ZWINGLE, Iowa — She never cursed, but instead made up her own profanities. Word substitutions or invention got her points across without offending bystanders.
“Well, son of a biscuit,” LaVerne Marcus might say after hitting her thumb with a hammer. “I’ll be bibt.”
The longtime Zwingle resident, who died Sept. 10 of Parkinson’s disease at age 98, experienced knocks throughout her life, but rebounded through a mix of Irish faith and grit.
A child of the Great Depression, LaVerne learned to go without and to make a meal out of nothing. Her family lost their farmstead and later got it back when the economy turned up.
“She related it to so many things in today’s environment,” said her eldest son, John Marcus. “She worried about how times could turn.”
LaVerne was born on March 11, 1923, in Bernard. Her parents, Albert and Josephine Dimmer, were farmers. Josephine sailed to the United States from Ireland when she was 7 years old.
LaVerne graduated from Saint Patrick’s Garryowen High School in the early 1940s and enrolled in the University of Dubuque, where she studied education.
When LaVerne was still a high school senior, she met Joseph Marcus at a dance at the former Walnut Grove church hall. They married in 1943, and over the ensuing decade had four children: John, Judy, Joseph and Joni.
LaVerne left school and took on the role of a farmwife. The family grew corn and raised dairy cows, black Angus show cattle and sheep on Joseph’s father’s farm in Otter Creek. Their home was white with blue trim and had a wraparound porch.
“She did the wash in the basement with water we carried in by hand,” John said. “Carry water in. Carry the pot out and dump it.”
In 1954, Joseph’s older brother returned home from military service and took over the farm. LaVerne and her family moved to a Zwingle duplex.
Joseph took up steam engine repair, and later long-haul trucking and heavy machinery operation, while LaVerne served as the city clerk, a position she held for 30 years. She also staffed the former Sweeney’s Grocery, where she worked behind the counter and ran the tavern inside.
Years later, Joni suggested they start Suite One Boutique in Maquoketa. LaVerne relished the buyer’s trips to Chicago, Dallas and Minneapolis.
Additionally, she served on Zwingle’s City Council, which belied her interest in local politics. During the county Democratic caucuses, LaVerne was named a delegate for several elections.
“She had a pretty strong opinion about what was going on,” Joni said. “She knew what she was talking about.”
LaVerne’s passion was matched by her spunk.
Once, Joseph came home from a trucking job to find a new 1963 Chevrolet Impala parked outside the house.
“Whose car is that?” he asked LaVerne, as Joni recalled the conversation. “That’s ours,” LaVerne said.
“He was not happy,” Joni said.
On another occasion, LaVerne decided to convert their duplex into a single-family home, so she grabbed a hammer and crowbar and knocked out the walls that separated the units.
When she wasn’t working, LaVerne hosted friends for games of euchre, played over glasses of Miller Lite.
“She was fussy about her euchre players,” John said. “She liked a good, tough game.”
LaVerne also visited Q Casino and tried her luck at the Leprechaun’s Gold slot machines, which she talked about a lot because they were Irish.
Whether it was a slot machine or word of bad news, LaVerne often said, “Maybe something good’s gonna’ happen.”
“She had a faith,” Joni said. “Not the kind of faith where you put your rear end in the pew every week, but the kind you live every day.”
In 1996, she traveled to County Cork, Ireland, her ancestral homeland, with her daughters. They rented a car and spent 10 days wandering the country, stopping at churches, castles and pubs.
“She got to kiss the Blarney Stone,” Joni said, referring to the famous block of limestone that forms the battlements of Blarney Castle. It is said to bring the kisser the “gift of the gab,” or great skill in wit and flattery.
Chuck Pierson, LaVerne’s son-in-law, recalled temporarily living with her when he moved to Iowa after taking a new job at John Deere Dubuque Works.
He returned home after third shift to find his bed made, his clothes freshly washed and breakfast waiting for him.
“She was so caring and loving, and could chew my ass in a heartbeat,” Chuck said. “She was a great person to bicker with. … If I kicked my toe or something else, there was something coming out of her mouth.”
Even as she coped with the effects of Parkinson’s disease, LaVerne expressed a strong will to live.
It had long been her dream to surpass 100 so that she could appear on the “Today” show with her face imposed onto a Smucker’s jelly jar. A television tradition.
“She liked to remind me, she was 98½,” Joni said.
That resolve challenged her family to convince her to move into a nursing home when it became too difficult for Joni and John to care for her.
During her final months, LaVerne lost her ability to walk and sit in a wheelchair. But she never lost her optimism.
“Maybe the next time you come, I’ll be walking,” she said.
Joni crafted a jar with her mother’s face pasted on it the week before LaVerne died.
LaVerne had struggled to form complete sentences, but she saw the jar and smiled.