It’s a hard time to retire. “I feel like I should be over there helping with different things,” said Verna Offermann earlier this week. “But,” she adds, “I don’t know what.”
Verna retired from working at Grace at the end of June, after more than 20 years of welcoming people at the reception desk at the Bonnie Brae doors. She has worked at the desk since the building addition opened in 1999, splitting the weekday hours first with Dot Willkie and more recently with Barb Van Heukelem.
Through the years she has greeted everyone and anyone — school children, their parents, Grace members and staff, mail carriers, UPS and FedEx drivers, repairmen, people who are lost and trying to find buildings on the Concordia or Dominican campuses, visiting grade school sports teams, meeting attendees, and people coming to Grace for funerals, for worship, or to drop in to see and reminisce about the church and school that were so important to them in an earlier stage of life.
“You have to know how to multitask when you’re at that desk, because you could be working on something on the computer, the phone rings and somebody comes up to the desk and you’ve got three things going at one time. It was a challenge at times, but you feel good helping people and serving people. I enjoyed it a lot.”
Verna’s time at Grace goes all the way back to her baptism. Her father, Richard Lange, taught at what was then known as Concordia Teachers College, and the family lived in faculty housing. She grew up on the campus and went to Grace School, attending kindergarten in the church library. The 1950s addition (the classrooms south of the Lamb door staircase) was built while she was in elementary school. She has a photo of herself with Pastor Otto Geiseman looking out over the roof of the boiler room and the space where that addition would be built.
After graduating from Walther High School, Verna worked at Concordia’s switchboard. A handsome young student who was working on campus during the summer used to come and hang around in the evenings while she was working. That of course, was Don, and she married him.
Did she ever want to be a teacher? “Yeah,” she smiles, “but I wanted to have kids, my own kids.”
Monika, the youngest of the four Offermann children, attended Grace School starting in kindergarten, and Verna soon became very involved as a parent volunteer. She was a room mother, headed up the Market Day fundraising program with Pat Heinz, and chaired the Women of Grace fall sale.
But what she remembers most affectionately was working with the “Search Teach” program headed up by Grace School’s special education coordinator Maureen O’Connor. Verna worked with kids in the early grades who needed more concentrated attention from an adult, especially with learning to read. She led groups of three or four students and worked with others one-on-one. “We would keep trying. If this one method doesn’t work, we’ll try another one.” She remembers some of her most colorful Search Teach students with a special smile.
When Pastor Bruce Modahl asked if Verna would be interested in working at the new reception desk, she thought, “Why not?” Husband Don had retired “for 8 days, and then he went back to work, so what the heck was I going to do?”
The job would be to greet people, answer the phone, and support the rest of the staff, and it evolved from there.
“I knew a lot of the parishioners and how things ran, so it was easy for me to direct people to what they needed….Sometimes it was challenging when you had different people coming up and unloading on you….You’d try to help them work through things. You did what you could.”
For Verna, the best part of the job “was the kids coming in. The little faces coming in — and little faces that weren’t too happy coming in!”
Some of these students would come around the desk and give her a hug. “That makes everything great for the rest of the day.”
Verna remembers the little ones who were scared as they waited for a parent to come and pick them up. She would leave her desk and sit on the bench with them. She remembers one student in particular who was sometimes scared to go to her classroom. “It was a warm feeling when she’d take my hand and we’d go walking down the stairs together. We’d get to the classroom and she’d turn to me and say, ‘I can do this now.’”
Verna admits she doesn’t know everyone in the congregation, especially the newer members who have come to Grace mainly on Sunday mornings. And now in these days of the COVID-19 pandemic she acknowledges, “we’re not going to have that personal contact with people for quite a while that we had before. Talking on the phone, checking up on people, it’s not the same as face-to-face contact. I miss that. … I miss the gathering in the church with the people and singing along.”
Verna has started to do some crocheting, making Twiddle Muffs, one of the charity crafting projects of Grace’s knitting group. She’s got a recipe drawer to clean out and organize and lots of projects around the house to keep her and Don busy. And she’ll continue to be active at Grace, volunteering where she can, and praying for the congregation and everyone in it.