Lines of Character

By Kate Bast, Lisa Bauer, Marni McEntee & Rachel Werner  |  Photographed by Hillary Schave

Meet four strong women of a certain vintage who have lived lives less ordinary, in and through times that were anything but. They share lessons for us all.

Velma Ritcherson | Community Advocate, Retired Educator | Age: 89

When Velma Ritcherson talks about meeting her husband to be on the Wiley College campus in Houston, Texas, she giggles and her face lights up like it was that day in 1947 again.

“It was like ‘bing bing bing bing whoooo! Stars and flags! Love…,” Ritcherson remembers, laughing. “So that was the beginning.”

Now her husband, Lewis, who goes by Les, is 90 and she is going on 90. The couple has lived in the same house in Madison since 1966, the one they bought shortly after Les was recruited to be the first black assistant football coach in the University of Wisconsin system.

“And I thank the Lord every day that not only am I on this earth and Lewis is on this earth, but we are on this earth together,” Ritcherson says.

It’s been an exciting ride, she says, being married to a football coach. The couple have two sons. Lewis Jr., was recruited as a UW Badgers quarterback at a time when there were only about 200 black students at the Madison campus. Rod, who still lives in Madison, was one of only two black students to attend Memorial High School, for the first two years after its doors opened. They have four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Ritcherson, a trim, stylish woman whose only indication of her age is her birthdate, carved out a career at UW-Madison Extension, where she worked for 20 years. She worked in a unit that traveled the state’s 72 counties, meeting with focus groups to “even then,” she says, increase diversity at the institution and in the community.

A highlight of her career, she says, was her work as a program coordinator for the Developing Universities program, which linked UW-Madison with four historically black colleges in the South. Ritcherson helped coordinate the program’s exchanges of faculty, staff and students between the schools.

“It had such meaning to me, trying to get the students involved in as much experience as possible because they would need that in later life and would benefit from getting out of their own environment.” But, she cautions, it wasn’t a one-way street. People think the black colleges got so much more out of the exchange with UW-Madison than vice versa. But it was reciprocal, with UW-Madison participants learning a lot from the black colleges’ participants as well.

While UW-Madison was considered a “liberal” college at the time, especially compared to the Jim Crow South Ritcherson came from, it was still groundbreaking work. “At the time, it was a very enlightened program,” she says.

Friends call her a citizen of the community. For 19 years she served on the Madison Symphony Orchestra Board and is a director emeritus. Over the years, she hosted meetings in her home about understanding diversity and narrowing the racial achievement gap. Helping young people is still her passion, and Ritcherson does much of that through her work with two international African-American women’s organizations: Madison LINKS and the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. She’s currently working hard to get people to come to the annual LINKS fundraiser, which raises college scholarship money.

She’s committed to helping the upcoming generation have a bright future.

“Some of them don’t want to think about the future. But if the Lord’s willing, you are going to have a future. So what are you going to do with it?”

At her core though, Ritcherson says, being a wife and mother have been primary in her life. And that may explain how she managed to keep her almost-69-year marriage strong.

“I’ve always been a family person,” she says. “Family was first. I never thought that I had to have a career.”

She and Les, she says “have worked things out where there is a way. We have a family. To me, some couples are too easily ready to go to court. Get those papers and dissolve. I guess I never had that in mind.”

Ritcherson hesitates to hand out advice to other couples about how to keep that love strong, because what works for them might not work for everyone, she says.

“It’s a give-and-take. I just know for me, we have worked it out. We still love each other. And thanks to the Lord, when we pass in the hall, I know who you are. You know who I am. I know who I am, you know who you are. That health part is important. We are truly blessed.” – Marni McEntee


ON MARRIAGE, WHEN THINGS GET ROCKY: Whatever you do, think through it. You’re not just talking about yourself, you’re talking about another person. Maybe sometimes you don’t even want to see him. But think about what attracted you to him; what was it that you liked about him? Was he good to you? Did he love you?

ON EFFECTING CHANGE IN THE COMMUNITY, WHEN THE SAME PROBLEMS CONTINUE TO ARISE:  If I can feel good about what I’m putting in the pot, what I’m bringing to the table, sometimes that’s all I can deal with. Am I doing what I can do?

ON CHILDREN AND FAMILY: I tried to instill in my children to “be the best that you can be,” and never begrudge others what they have or do. I hold dear to my heart that love of family and friends is the best gift you can have, no matter how much “material stuff” you may have.

ON LIFE: Never take for granted our privileges and opportunities today. Remember the trials and tribulations our forefathers endured to make it possible.

ON SENIOR YEARS: Have a passion for something that keeps you active and involved.

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