Part Three | College; Eau Claire (1981-1985)

Rounding the corner out of high school into college, my mother was becoming an active shaker and mover in the world of Amway. She’d even had shelves for inventory built into the basement. My brothers were also heavily engaged with it for a time, and I was terribly hurt that no one was encouraging me to follow that path. Thank God for small favors.

In January of my senior year in high school, I received this poem in the mail from my father, sent from Center City, MN, the location of one of the alcoholism treatment centers he attended:

To my Daughter:

God, you did a wondrous thing,
When you to us a girl did bring.
Twas in the May of ‘63,
When new life starts with bud on tree.

As you grew, we had our fun,
Playing, splashing in the sun.
Those were happy days I know,
It’s fun to see your daughter grow.

And then came the unexpected,
Dis-com-bobbled, dis-con-nected.
Itchy clothes of every kind,
Nearly drove you out of mind.

Of high school, this is your last year,
Off to college, books and beer.
When was it Lord when I last rocked her?
And now she’s off to be a doctor.

Life has not gone as I planned,
My expectations were too grand.
But I will help you o’er yon hill,
For I will always love you Jill.

With Love,

So clearly my dad was in treatment again at the beginning of 1981, but I don’t know which lap he was on by then. By fall of that year, however, he’d be back at it again. He’d go around that horn five times before it finally took.

It’s no big surprise then that no one was helping me get organized for going to college. At one point, my parents did arrange a sit-down with our family doctor, Dr. Henningson, who also went to our church, so I could ask questions about going to medical school. They knew I was serious about that.

Somehow I’d gotten it into my head to go to a private college called St. Olaf in Northfield, Minnesota, but out-of-state tuition was out of the question. My mother took me for a campus tour though, which is likely when she realized the cost and nixed the idea. We also toured the University of Minnesota, but a high school guidance counselor gave me the specious advice that if I went there for undergraduate school, I’d be in a pickle for medical school, being an out-of-state student in the eyes of Wisconsin and an out-of-state resident in the eyes of Minnesota.

But the university systems of the two states offered reciprocity, so I more than likely would have been perfectly fine. Unfortunately the counselors had no more wisdom to offer than that. My mom thought I’d be fine going to UW-BC in Rice Lake because then I could live at home and it would be cheap. I was having absolutely none of that. I settled on UW-Eau Claire an hour away, because that’s where Melinda was going.

I was late in applying so although I got in, I was something like number 115 on the waitlist for a room in the dorms. Melinda wasn’t too much farther up the list, so together with a third girl from Rice Lake, Laurie, we found a house to rent about a twenty-minute walk from campus. We had the lower level and four guys—Mike, Mike, Mike and Dave—lived upstairs.

Rent was $85 a month plus utilities for each of us, and we set the thermostat at 62F in the winter to keep the heating bills down. It was a very old house, so the guys upstairs stayed nice and toasty warm while we girls studied wearing mittens. The sewer system failed that first fall, forcing us to wash our hair using pails of water poured over each other’s heads in the backyard on very chilly mornings. When they poured the concrete for the new sidewalk out front, we each pressed our names into it before it dried. Some guy named Mike ended up looking like a total narcissist.

I had a few hundred dollars saved from working at Dev’s restaurant as a carhop and counter person during high school. (Janet, who already worked there, had suggested I apply and her good word was helpful in my getting hired.) My parents paid for my tuition and my rent, and gave me another $100 to spend each month. That had to cover food, utilities, and basically everything else. Somehow it all worked out.

That winter, my mother sent me some cash and a handwritten note that read:

Just a note to tell you I love you…think about you a lot, even worry, but I know you’ll be fine. A little heat will certainly help. Did you get all the necessary winter garb? Let me know if you need something, okay?
Here’s some $. I don’t have any deposit slips for your account. Hope the cash is okay.
Take care and have a little fun this weekend, between studying and pizza and whatever.
Love ya!


Although both of my parents had come to the Parent’s Weekend football game as well as the party hosted by the cheerleaders and pom-pom girls afterwards—which I appreciated, awkward as it was—my folks hadn’t seen me much that fall. Because when I went home for a visit in September, the world blew up. There was drinking and impropriety and yelling and tears. And I had had enough. I vowed to not go home again unless I had to, like at Christmas and Easter. And even then, to keep it short. Melinda would sometimes leave to go home for the weekend, but I’d stay put. I was on the pom-pom squad so I usually had activities going on anyway.

Toward the end of my freshman year, Melinda and Laurie prepared to go home for the summer, despite the fact that we’d all still have to pay monthly rent (we lived together in that house for a second year). Kathy, a friend from the pom-pom squad, was a waitress at Sammy’s pizza in downtown Eau Claire, a 15-minute walk in the opposite direction from campus. Thanks to her, I got hired to work at Sammy’s slinging pizzas for the summer—as well as for the next few years—and I never lived at home again.

Staying in Eau Claire for the summers was a blast. Remember, the drinking age was 18, but the city had emptied out of students and I and my friends, including Kathy and another girl from the squad, had the place to ourselves. We tubed down the river, went to Carson Park and generally enjoyed ourselves. I particularly recall Kathy’s talent for renaming various places around town: Hilltop cafeteria was “Hillslop,” Kerms grocery store was “Sperms,” and Stave & Hoop liquor store was “Stoop and Heave.”

I did have one class that first summer, General Botany, which was at 8:00am. My usual drill was to stay up late, then get up for class and come back for a nap. I got an A-, so I guess it worked. I was torn between being a biology major—for which there are essentially no jobs, making it a poor choice if the medical school track didn’t pan out—and a chemistry major—for which I was told there were lots of jobs, although I couldn’t have named a single one.

In the end, I opted for chemistry, based solely on this input and not because I enjoyed the subject. The school also offered a hybrid major called chem-bus, designed for people who want to work on the business side of an industrial company. After my sophomore year, when my grades had slipped due to the excessive demands of my position on the pom-pom squad, I decided to bale on medical school. It was a heartbreaking decision, and one I have regretted deeply more than once.

But I had to work with what was in front of me at the time. In short, having little emotional support coupled with minimal financial assistance on top of an excessive load, I didn’t think I could go two more years, pushing, pushing, pushing to get all A’s to make up for lost ground, and then launch off into medical school after that.

Who knows, I may have been fine had I stayed the course. Part of what was pulling down my GPA was a C- in calculus. This is a little misleading because I actually had a B- in that class. The university offered students the ability to retake a class and replace the grade if they got a C- or lower. So I went to my professor, who was essentially not a very good teacher, and asked if he would lower my grade a notch so I could retake the class. He did and I later got an A-.

I chose to stay with the full-blown chemistry degree instead of going with chem-bus, so that I’d keep my options open for going to graduate school. Then I went to work in picking up a full business administration minor, because I liked the direction that chem-bus combo could take you. It would, in fact, be the exact direction I would later go.

Here’s the saddest part of the whole thing. Even without the carrot of medical school, I got nearly all A’s and B’s in the classes I took for my chemistry degree. But then I got a C+ in Marketing, having found the subject matter mind-numbingly boring due to how comparatively easy it was, and a D+ in Principles of Finance because a) it was a summer school class, and b) I couldn’t understand a thing the Indian professor said. (It was two months of “mee-she-fun” that I only later sorted out was “mutual funds.”)

By the end of four years—and God bless, I graduated in four years—I was pooped out. The hardest class of the whole run was, by far, physical chemistry, or p-chem, and while I eked out a B- the first semester, I didn’t finish strong, landing a C+ for the second semester of that class. I didn’t care. Put a fork in me, I was done.

Walker: A Spiritual Memoir by Jill Loree

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