Louise Redford’s story of resilience and a life well lived

06/05/2014 4:49 PM

06/05/2014 7:31 PM

Louise Unger Redford embraced her memories.

This was remarked upon at her recent memorial service. Many of her earliest memories involved fear, dislocation, armed troops and appalling mistreatment of civilians by ruling powers. Redford carried them with her for all of her 85 years, throughout a rich life that came to center around family and service. She died in her Mission Hills home on May 19.

Toward the end, as she waged a final struggle against cancer, Redford compiled some of her memories into a self-published book, “In the Arms of the River.”

“Someone needs to tell these stories,” she said in the introduction, “and I am the last who knows them.”

By her own account, Redford was the last surviving member of a Mennonite colony that two centuries ago settled on the banks of the Dnieper River in what is now the Ukraine. They thrived as industrious, peace-loving people until Soviet communism took over and Joseph Stalin’s reign of terror began in the 1930’s.

Redford’s father, a teacher, was seized from his home and sent to Siberia when she was a small child. She only saw him once after that, when she and her mother took a long and eventful train trip to his work camp.

With her father in exile, Redford’s mother, also a teacher, was unable to obtain a work permit, and Stalin forced a famine upon the region. Still, Redford’s book recounts rollicking adventures with her cousins and warm companionship with her aunts, whose husbands had also been sent to Siberia. And always, her love for the Dnieper River. “When we felt sad or ill, we went swimming and felt better,” she wrote.

The German army took over Redford’s village in 1941, which at first seemed like a reprieve from the oppressive Soviets. As ethnic Germans, Redford and her mother retreated with German soldiers as World War II was drawing to a close. Only then did the full horrors of Hitler’s regime become apparent.

They moved about northern Europe as refugees, outrunning Stalin’s Red Army, until they finally made it into American-occupied West Germany. There, Redford trained to become a nurse.

Redford’s mother died of tuberculosis in 1950. Louise, 21, emigrated to Canada, where other relatives had settled. In Vancouver in 1953, while working at a hospital, she met John Redford, a medical school intern. They married a year later.

After more moves, they landed in Kansas City in 1974, with John taking a job as a department chairman at the University of Kansas Medical Center.

Redford’s life here was busy and productive. She raised five sons and a daughter, and obtained a degree in Slavic Studies from KU. For eight years she was operations director for a medical exchange program between the KU Medical Center’s nursing school and hospitals in Kyrgyzstan, a nation that emerged from the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Though a lifelong Mennonite, Redford in her later years became active in Catholic-run charities. She was a regular volunteer at the Little Sisters of the Poor and St. Vincent de Paul thrift store in Kansas City. Their work fit her concept of service.

I met Redford only once, when I visited her home with a friend a little more than a year ago. Though ill and in pain, she was gracious and humorous. True to her eastern European roots, she served borscht — the best I’ve ever tasted.

When I read her book, I marveled at all she had endured.

“A lot of people would have been undone by what happened to her,” said Redford’s oldest son, John. “She persevered through it. She was a very solid, straightforward person, and very determined.”

Louise Redford’s goal in compiling her memoir was to preserve a slice of history. But the book’s great theme is resilience. Today, as children and women continue to bear the brunt of the endless oppression and aggression that still stains humanity, hers is a story we need to hear.

(More information about Redford’s memoir can be found here.)

Reach Barbara Shelly at 816-234-4594 or bshelly@kcstar.com. Twitter: bshelly.

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