During her last days, Marion Esther Erickson Veraldi rested quietly in a sunny bedroom in her daughter’s home in Miami. A bright orange zinnia bloomed in a pot beside her bed. An energetic gardener in earlier years, Marion had planted colorful rows of zinnias in her yard on Rimrock Road in Billings. They thrived in the hot, dry Montana summers. It is said of zinnias that they don’t ask much of a gardener. Marion was much like the zinnias she so enjoyed—a hardy survivor of challenging conditions. Like those bright flowers, to the end she maintained a sense of optimism and a strong will to live.
Marion died on Oct. 24, 2017, almost a hundred years after her birth on Christmas Eve 1917, on a homestead near Barber, Montana. She was the seventh of nine children of Swedish immigrant Andrew Erickson and his wife, Clara Torgersen Erickson, the daughter of Norwegians who had settled in Minnesota.
Born during World War I, as a baby Marion lived through the 1918, flu pandemic that killed more people than the war. The flu was so serious a threat to Montana children that the nearby one-room Cavill School where Marion would later spend her grade school years was closed for six weeks. Years of drought and the Great Depression shaped her childhood and adolescence. Marion graduated first in her class from Ryegate High School in 1935, but didn’t have the money to start college right away. She took secretarial courses and spent a summer working as a public stenographer at the Northern Hotel in Billings to scrape together enough to enroll at the University of Montana. When she arrived in Missoula in the fall of 1936, the message was clear: “If you don’t have money, you don’t belong here.” She almost had to leave before she could take her first class as an English major because she couldn’t afford the dorm, where all freshmen were required to live. Marion persuaded the Dean of Women to let her share a cheaper apartment off campus. With stubborn pride (and Marion had plenty of that), she worked her way through school. In the summers, she cleaned cabins at the E Bar L dude ranch, and during the school year, she kept house for a husband and wife on the University’s music faculty.
After graduation, in 1940, Marion got a job teaching high school English (and coaching girls’ basketball) in the little town of Ringling. Once the United States entered World War II, she became an Army Hostess at Fort Harrison in Helena, where she met a handsome young officer from Pittsburgh, Louis Veraldi. Within two weeks of their first date in Sept. 1943, they were married in an impromptu civil ceremony in the grocery store owned by the justice of the peace in Harlowton. Then Lou left for the South Pacific.
After the war, Marion and Lou settled in Billings. Marion was soon busy raising four daughters and caring for her widowed father, who lived with her from her mother’s death in 1946 until he died in 1961. Lou commuted to a teaching job at Huntley Project High School until 1955, when he joined the faculty at Eastern Montana College. Marion and Lou were active in campus life and developed many friendships during the more than 30 years Lou taught at Eastern. One of Marion’s happiest summers came when Lou was doing graduate work at the University of Washington and she had a chance to take courses in library science. She worked for several years in the library at Lincoln Junior High School. After her own children grew up, Marion became her neighborhood’s informal librarian, reading Laura Ingalls Wilder and Willa Cather to the neighborhood kids and helping them research school assignments in her Encyclopedia Britannica.
Marion loved to read and write. She was a member of the Montana Press Women’s Association and published occasional free-lance articles. She spent years researching a mysterious piece of Montana’s early history. A French-Canadian fur trader, La Verendrye, and his sons had searched for the Northwest Passage 70 years before Lewis and Clark. They are thought to be the first Europeans to reach Montana. Convinced that other historians were mistaken about the route La Verendrye had traveled, Marion combed through his journals and came up with her own theory. She traveled to the very spot she concluded his sons had watched for smoke from the fires of passing native tribes, hoping to find horses and guides on their last trip west. It is now the fire lookout on Liscom Butte in southeastern Montana. Her findings and photographs were published in “We Proceeded On,” the journal of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation.
Marion outlived many of the people and places she loved. When her brother retired, the farm that had been in the Erickson family for almost a century was sold. Her husband Lou died in 2007. She outlived all her brothers and sisters and many of her closest friends, including most of the members of her Sewing Club—a small group of Billings women who met regularly for more than sixty years. In 2014, Marion moved to Florida to live with her daughter Lorna and son-in-law, Michael Van Dyk. In addition to Lorna, Mike and their sons, Nathan and Daniel, Marion is survived by three other daughters—Karen, Anne and Donna.
Despite Miami’s lush greenery, Marion longed for the bleaker landscapes of her childhood. She sometimes talked about packing her suitcase and taking the train home to Montana, as she had done so often as a young, single woman during the 1940s. Sometimes she thought she could travel home on horseback, the way she and her siblings had ridden home from school. In truth, short of a time machine, there was no way for Marion to go home. The Montana she remembered was gone.
Marion had a strong sense of morality, but she was not religious. She didn’t believe in an afterlife—or if she did, she didn’t talk about it. But there must be a place somewhere in the heavens where the Montana she remembered still exists. In that long-ago Montana, almost hidden in the wind-blown fields among the endlessly moving and swirling heads of grain, a quiet, tow-headed girl watches the ripening wheat with hope, her imagination stretching far beyond the horizon. Her dreams may take her far afield, but her soul will always lead her home. Marion was and always will be a Montanan. If she is in heaven, it is surely a wheat field in Montana, before the drought and the depression, when everything was new.