The diminutive Mary Ellen (Carlin) Ehlert, who passed away at age 99 in her hometown of Davenport, Iowa, Monday, began life facing robust challenges in the midst of The Great Depression.
The oldest of six children born to a DeWitt, Iowa, farm couple, she was old enough to understand the impact of her mother’s illness and death due to tuberculosis. As if that were not enough to bear at age 11, she then had to cope with the loss of her despairing father whose descent into alcoholism eventually resulted in abandoning his family.
So, Mary Ellen — along with her brothers Vince, James and Raymond, and sisters Alice and Margaret — were orphaned and placed in Davenport’s St. Vincent’s Home under the care of nuns and other clergy in the Davenport diocese.
The generosity and connections of the Catholic charities allowed her and siblings to attend high school at either Villa de Chantal in Rock Island or St. Ambrose Academy (later Assumption High School) in Davenport. Mary Ellen was able to earn a sociology degree at Marycrest College, which allowed her to begin giving back as a Catholic social worker whose job, among other things, was facilitating adoptions and placing abandoned children in new homes.
This was her work until she crossed paths with Robert Ehlert, a World War II veteran who at the time was a Davenport city bus driver smitten by the demur Ms. Carlin. His “pick-up” strategy was to not allow her to get off at her stop until she agreed to a date. It worked.
They married in 1948 and by 1960 were the parents of seven children and one step child (from Robert’s previous marriage): Fred, Jim, Suzie, Bob Jr., Vince, Kathy, Patty and “Little Mary,” born prematurely after a tense visit by the ambulance crew to their Pershing Avenue home. Aunts and uncles comforted the wee ones as they whisked her away to the hospital.
Over time, these eight children begot 25 grandchildren and now literally dozens of great-grandchildren (and still counting). The offspring hail from Alaska to Hawaii, Virginia to Idaho, Minnesota to Texas and California to Florida – with a solid core in the Midwest.
Mary Ellen lived a full life reaping the rewards of dishing up endless apple-pie slices of love and encouragement — to the day she died.
Though she never forgot those challenging early life experiences she never let them define her.
She was a rare college-educated woman of her times who juggled work and family, along the way preparing some of the most cherished comfort-food dishes found either side of the Mississippi: sweet-pickle and pimento-kissed potato salad dusted in paprika; Hungarian goulash; apple pie crusts made with love and lard; rich and moist chocolate cakes with coffee-infused chocolate frosting; root vegetable soups with beef and cabbage; Navy bean soup to stretch a Christmas ham. Krautburgers. Snickerdoodles and cardamom cut-out cookies with elegant icings. . .
Mary Ellen’s picture is there in Webster’s next to the definition of “beloved.” There will never be another like her in this life or the next. We will miss her like an appendage but she taught us well to cope: trust in God, country and decency. Think beyond yourself and consider the less fortunate.
When we’re down and missing the large footprint of a loved one do this: breath in the fragrance of tender memories.
Mary Ellen Ehlert is survived by sons: James (Bonnie), Hardy, Va.; Robert Jr. (Tana), Carrollton, Texas; Vince (Cyndi), Atlantic, Iowa; and daughters Suzanne Murphy (Jay) and Kathleen Parr (Russel T.), both of Davenport; Patty Forrest (Terry), Byron, Minn., and Mary Eileen Jeffers (Keith) Hickory Ridge, Ark. A sister, Margaret Carlin, Davenport. Mary Ellen was preceded in death by husband Robert (1994) and son Fred Ehlert (2017). There are 25 grandchildren, dozens of great-grandchildren and even a few great-greats.
Services for Mary Ellen Ehlert:
Visitation 4 to 7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 13, Halligan McCabe-DeVries Funeral Home, 614 Main St., Davenport, Iowa.
Mass of Christian Burial funeral service 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 14 at Our Lady Of Victory Catholic Church, 4105 N Division St., Davenport, Iowa.
Burial following the funeral Tuesday at Rock Island National Cemetery – Rock Island (Illinois) Arsenal.
Memorials may be made to C.A.S.I. or to the American Legion Post 26, Davenport.
To send flowers to Mary Ellen (Carlin) Ehlert's family, please visit our floral section.