Phyllis Helene Leseth, 95, of Decorah, Iowa, died peacefully on Wednesday, March 27, 2013, at Barthell O.E.S. Eastern Star Nursing Home after a brief illness, having lived in her home all but the last week of her life. Memorial services were held on Saturday, April 13 at Decorah Lutheran Church in Decorah, with Rev. David Sorensen and Rev. Bryan Robertson officiating. Private Family Inurnment was at Lutheran Cemetery in Decorah. Visitation was Saturday, April 13, one hour before the service, at Decorah Lutheran Church.
Phyllis was born on September 8, 1917, in Decorah, the daughter of George and Helene (Hjerleid) Johnson. She graduated from Decorah High School in 1935. Phyllis was in the first group of women accepted to Luther College and graduated with a B.A. in education in 1939. She taught high school English in Iowa for two years before marrying Hubert Thomas Leseth ‘39 on June 14, 1941.
The couple lived in Davenport before moving to Des Moines where their daughter Camille (Leseth) Forde ‘68 was born. In the early 1940’s, they lived in Cedar Rapids and later moved to Kansas City, Kansas where their daughter Adrienne (Leseth) Coffeen ‘71 was born. For five years they enjoyed raising their young daughters in Lake Bloomington, Illinois, before making the full circle back to their Decorah birthplace to run Peter Johnson and Sons, the family business in 1957.
Phyllis loved Decorah and quickly became involved in community activities and enthusiastically promoted the welfare of the community. Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum and Decorah's annual Nordic Fest were also among Phyllis' favorite causes. First as a Vesterheim guide and later as a board secretary and trustee, Phyllis enjoyed sharing her Norwegian heritage. In honor of her volunteer service, the museum dedicated The Phyllis Leseth Artifact Study Area in 2000. In 1966 she served on the original Nordic Fest board and remained involved as president and publicity chairperson. In 1967 her commitment to the success of the first Nordic Fest extended to her 1956 Chevy Bel Air. Painted with the Fest dates and decorated in Norwegian rosemaling, Phyllis happily drove this moving advertisement for many years!
Phyllis’ great loves were writing and reading. At college she was the first woman on the Luther College News Bureau and learned journalism first hand, running along the football sidelines and recording stats on a clipboard, then composing articles distributed to regional newspapers. This experience she often recalled with humor and pride. During World War II she worked as a proofreader for the Cedar Rapids Gazette and for many years wrote the newsletter for Decorah’s Vesterheim Museum. She loved researching, particularly historical information, before writing plays and speeches presented to Decorah’s various clubs and organizations.
Phyllis enjoyed books from childhood and as an adult made frequent stops at the Decorah Public Library on her walk home. In recent years the library personally selected and delivered books to her home, one of the many benefits of living in small town Decorah she’d always say. As a way of saying thank you, she donated her dollhouse to the Decorah Public Library where it is enjoyed by young and old.
In recognition of her many years of community service, Phyllis received the Luther College Distinguished Service Award in 1969. During Luther College's Sesquicentennial in 2011, she was included in the Journey Portraits Exhibition representing people "who have helped transform the college and the broader world.” Phyllis valued the education she received in Decorah and endowed an annual Leseth Scholarship to a Decorah High School senior toward further studies. Among the organizations she enjoyed was The Girl Scouts of America, joining the first Girl Scout troop in Decorah and helping reestablish the organization Decorah in the 1958. Phyllis was a member of Decorah's Travel Club, Monday Club, P.E.O, Luther College Women's Club, and the Winneshiek County Genealogy and Historical Association. She attended Decorah Lutheran Church.
Phyllis is survived by two daughters: Camille (Bruce) Forde and Adrienne (Paul) Coffeen both of Decorah; three grandchildren: Christopher Forde of Robinson, Ill., Elli Marlow (Guney) of Des Moines, Iowa, and Alex Marlow of Cleveland, Ohio; one sister, Georgann Johnson Tenner ’48 of Los Angeles, Calif., and several nieces and nephews. Preceding her death were Phyllis’ parents, and her husband Hubert, who passed away in 1995.
In lieu of flowers, memorials may be given to Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, P.O. Box 379, 502 West Water Street, Decorah, IA 52101 or Decorah Public Library, 202 Winnebago Street, Decorah, IA 52101.