First of her kind
Joanne Price VanDerWeele has had a rewarding career in politics
Janelle Price Kauffman and her mom, Joanne Price VanDerWeele, enjoy spending time together. Joanne has served in Marshall County political offices for 17 years.
Tribune Photo/IDA CHIPMAN
PLYMOUTH -- Joanne Price VanDerWeele was the first woman elected to a county office in Marshall County.
She became county clerk in 1966, served two terms and then was elected county auditor in 1974.
Now serving her second year of her fourth term as a county council member, she has been elected seven times to county offices -- more than any other person.
Man or woman.
"As a young girl growing up," she said, "there were women role models like Babe Zaharias and Amelia Earhart, both of whom I admired."
Organized athletics were not in vogue for girls, but Joanne swam and hunted with a rifle with her brothers.
"I never killed anything," she said, "except for maybe a rabbit or two."
As a young girl, her goal was to do something meaningful in her life. She dreamed of learning to solo in a small plane.
"My brother, Ralph, was going to teach me when he got home from the war, but he got polio and wasn't able to do it."
The closest she came to flying was five years ago, going up in a Buckeye ultra-light parachute plane.
Joanne grew up on a farm, west of Rochester, the fourth of eight children of Ernest and Susie Miller. She left home at age 14 to work as a mother's helper with a family on Lake Manitou, becoming totally self-supporting throughout high school.
"The mother was a semi-invalid," she said, so Joanne and her sister took over the household, cooking, cleaning and caring for the young child.
After graduation from Rochester High School with the Class of 1941, she worked in a South Bend factory, Bike Web, making medical bandages, and married her longtime sweetheart, Roy Price.
Roy joined the Army Air Corps in 1942, and Joanne followed him around the country in their 1938 Ford "until the wheels about fell off."
After the war, the couple settled in South Bend, where Roy drove a truck for Clemans Trucking. Their first daughter, Judy Price Reynolds, was born in 1947.
The family moved to Culver in 1951, and Janelle Price Kauffman was born a year later.
Joanne landed her first full-time job as a proofreader for the Culver Citizen. Chet Cleveland, publisher and editor, told her that if she became really good, she would see errors in everything she read for the rest of her life.
"And he was right," she said. "I do."
She became involved in politics when Henry Winkler asked her to be his Republican vice committeeman.
"I never imagined that I would be grooming myself for the responsibilities I would take on 10 years later."
Her political career was a gradual process.
Lloyd Beatty hired Joanne as a deputy county recorder -- with a salary of $200 a month -- in 1962. She became first deputy at the death of Nellie Rivar two years later.
In 1966, with the deadline a few days away, no Republican had filed for county clerk.
In small-town politics, it is almost a cardinal sin to leave an opponent unopposed.
"I remember Doc Bowen and Bill Gee talking in the office. Bill walked over and said, 'What about it, Joanne?'"
She said, "What? What about what?"
Gee answered, "Doc and I think you should run for clerk."
"I was bowled over," Joanne said. "I'd given it no consideration. I told them I'd think about it."
At dinner that night, she asked her family what she should do. Unanimously, they approved. Especially Judy.
"We'll help you, Mom," she said enthusiastically. Judy dropped out of Ball State, and she and her sister worked the 4-H Fair, passing out cards and asking people for their votes.
Joanne won. But it wasn't much later that she lost, too.
In September 1967, less than a year after her election, Roy, her husband of 26 years, died of a sudden heart attack in the Culver Fire Station.
"In hindsight," she said, "I have often wondered if Roy, unbeknownst to me, somehow knew that his health was failing and that he was going to die. Realizing I would need a good job to raise the girls, he encouraged me to run for clerk."
Learning her new responsibilities was exhausting. She put in 14-hour days to learn her duties; some nights she was too tired to eat.
"The county established a second court and then a third," she said.
Working with the election board -- George Davis and George Miles -- she initiated the use of automatic voting machines in Marshall County.
During her second term as clerk, Joanne met and married Gene VanDerWeele, a widower from Argos.
She was elected county auditor in 1974, and during the next few years, she switched the county from using typewriters -- for taxes and payrolls -- to computers.
"I had to go to school to learn computer technology," she said, "but I consider that successful transition as a major accomplishment."
"I had wonderful deputies, especially Harriet Scheetz," Joanne said. "Without their help, it would have been impossible."
Joanne retired in 1979 and she and Gene enjoyed eight wonderful years together: traveling in their motor home, fishing, cross-country skiing and working in their woodworking shop.
Gene died of a heart attack in 1987.
Peggy Clevenger persuaded Joanne to run for county council five years later.
In addition to her council duties, she plays a mean game of bridge and goes to auctions with her daughter, Janelle.
A pioneer in Marshall County government, Joanne said she has "absolutely no plans to retire."
And she means it.
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