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From river rat to union negotiator

Published: Monday, June 16, 2014 11:10 a.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, June 17, 2014 7:26 p.m. CDT

Five-year-old Renae Roberts looked up from the mile-long rows of soybeans. The sun was beginning to scorch, and the mosquitoes and heat made it difficult to breath. The machete she was using to chop volunteer corn, its split handle wrapped in black electrical tape, was blistering her hand.

Renae’s two years older brother, Steve, was ahead of her, swinging his machete like a golf club, volunteer corn flying. She could see his lips moving, and knew he was cussing, something never allowed at home. Their clothes were soaked from dew, but in another hour it would be too hot, and they could quit for the day — go swimming off the sandbar in the Mississippi. That morning, their mother had set the clock ahead an hour, tricking them into getting up and out into the field early.  A rotten trick, if you asked Renae, but effective. The year was 1959. 

Renae had to urinate. Steve was far enough ahead that he couldn’t see her, if she hid in the beans. She broke off a button weed leaf, its velvety underside would do for toilet paper. She had just squatted down when she heard a noise behind her. She froze. Someone or something was coming. If Steve was up to one of his tricks, she would pelt him with dirt clods. The sound grew closer. A head poked through the bean rows.  It was Billy, her pet raccoon.

Renae also had two pet squirrels that had been blown from their nest in a storm. She bottle fed lambs on the back porch, and got her hand pecked while gathering eggs. She would witness her mother beat the odds against cancer and survive until she was 80.

Renae and Steve were the sixth generation to live on the family farm, five miles east of Kingston, near Meeker’s Landing on the Mississippi River. Renae’s great grandfather had built and lived in a log cabin on the farm. He had a sawmill and was a well-known dairy farmer. Everyday, he would take his milk across the river in a rowboat to Oquawka, Ill., because it was closer than driving to Burlington. Renae’s mother, riding a horse five miles one way, was the first in the family to go to high school. Renae would be the first to graduate from college, going first to what was then Burlington Junior College, then Iowa Wesleyan College in Mt. Pleasant.

On Sundays, the family would visit friends and relatives. There was never a call ahead to let them know you were coming. You just showed up. The visit always included a tour of the yard and garden. With a trowel or spade in hand, slips of plants were dug and given as gifts, a show of friendship. No “thanks” were ever mentioned.  German stock didn’t show emotion.  The tour was a walk of remembering, a memorial garden.  “This was Melba’s.” “This was Aunt Martha’s. She had the most beautiful peonies.”

Fast forward to today. Renae is the big six-zero. She lives in Illinois, but often returns to Burlington to be close to home and the river. Renae has spent 23 years in the Chicago area as an elementary-school teacher, and 15 years in the teachers’ union as a negotiator. She is thankful for her river upbringing and believes it equipped her well for a career in education and interest-based bargaining/problem solving. Like on the river, you have to read the signs.  Where are the currents? Where are the holes? If you get your hand pecked by a cranky old hen, do you wring its neck, or leave it alone to lay another day? If your crops are wiped out by flood, tough it out until next year. Take care of the less fortunate, and empower them. Work and survive. 

Their lives on the river were filled with sayings: “It’s time for mushroom hunting when the Redbud leaves are as big as squirrel ears.” “If you can see the underside of the leaves, it’s going to rain.” Her knowledge base is invaluable. All directions were given from the river.

When you’re young you want to get away. When you’re old, you return. Renae and her husband, Bob, trowel and cardboard box in hand, traipse the old homestead, a Century Farm, and dig slips. Her mother had the most gorgeous dark red ruby peonies that were handed down from her great-great grandmother, maybe further. The peonies will look great at Raven Rock, their lakeside home in Dixon, Ill. (she had to be close to water) — a bit of the farm and her mother in their own front yard.

Have a good story? Call or text Curt Swarm in Mt. Pleasant at (319) 217-0526, email him at curtswarm@yahoo.com, or visit his website at www.empty-nest-words-photos-and-frames.com. Curt also reads his stories on www.lostlakeradio.com.

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