Tea, shared lives forge bond among 4 women

Posted: Wednesday, September 05, 2001

In the 1930s, four Juneau women met and formed a friendship that endured time and change. More than six decades later, the communion between the two surviving friends is sometimes interrupted by the inconvenience of age, but is undiminished in its warmth.

Vivian Renshaw, Betty McDowell, Gladys Stabler Wynd and Evelyn Dunn were the wives of men who attended Rotary meetings every Tuesday. It was Rotary's men-only status that prompted the women to develop their own Tuesday luncheon ritual.

"We all lived downtown and were all working," Renshaw, 91, said in a recent interview. "Gladys and her husband were attorneys. The rest of us were working in state offices. We went to Gladys' apartment in the MacKinnon Apartments. And it was so much fun."

The women brought brown bag lunches and Wynd brewed a pot of Lapsang soochong, a variety of tea with a smoky flavor.

The lunches were "almost like a religion for us," Renshaw said.

McDowell, who turns 90 this month, described the get-togethers as "invaluable."

"These are the most wonderful people I have ever known," she said. "We shared so many of life's experiences. We leaned on each other and rejoiced with each other at every kind of happening."

Renshaw remembers Dunn, who died in the 1990s, and Wynd, who died last October, as "very proper and dignified" while she and McDowell "liked to joke and kid."

"When Marshall Erwin (Renshaw's first husband) suggested we call ourselves the 'Slurp 'N Burp Club,' Gladys was horrified," Renshaw said.

The longtime friendship began when Renshaw had moved to Juneau in 1934 and immediately met McDowell.

"My friend Betty was the first woman that I met other than my mother when I got off the ship. Her roommate was dating my brother," she said. "There were only 5,000 people here. Almost immediately we became close friends, and we have always referred to ourselves as our 'forever friends.' "

Renshaw, then 25, had been working in a bank in Seattle. She met Erwin, an Alaska Juneau gold mine worker, through McDowell. The couple married in 1937 and had two daughters, Linda and Marsha.

In 1939, the couple decided the mine wasn't a healthy place to work and opened a grocery store. When subdivisions began popping up in the Mendenhall Valley in the 1960s, Marshall Erwin, described by his widow as "a man of vision," realized Juneau would grow in that direction, "so we built the first grocery story out there." Today it is Family Grocer.

After Erwin died in 1973, his wife felt at loose ends. But, in 1979, she married Ray Renshaw, chief pilot for Alaska Coastal Airline.

"We were both 70 years old. We figured if we had five or six years, we would be doing great. But we had 20, and it was absolutely fabulous."

She and McDowell "have compared notes about getting old for a lot of years," said Renshaw, who lives near Fritz Cove. "One of the things that was most interesting about our friendship is that it lasted through the years that she and her husband Bert moved away from Juneau on several occasions." McDowell moved back permanently about 20 years ago.

The foursome didn't allow distance to interrupt their communion.

"When Betty and Gladys both lived in Eugene, they kept in touch," Renshaw said. "And when Betty moved back to Juneau, we wrote to Gladys every Tuesday at lunch. Betty would find a card that was just right."

Shortly before Wynd died, Renshaw visited her in Oregon.

McDowell moved to Juneau in the '30s after college because it was hard to find an office job in Washington state during the Depression.

"My sister and brother-in-law, Erling Olafson, who had moved here to be minister of Resurrection Lutheran Church, extended an invitation," she said. "They left in a few years, but I stayed."

McDowell has two sons, Eric and Peter. A grandson and three of her eight great-grandchildren live in Juneau. Her daughter, Nancy Lange, and son-in-law, Roger, who are Wycliffe Bible translators, recently moved to Orlando, Fla.

Increasingly plagued with health problems and what she calls "a total lifestyle change," McDowell moved into the Juneau Pioneers' Home in mid-July. The only time she has been able to leave was to lunch at Renshaw's home Aug. 14, which happened to be a Tuesday.

The friendship goes on.

"It's a real blessing to us," Renshaw said.

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