Homage to Margot
Margot Moses Warch, 1939–2016
by Estella Lauter
I first came to know Margot in 1957 when we lived in the same freshman hall at the University of Rochester in western New York. We worked closely together in student government at Rochester, visited each other during the ‘60s when we both lived in Connecticut, lived either next door or across the street from each other in Appleton for about 20 years and retired to Door County in the same month of 2004. We knew each other’s parents, siblings and friends, and our children grew up together. It is no exaggeration to say that this was one of the most important friendships of my life, and her death is still scarcely bearable.
Despite her many accomplishments, Margot was one of the most unassuming people I have known. From an early age, she had her own point of view and carried herself with a calm elegance that often made people turn to her for leadership. At Rochester she was elected to the co-ed student government (as a secretary, of course) and to the Women’s Judicial Board. In Appleton she was a leader in the literacy movement and a key person in the annual book drive for the American Association of University Women (AAUW), a role she reprised for the Sister Bay Library each August since 2004. However, she consistently chose labor-intensive roles behind the scenes that did not draw attention to herself.
She was also a perfectionist who never did anything halfway. A case in point was her approach to becoming Lawrence’s first lady in 1979. She quickly realized she would be expected to entertain the trustees several times a year, and if she left the menus to food service, they would likely be repetitive. So, she spent the summer of 1980 looking for recipes in the library (before Google) and asking for recommendations from everyone she knew, including her far-flung friends from college. She repeated this process many times, giving the same careful and caring attention to her unpaid job as she did to her teaching at Fox Valley Technical College, where she taught reading to adult students, many of whom did not yet speak English fluently. In 2000, she was honored with an award for outstanding advising of those students.
Reading was always a crucial value for Margot. She was an English major and an English teacher in Rochester (where she and my husband, Chuck, commuted in his black VW Beetle to do their practice teaching in 1961). She taught English at a boys’ school the year she and Rik lived in Scotland, and she was the family breadwinner in New Haven, Conn., while Rik was in graduate school. In her continuing education there and at UW–Oshkosh, she specialized in the many skills of reading. She was a voracious reader––one who read with a critical eye, always looking for clarity, authenticity and style. In the book group we shared in Door County, she was more likely to ask a question of the author or to identify a stumbling block in the text than she was to offer an interpretation or argue a point, but she always knew what worked in writing and what did not.
It was this well-honed intelligence and fundamental honesty that made her such a valuable partner for Rik in his role as president of Lawrence. I doubt he gave many Convocations, introductions or speeches during his tenure there that Margot had not vetted. If she were present in the audience, he often referred to her perspective, especially if he had not made the change she had suggested. She was his sounding board, just as he was her primary conversation partner.
Margot was clear in her preferences and judgments, but she was also open to new information and perspectives, and she enjoyed the challenge of learning, perhaps more than any tangible achievement. Once, when she was thinking about what role might be best for her in retirement, I encouraged her to write. But she said, with characteristic modesty, “No, I have read too much great literature.” This was a beautiful woman who would not sit for a portrait for the Richard and Margot Warch Campus Center at Lawrence. She was a woman who said she wanted most of all at Rik’s retirement two Adirondack chairs side by side on the grounds at Björklunden. She was a woman who said in conversation not long ago that in retirement she had decided simply to be the best friend she could be.
She gave her best to many of us—at some cost to herself, because her internal critic was not silent. Unfailingly kind in her interactions with others, she was often hard on herself in private. She said once that Rik was the one person who could always make her laugh, and she valued laughter highly as part of good company. What many of us will remember most fondly when our sorrow lessens is a moment when her eyes shone as if they were backlit with joy or mischief and she laughed without reservation.
One such moment for me will always be her gleeful instigation of a neighborhood pie party in the late afternoon each Thanksgiving Day (sometimes a pie for each person), a multigenerational tradition that continued for 20 years or more.
Margot loved Bjӧrklunden. One of her last projects was to make a list of all the books (plays, musical scores, etc.) that were ever assigned in Freshman Studies at Lawrence and to begin collecting the required editions for the Bjӧrklunden library. She would want us to do everything in our power to continue the work of Freshman Studies in our lives and to support the opportunity for students, alumni, neighbors and all manners of travelers to experience the kind of education that occurs on this unique campus.
The world is a better place because she moved among us, moving us with her.