Barbara “Barb” Ellen Ketterer Michalke, 85, finished her life journey where it all began, in Lafayette, Indiana. She died peacefully with family at her side at Franciscan Health Lafayette East on Wednesday, February 17, from the combined complications of bacterial and Covid-19 infections.
Barb was a long-time resident of Thorntown, Indiana, where she and her husband, James “Jim” Robert Michalke, Sr., lived for over 60 years, building and tending to their family farm, raising their five farmhand children and savoring a life blessed with 12 grandchildren and 19 great grandchildren. Since September 2019, Barb had been living at Homewood Health Campus, in Lebanon, Indiana, where Jim died in November 2019.
Born on November 29, 1935, in Lafayette, Indiana, Barb grew up in a modest home with scarce resources near Five Points at 14 Lincoln Street with her seven siblings and her loving parents, Joe and Mary, both of whom hailed from courageous, European ancestors mostly of German descent.
The hardship of two world wars took its toll on Barb’s family. It meant hardship and sacrifice. At times, food was in short supply in the Ketterer household in Lafayette, but love was not. Barb’s parents juggled hard and fast to feed the 10 souls under their roof. In addition to his full-time job as a union plumber, her father moonlighted to complete plumbing and other handyman jobs. Her mother took in laundry, ironing and mending. For their services, her parents were often paid in ration coupons, rather than cash. It meant a little extra flour, lard or sugar, staples that were processed into more noodles, or a second pie, or a cake when the family was flush. Her parents and brothers raised vegetables, rabbits and chickens in the backyard to supplement their supper table. This material scarcity in childhood taught Barb to stretch a penny and how to be industrious.
A 1953 graduate of St. Francis High School, Barb maintained lifelong friendships with many of her classmates. She loved the adventure of her senior trip and the elegance of getting all dolled up for school dances. This must have been when she discovered her signature red lipstick that she always wore when she got made up for special occasions throughout life. During high school, she worked as a soda jerk at Goodnight Drug Stores. After graduating, she was employed at General Telephone Co., where she spent her days extracting individual calls from a large handwritten operator-assisted activity log and then clacked out customer long-distance bills on a typewriter. What a leap Barb made from the era of manual typewriters to mastering the use of computers, an iPad and iPhone and adapting to email, the internet and texting! She actually outlived her iPad. It was in those simpler, low-tech times, while she was on duty at the soda fountain in 1953 that Barb met the man who endearingly called her “Babs” – the love of her life. Jim and Barb were married on June 5, 1954, and were blessed to have celebrated 65 years of marriage in 2019 before his death later that same year.
Shortly after their marriage, Barb joined her husband during his two years of active military service, first in Oklahoma and then Virginia where he served as a helicopter mechanic. Upon Jim’s honorable discharge from the United States Army, the couple returned to Indiana with their young son to take over the Michalke family farm on South River Road in West Lafayette. Growing up as a city girl, Barb didn’t take to 1950s farm life easily. First, there was the matter of adapting to an outhouse that was especially sobering in the dead of winter at any hour. You could say the small house’s stovepipe heater constituted central heat because everything centered around it, especially in the winter. Though the house did not have hot water, her kitchen did have running water. In fact, continuously running water, gravity fed through a pipe that conveniently channeled water to the house from a spring up the hill. But that kitchen faucet had no shut off valve.
In short order, like legions of tough pioneer women before her, Barb stepped onto that farm and learned quickly about growing a garden and birthing lambs, calves, pigs – and even a niece. In her first farming season, she literally got her feet – and much more – wet, learning to drive farm trucks and tractors. She drove a tractor towing an empty wagon off the road and into a flowing creek bed near the Wabash River. Not particularly known for her athleticism, she wasn’t agile enough to jump from the rig in time to avoid being pinned underneath the tractor when it landed upside down in the drink. Miraculously, a passing neighbor was able to extract her from the wreckage.
This first brush with death wasn’t Barb’s only warning sign about the perils of the farmwife life. Devastating Wabash River floods in the summers of 1957 and 1958 washed away the young farmers’ crops and left them in financial ruin. With their tender dreams dashed and their pockets drained, in the winter of 1959, Barb and Jim said goodbye to river bottom farming, packed up their sparse belongings and two kids and relocated to Thorntown to take up tenant farming for Helen Woody. By the late 1960s, the hardworking farm couple had finally paid off their back-to-back flooding disaster debts and launched Michalke Farms when they managed to buy the first of their own farmland south of Thorntown. Over the decades, farm economics ebbed and flowed, and times were often lean at Michalke Farms. By now they both knew a good bit about how to stretch a penny and they were able to acquire more farmland south, north and northwest of Thorntown.
In the mid-1970s, with the grit of friends and family – including several of Barb’s brothers who were skilled tradesmen – and a prefab kit from The National Homes Corporation of Lafayette, the couple built their very own, very unfarmlike, tri-level dream home on a corner of the farm at the edge of town. The lower-level recreation room – or rec room – in that house was like a community center. In their heyday, Barb and Jim gathered family, friends and all sorts of merry-makers there for pool games, ping pong, card parties, home economics club and even square dancing!
Throughout life, Barb was always up for an adventure. In 1953, her senior trip took her on an overnight train from Lafayette to Washington DC. She loved seeing new places and new things on that trip and it also launched her on a lifetime of serial scrapbooking. Every trip and even everyday life with family and friends was meticulously documented with photos, descriptions and memorabilia. In their far-flung travels, Barb and Jim had touched four continents. Hawaii, several cruises, an African safari, Europe and China were among their many journeys. In 2014, Barb fulfilled a life-long dream. She traveled to Sasbach, Germany, where she met the last remaining descendant of her grandfather’s family. She stood in the footprints of her great grandparents in the family home where Stephen Ketterer had been born on a cold December day in 1863. In a sense, that visit brought her full circle in her life. It seemed to close the wound of her father’s unspoken sadness and loss. Much of his German family had perished, and he only ever knew them as pen pals.
Wherever they wandered, it simply reinforced for Barb and Jim that what they loved most was being close to the farm. The couple was never idle. Between the daily and seasonal cycles of farm work, Barb was always cooking, baking, cleaning or furiously squirreling away food. She put up and froze vegetables, fruit, meat, cakes and pies. She worked to live, but she lived for family time. The upside of those leaner days for her family meant a simpler life. For at least a couple of years, there wasn’t even a television in the family’s home. Instead, she engaged her kids in crafts and activities, board games, card games, reading and singing. Often, she would mobilize all those family hands to help her pack popcorn balls, flip peanut brittle, form coconut peaks, or shuck corn and snap beans.
God gave Barb the immense strength to bring five children into this world and the abundant grace to make raising them to adulthood look easy – at least to outsiders! With her family, Barb was soft, but never weak. Whereas Jim pushed, Barb pulled. At one point, they had five children in five different schools. Together, they inspired their children to make the very most of life in their own unique ways. However, it was courage and perseverance that God knew she would need most when he blessed the couple with a son with Down Syndrome. In the mid-1960s, most children born with developmental disabilities were still shunted away from society and had abysmal life expectancies; however, Barb believed that she could position her son to thrive. She coaxed him. She advocated for him. She sought out schools, and when he was an adult, she connected him to The Arc of Greater Boone County and Special Olympics, resources that helped him continue to develop and enjoy his life to its fullest. Barb and Jim became volunteers and avid supporters of both organizations and were champions for individuals with intellectual disabilities in countless ways during their lives. Ultimately, many other parents of special needs children looked to Barb and Jim as role models who chose the hard, but incredibly rewarding path of being their child’s primary caregivers.
Barb left behind a small mountain of travel, wedding, anniversary, crafts and family photo albums. Whether she was lovingly hovering over a photo album in process, or sewing, or decorating a cake, or making cards, or stamping, or molding candy, or one of her other countless – and often unfinished – craft projects, she would regularly be up into the wee hours of the morning and then right back out there first thing the next morning to be at her husband’s side tending to the family business.
Somehow, she found time to work for a short time at Donaldson’s Finer Chocolates in the 1980s and also ran her own cake decorating business for many, many years. Her cakes embodied celebration and were meticulously customized to reflect the occasion and the person, whether a birthday, an anniversary, or a bridal shower. Her highly sought-after boob cake was the delight of many dirty old men. But her true forte was her elaborate, multi-tiered wedding cakes. Many included a fountain with continuous flowing water, perhaps a throwback for her to that never-ending soothing gurgle of spring-water in her kitchen sink? Her wedding cakes were often the main decorative center piece at wedding receptions. The cake basked in the limelight while Barb stood by humbly, satisfied with soaking in the pleasure of people adoring what she had created, just like she often did with her family.
Because Barb was smitten with her creative projects, over the years she found ways to involve her grandchildren in her hobbies and taught many of them to decorate cookies, cupcakes, cakes and gingerbread houses. The rec room in her home morphed from community gathering space into Grandma’s workshop, eventually becoming more of a wreck room. If she had a fault, it was that her expanding family and large circle of friends were always more important to her than cleaning up! She’d drop whatever, wherever, whenever, anytime anyone needed anything.
Not to be outdone by her husband, Barb’s body came with its own share of physical ailments. She had her appendix removed when she was a child. By the time she was in her 60s, untreated rheumatoid arthritis had compromised her joints. She endured two knee and two hip replacements, four spine surgeries, carpal tunnel release surgery and the insertion of two intrathecal pumps to manage pain when more spine surgery was no longer a safe option. She had two cataract surgeries, Bell’s Palsy and even survived kidney cancer, living for nearly 14 years with a single kidney. Fortunately, her macular degeneration in both eyes was kept in check with regular – though painful – injections. All those physical ailments would have paled in comparison to her losing her vision. Those two sweet, loving eyes not only gave her the sight she needed to channel her creative insight to her crafty hands, they also nourished her soul whenever she gazed upon the remarkably large and boisterous and loving family that had sprang forth from her enduring love with Jim.
Even in the face of the inexorable Covid-19 isolation this past year, Barb persevered. Her unshakable faith no doubt helped sustain her, even though she wasn’t able to attend Mass at her beloved St. Joseph Catholic Church in Lebanon, Indiana, during the pandemic. Visits through a window at her assisted-living facility helped quell her family’s withdrawals. For Mother’s Day and for her 85th birthday in November, family lined up in cars and drove by to salute their matriarch and wave and blow kisses and drop off gifts. She mostly kept her chin up through it all, however, anyone who ever had a mother knows these substitutes were no match for a mother’s sweet, tender caress.
Barb leaves behind five incredibly grateful, though heartbroken, children and their spouses and partners, James Robert, Jr. (Heather Kreml) of Lebanon, Jane Ellen (Dan Lawson) of Thorntown, Theodore William (Thomas Marano) of Chicago, Kenneth Joseph, and John Edward (Crystal Tatman) both of Thorntown. Her expansive family also included 12 grandchildren, Katy Lawson Wetter, Morgan Michalke Booker, Emily Lawson Steffen, Mallory Michalke Griffith, Benjamin Lawson, Laura Lawson Bragg, Caleb Michalke, Cedric Michalke, Levi Michalke, Jared Michalke, Keegan Tatman, and Brooklyn Tatman, as well as her grandchildren’s spouses and 19 great grandchildren.
She is also survived by three brothers, James Walter (the late Mary Angela Ricks), Robert Joseph (Mabel McCormick), and Daniel Edward (Janice Rose), all of Lafayette, and one sister, Carolyn Sue (David McKay) of Bremen, Georgia.
In addition to her husband, her parents, Mary Frances Thoennes and Joseph Charles Ketterer, as well as three siblings, Joanne Ruth (the late Vincent Spaker), Charles Stephen (the late Alma Jean Park), Rosemary Catherine (the late Edward Furrer), a sister in-law, Barbara Michalke Caster (the late Donald Lee Caster), a niece and three nephews preceded her in death.
Everyone who knew Barb will sorely miss her infectious laugh and rich sense of humor, her boundless creativity and energy and her deep unconditional love and kindness that she selflessly showered on family and friends – often even on strangers. But it was that twinkle in her eye that told you her still waters ran deep with a love that could only have come from a higher power, one that transcends this life. A love that will guide those who knew her forever.
Due to ongoing public health concerns, Barb’s final arrangements will be limited to family and close friends.
Virtual participation in the Rosary and Funeral Mass services on Friday, February 26, 2021, will be available online through St. Joseph Catholic Church.