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Obituary for Joyce E. Larson


Joyce’s life reads like the history of small towns in Wisconsin: business, entertainment, religion, and pandemics. Joyce was born on December 20, 1921, in Tioga, Wisconsin to parents Vera (nee Slover) Dean and Fred Dean, who owned a hotel/boarding house which was on the railroad line and served school teachers and traveling salesmen. After the closing of the railroad station the family moved to Hixton, Wisconsin and ran a similar business. Later they decided to move to La Crosse and open a restaurant - Dean’s Sandwich Shop on Main Street. And,this is where Joyce fell in love with Willard Larson, a student attending the WBU who was doing dishes in Dean’s Sandwich Shop in return for his meals. When Willard enlisted in the Air Force and was to be stationed at McClellan Field in California. They married April 18, 1943 at Willard’s home church in Northfield, Wisconsin and moved to California. Joyce took a civilian job in ordinance, loading ammunitions and pyrotechnics onto airplanes taking on missions over the Pacific. Joyce returned to La Crosse to care for her mother who was dying of cancer. Her father then went to work at Fort McCoy. Upon Willard’s return from military duty all three lived together in the red brick apartments on Main Street until daughter, Mary Ellen was born in 1948. They built a new home in La Crosse’s expansion addition in the Town of Shelby where there was supposed to be a new school built two blocks away. (The school was not built until Mary was out of high school.) The family belonged to English Lutheran Church at that time. Seeing the growth of La Crosse to the south, Pastor Stoffel invited 6 families to start a new church on the southside. Thus was born Good Shepherd Lutheran Church which was to become very important to in the lives of Joyce, Willard, Mary, and grandpa Dean. Joyce and Willard really became a team during these years. Seeing Good Shepherd grow from a quonset hut church with a cardboard box altar and goat skin altar cloth to a house chapel where Mary began her music career, and now to the church where it stands today. When Joyce married Willard, she married into a large musical and fun-loving Norwegian family of 9 living children. Being an only child raised by parents who “took in” her two cousins Fred and Jack Palms whose father died of the Spanish flu in 1918, Joyce blossomed to become the woman she became. The church and the combined families offered opportunities to hone her skills in hospitality, leadership, singing, work ethic, compassion, humor, and cooking and baking. Joyce worked part-time outside the home at Gateway Loan, and later full-time in the insurance department at Gundersen Clinic. There she met her dear friends “the Girls”. During lunch-hour walks they’d take time to laugh and quite often Joyce was the instigator of that laughter. She retired from Gundersen at age 72. In 1976, Joyce’s cousin Florence Slover King arranged for the Slover Marionettes to come to “live” in the Larson household. By this time Joyce and Willard had moved to a new house at the foot of Grandad’s Bluff. Mary was teaching music in La Crosse. These new circumstances added another new dimension to Joyce’s life…entertainment. The marionettes had been carved by her great grandfather Slover and had traveled with him and his family throughout the mid-west by wagon and on barges on the Mississippi as he and his wife performed traveling medicine shows. Willard became the puppeteer and Joyce convincingly voiced the part of the witch marionette on the tape recording and became his assistant. The family, Mary was included on pump organ live and piano on tape, to accompany the shows. Joyce always served home-baked cookies for kids and her mighty Old-Fashioned for adults. The 28th Street house was an entertainment capitol. Hundreds of puppet shows were performed for neighbors and friends, and Mary’s students in that basement. The La Crosse Music Study Club actually reenacted a medicine show in the basement - with magic acts, singers, and a marionette show. The puppet shows ended with Willard’s declining health. Joyce and Willard joined Christ Episcopal Church to be close to Mary who was organist/choirmaster. Joyce finally had time to enjoy reading, Mary retired from teaching early to enjoy family, Willard passed away in 2003 having seen the Slover Marionettes packed up and sent to the American History Building at the Smithsonian. Joyce moved to Mary’s new condo, where she met a whole new set of friends. Eventually she moved to Hillview nursing home. Family and friends came to celebrate holidays with her. Mary came almost daily (except during flu season) and the two were great rivals at Qwirkle and Scrabble. As Joyce’s movement declined, Mary read to her and the two welcomed friends and laughed. Following this year’s early flu season Joyce’s health rapidly declined. Mary continued to read to her until another pandemic was brewing and Hillview closed to visitors. Joyce passed away on March 31, 2020 at age 98 having witnessed so many changes in way of life, entertainment, city and world history. Mary wishes to thank Susan, a special friend from the puppetry guild days who wrote to mom weekly on cards that she made herself, friends Liz and John, nieces and nephews and Mary’s friends who often came to see her, Carolie who photographed holiday meals, the eucharistic ministers from Christ Episcopal Church, and the Hillview staff who learned Mom’s way of making beds and doing things her way and were so helpful and kind. In lieu of flowers or memorials, Mary asks that you take time on a regular basis to communicate with, write to, or visit a friend or relative who is alone. Make their days shine.