Inspiring women

Posted on Mar 01 2017 in Features

In recognition of Women’s History Month, we asked you to share stories of the women who have inspired you.

Linda Austin shared the following message:

Ellie Schafer learned to fly fish at 92 and caught the biggest trout in her class.

“This is what a radical feminist looks like” proclaimed the bumper sticker on the white Honda Civic that Eleanore “Ellie” Schafer was still driving at 96. At 5-foot-2 with cropped white hair and a beatific smile, she looked more like a Presbyterian elder, which she was, than the warrior for gay, women’s and human rights, which she also was. 

Schooled in alcoholism studies at Yale, she worked for 59 years with addicts by leading support groups two days a week as a licensed addictions therapist in Phoenix. She stopped at 96 only by a stroke.

“I care about them,” she told an interviewer in 2009, after receiving a lifetime achievement award for health care leadership from Arizona Business magazine. “Everybody is born with a soul, with a spirit. Each one of us has to feed and nourish our spirit. I am hopeful for people when they feel hopeless.” 

She flung herself into nourishing her spirit and those of others. She co-founded the Southwestern School of Alcoholism (now Behavioral Health) Studies in Tucson. She tirelessly advocated for gay rights within the Presbyterian Church (USA), earning her the honor she cherished most — the Dr. George B. Brooks Social Justice/Human Rights Award from the Presbytery of the Grand Canyon. 

We all want to grow old like Ellie. She hiked 10 miles to see the turquoise falls at the bottom of Havasu Canyon in her late 60s and rode a mule in Hawaii at 70. She trained as a therapy clown – Hug-a-me – in her 70s. She learned to fly fish at 92 and caught the biggest trout in her class. 

Until her stroke, she golfed weekly and cheered her beloved Phoenix Mercury women’s basketball team at every home game. One of my favorite photos shows Ellie hugging then-center Jennifer Gillom, who beams as she towers over Ellie by a foot. 

Her greatest gift was empathy, asking just the right question of another person and being genuinely interested in the response. She would do that over Milano double-chocolate cookies and lactose-free vanilla ice cream on my visits to her tiny flat. When I graduated in 2013 from Arizona State University, she came to my commencement to ensure that her fellow church member did not celebrate alone. 

Her voicemail message concluded with “Be good to yourself.” She lived that credo, but even more so, she was good to others until she died in 2016, four months before her 100th birthday.

Linda Safer submitted the following story:

Remarkable people rarely understand their worth. Such was the case of Lizzie Ellen Spencer VanMeter, “Granny”, a saint I was not privileged to know.

She died several years before my birth, and her unshakeable faith in the Lord guided her through her brutally hard life. My late mom said Granny frequently remarked, “I don’t know what I’d do without Jesus!” Granny was blunt, I am told, and far more passionate about life and love than any of us knew, until recent years.

Granny’s husband, Stroud, was blinded at age 32 in an explosion at the Marengo, Indiana, rock quarry in January 1892. All that was known for many years of the accident was an explosive charge was set by Stroud and his co-worker brothers, and it didn’t explode. The men waited the appropriate time deemed safe, then went over to check why the dud didn’t explode. Stroud leaned over the charge, with his brothers in close proximity, when suddenly the charge exploded in Stroud’s face. All three men were injured badly, Stroud horrifically. He was permanently blinded for life.

What we didn’t know until I researched it was the whole story. Granny and Stroud, for whatever reason, must have thought the details insignificant; remarkable people often find amazing information mundane, unlike the rest of us. I suppose that is why Granny simply didn’t discuss it.

Before my mom’s death, she developed a consuming curiosity to learn more about Stroud’s accident. We went to the Crawford County, Indiana, library, and that day, the late county historian, Richard Estridge, was there. We told him what we knew, and he found the original articles about the accident, written in ancient newspapers, which stated Stroud was so injured his impending death was “certain.” The articles also incorrectly stated Stroud’s eyeballs were surgically removed; Stroud did have eyeballs. Mom’s curiosity intensified, so I went online and subscribed to an historical newspaper subscription site. The county papers had one thing right: Stroud was mortally wounded, and it was a foregone conclusion he would die. The accident made the national news!

Lizzie and Stroud were engaged to be married and were saving money to marry. She was almost 16; he was 32. In 1892, it was morally out of the question for an unmarried young woman to physically care for a man. Lizzie insisted on being allowed to take care of Stroud but was forbidden to do so since they weren’t married, so she demanded, although he was dying, to marry Stroud simply to tend his needs as he died. So one day after Lizzie’s 16th birthday, her dying groom was propped up with pillows on his deathbed so he could participate in his wedding to Lizzie. The articles I found reported Lizzie saying she was satisfied with their wedding. Stroud survived through God’s mercy and Lizzie’s loving care, courage and tender strength. Lizzie and Stroud had nine children, four of whom survived.

These days, the accident would have resulted in a multi-million dollar lawsuit, but the local lodge of which Stroud was a member raised money so they could buy land for a farm. Lizzie’s life was exceptionally hard due to Stroud’s blindness, though he could walk their property using a network of strings as guides the family stretched up for him. He could cut firewood using a cross saw with the help of their boys.

Stroud could also help tend the children, but it was Granny who shouldered the load, and her health suffered. She had migraine headaches and almost died — or did die and was returned to life — from German measles after giving birth to twin babies who died. She told later of a vision of the pearly gates, how beautiful they are, how much she yearned to go in, but was told by an angel she had to return to care for her children. Her work on earth was not complete. Lizzie, too, recovered, and lived until 1953.

Stroud died in 1933, but if not for the raw youthful courage of a fiery 16-year-old fiancée, Lizzie Ellen Spencer, he would have died in 1892. Lizzie’s legacy lives on through the stories she told. I have always wished I had known her. One day, when God lets me walk those streets of gold, I will finally get to meet my remarkable great grandmother, Lizzie Ellen Spencer VanMeter.