23 years later. She had been retired for four years before they met again by chance and began socializing and then married on July 20, 1985 at St. John's Lutheran Church.
Until advancing age and health issues limited them, they spent many years traveling together to Europe several times and frequently around the Midwest, either for swimming meets or Charlie's meetings as a director in several charities for the retarded.
In honor of his work, and that done at the institution caring for her step-son Gerrard Torjesen for the rest of his life, she asked that any memorial donations be designated for the Des Moines facilities and sent to Mosaic at 4980 S. 118th St, Omaha NE 68137-2200, or online at www.MosaicInfo.Org.
Her daughter Jerri Mae Parks died on February 25 this year. She is survived by her son Stanley Richard Zegel and his wife Lois of Winfield IL; her brother Richard Lambert Auten and his wife Beth of Winston-Salem NC; her nephew Richard Lambert Auten Jr. and his wife Kathy Jo of Chapel Hill NC and their three children; her nephew Mitchell Craig Auten of Winston-Salem NC; her nephew Todd Alan Auten of Greensboro NC and his two children.
Published in the Des Moines Register from Apr. 16 to Apr. 17, 2011.