Past Director Emeritus of General Studies Margaretha Wessel passed away Feb. 19.
Dr. Margaretha Harders Wessel’s last, peaceful breath was Feb. 19, 2018. She was a woman of grit and dazzle, with staggering love for her friends and family. She was an inspirational mother, mother-in-law, Grammy, and Great-Grammy. She was an enthusiastic educator, mentor, adventurer, environmentalist, and always a friend. She lived with passion and zest, and despite significant physical limitations later in life, always raised a clenched-fist in joyful defiance to inspire those around her. We will miss her. We will hold tight to each memory.
Margaretha was born on March 23, 1936, to Magdalena Agatha Ragetli and Johannes Franciscus Harders in Den Helder, Holland. She spent her early childhood in war-torn and Nazi occupied Holland, where food was scarce and danger constant. But, she learned important lessons that shaped her unique outlook on life: fight for each day; make the most of your opportunities; life itself depends on family and friends; “there is no time like a good time”; and importantly – eat dessert first. Her teenage years in Holland were filled with education and athletics, she played field hockey, skated, and one year was the women’s triple-jump champion of Holland.
As a young adult she travelled post-war Europe and in Germany met and married her first husband, Jerry Lewis Cain, who was serving in the American military, from whom she eventually separated. She and Jerry had three children: Clarence Cain, Jerry Lynn Cain, and Magdalena Ophelia Cain Bowen. Margaretha and her three children lived in Muskogee, Oklahoma. But, Margaretha had little patience for southern societal norms of the time and ventured beyond those boundaries to not only be a great mother but to earn her Associate degree in 1964 as class valedictorian at Bacone College, Oklahoma’s first college. The college was chartered in 1881 by the Muscogee-Creek Nation and remains a predominantly Native American college to this day.
Typical of the Margaretha we knew and loved, she had seen a flyer for an art class taught by a regarded Native American artist. Not wanting to miss an opportunity she met with an advisor to sign up for the class. She left the meeting not only enrolled in that class, but enrolled in a full complement of classes, and a member of the volleyball and basketball teams. It was an early expression of a consistent family trait that remains generationally: “anything worth doing is worth overdoing.” She continued her education to receive her Bachelor of Science degree in biology from Northeastern Oklahoma University in 1966. None of this would have been possible without the constant support from her mother, Magdalena Ragetli.
She next returned to Bacone College to teach Biology, Anatomy, and Physiology and realized two important things that changed the path of her life. First, she had a passion for academics. And, second, she missed the alpine lifestyle of Switzerland, the ancestral Ragetli home. Knowing she wanted to continue in academics, she took Graduate Record Exams and received one of the top Biology scores in the Nation. This earned her a National Science Foundation fellowship for graduate studies at any U.S. university. Following both of her passions—academics and mountains—she chose Montana State University. Bozeman had secured her love some years before when she took a summer microbiology course at MSU. At that time, she had packed her three children, mother, and camping gear into the family station wagon and headed north to the mountains of Montana. Most of that summer they resided at Langhors campground while also attending classes. Remembering this adventure, she returned to Bozeman to pursue her Ph.D. in entomology and to enjoy the mountain lifestyle reminiscent of time spent with family in the Alps.
While working on her Ph.D. she met and married the love of her life, David Wessel, “Man of the Mountains.” He was an adventurer, artist, and architect. Together they embraced the mountain-life with weekly trips to ski, backpack, hike, and canoe. Many trips also involved a mountaineering community of their best friends, their beloved “Chowder and Marching Society.” She and Dave climbed famous peaks the world over from Orizaba in Mexico to Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, as well as summiting more local greats such as Granite Peak, Mount Moran, and The Grand Teton.
Upon completing her Ph.D. in 1973, Margaretha began a 26-year career in service to the students of Montana State University. She directed and championed the General Studies Department, and upon her retirement, the Board of Regents conferred upon her the title of “Director Emeritus of General Studies at Montana State University.”
The Board of Regents recognized Margaretha’s contributions: “For more than 25 years, Dr. Margaretha Wessel has been at the heart and core of the university mission. The breadth of her dedication to education is unparalleled and has manifested itself in her guidance to thousands of students, and her extensive leadership and service to the MSU and Bozeman communities, as well as the state of Montana… Few individuals can match Dr. Wessel’s energy, enthusiasm and commitment to students’ success through the educational doors of a university.”
In what would be a defining event in her life, in 2000, Margaretha suffered a stroke following complications from a ski accident. The stroke impacted her ability to move and speak but did not impact her ability to think. For eighteen years, she pushed to communicate complex thoughts with those around her. And, for the eighteen years she lived as a stroke survivor she inspired those around her.
After being advised on three separate occasions she could not survive the next 24 hours, we watched her not only survive but fight to make each day the very best possible. Post-stroke and before Dave’s death in 2009, Margaretha and Dave explored Alaska, Greece, Costa Rica, Norway, Egypt, and several European alpine countries. In 2011 Margaretha travelled with her children and their families to a Ragetli family reunion celebrating the 200th anniversary of the ancestral home in Flims, Switzerland for the Alpabzug Appenzell - with a side-trip to Holland. Especially important was the opportunity to again spend time with her dearest older sister Elizabeth Hoefhamer-Harders and her New Zealand, Australian, and Swiss family. Elly and Margaretha were sadly separated in childhood by the vagaries of war. Post-war, Elly settled in New Zealand while Margaretha remained in Europe. They re-connected as young adults and shared a life-long, special, and loving relationship.
Margaretha continued to smile, blow kisses, and brighten the lives of those that knew her until her last breath. She leaves behind many memories with friends and family including sister Elly Hoefhamer-Harders and her family, sons Clarence (Sheila) Cain and Jerry (Cindy) Cain; daughter Magdalena (David) Bowen; step-daughter Vicky (Ed) Fox; grandchildren Bradley (Melissa) Bowen, Megan Bowen, Cameron Cain, Chandler Cain, and Candice, Peter, and Jason (Jenna) Fox; and great-grandchildren Leopold and Ophelia Bowen. Her greatest pleasure in later years was to gather with those she loved, enjoying their company and conversations.
The family is especially thankful for the loving care she received for the past several years at the Gallatin Valley Rest Home and the commitment of friends who were eternally faithful throughout all her challenges. Family and friends will gather June 16th to celebrate her life under the blue Montana sky.
Condolences and memories may be shared with the family at www.dahlcares.com.
- University Communications