On April 24, 2020 Marian “Oma” Mills Godfrey of Prairie Village, Kansas was called at the age of 92 years to join her parents, Clyde and Marion “Jack” Mills, siblings, Stephen “Steve” Mills and Gertrude “Trudy” Stumpf, and son, Robert “Bobby” Godfrey, in heaven. Marian took on many roles throughout her lifetime, including, mother, grandmother, daughter, sister, aunt, student, teacher, counselor, colleague, traveler, writer, social rebel, volunteer, health nut, and listener, with seemingly endless energy. She never met a stranger. While her not-so-secret superhero skills of passion, smarts, and determination drove her to seek what appeared to be an unending list of endeavors and adventures, her desire to always teach and share with others what she learned along the way allowed her to remember and cultivate her humanity. This meant that if you encountered her on the road of life, she was mostly a joy to be around, but could also sometimes be a pain in the ass. On purpose.
Put simply, there will never be anyone else like Marian/Oma.
Marian was born on December 13, 1927 and got a jump start to her exceptional life by being raised on a wheat farm in the middle of what some might call “Nowhere Kansas”. Her loving family members and two US senators would call it Russell, Kansas. In truth, it was on an old highway, seven miles outside Russell, Kansas, but we won’t split hairs.
Marian would have a different answer for each time she was asked what it was like to grow up on a farm. During a recent phone conversation with one of her granddaughters, she was quick to say: “It was boring. Nothing ever happened.” She then went on to recall the time her father found a lonely crate of liquor in their wheat field during Prohibition, likely having been ditched by bootleggers on the run, and how she was given her own finger of whisky when it was passed around friends and family gathered for a card game that night. Marian was also known to have lost one of her new, and only, pair of red shoes when she was four years old after convincing her father to let her help empty a truck bed of wheat into a silo. While the farm life required her to work hard from a young age to help keep it running, her parents did their best to spoil Marian and her siblings, even in the middle of the Depression. She disclosed with a chuckle that everyone in town thought it was ridiculous that her father subscribed to three newspapers, one for local news, one for state and world news, and the last, most important one, for the funnies. They even had an indoor shower. It turns out that three newspapers, an indoor shower, and an uncanny ability to convince others to do new things were some key ingredients for leading a life of adventure.
With a strong work ethic, a sense of humor, curiosity in what goes on in the world, and the knowledge that creativity can make anything happen engrained in her soul, Marian left high school to matriculate and actually graduate from the University of Kansas in 1950. The success story of feminism is that most women today attend college with the purpose of obtaining a bachelor’s degree. When Marian was an undergraduate at KU, the primary reason women attended college was to find a husband and the discussion of china patterns was the most popular topic of conversation among her sorority sisters. At the time, women were just going to be housewives anyway, so why graduate? Spoiler alert, her bachelor’s degree and disinclination to follow all of the rules do come in handy in the 60s, when she catches the Second Wave of the Feminist Movement.
Marian did marry her college sweetheart, Robert Godfrey, and hung up her degree to become a housewife. Her own mother had managed their household on the wheat farm and Marian made a wholehearted attempt to emulate the mother she admired and respected. She followed all of the rules to be the perfect housewife and mother to their three children, Gail, Susan, and Bobby. However, despite all of her efforts for 18 years to make an unhealthy relationship work, she recognized that staying in the marriage would teach her children the opposite of everything she learned in life from her own parents. With the help of a counselor, Marian bravely made the choice to be the first person she knew to get a divorce. It was scary to move into unknown social, financial, emotional, and familial territory and was likely widely seen as uncouth, unseemly, maybe even crazy by her peers. Perhaps it would have been “easier” for her to just stay in the unhappy marriage and just double her focus and energy she was already putting into the PTA, Girl Scouts, and managing her children’s activities. Marian, however, did not do easy. And this is why getting a divorce in 1968 was the wisest decision she could have made for herself and her family.
It turns out that her 40s were what she described as “the best years of my life”. She went back to KU in the late 60s/70s to ostensibly obtain a Master’s degree in Counseling; however, it was also the height of the cultural revolution and Marian was suddenly immersed in a community that valued her opinions and beliefs and she became a student of change, freedom, and Feminism. Her degree and mindset paved a career in guidance counseling at Meadow Brook Middle School. Yes, you read that correctly, even though most people spend the majority of their lives trying to recover from and possibly even forget middle school, Marian loved spending time with and guiding adolescents through this rocky period of life. It was truly in her return to middle school that Marian returned to herself and as her career took off, so did her personal life.
Marian discovered that her greatest love story was destined to be not with a man, but the world. She loved to travel and was not afraid to do it alone. She signed up to journey to the ends of the earth through various travel groups. It was not uncommon for her closest friendships to have been founded hiking with Sherpas to the peaks of mountains, swinging in hammocks in the rain forest, crawling into the Pyramids in Egypt, walking on the China Wall, swimming with tortoises in the Galapagos, walking in the footsteps of her ancestors in Ireland, flipping through maps, translation dictionaries, itineraries, and skinny dipping practically everywhere. In the end she made multiple laps around the world.
Even while experiencing joy and liberty living the life she wanted, rather than conforming to expectations of her, she experienced a loss that she would never have wished upon another parent. In 1977, her youngest child and only son, Bobby, died in an automobile accident at the age of 22. The grief she felt was profound and the pain of never being able to see, touch, or talk to her son again knocked her off her feet. She nonetheless found the energy to seek help not just for herself but for other parents suffering the loss of children and founded a bereavement group at the Prairie Village Presbyterian Church. In this group, she was able to face and cope with her pain to the point that her thoughts of him were more focused on the memories that brought her joy rather than on the future moments she would never get to experience again. This allowed her to talk about him with her future grandchildren.
This happened sooner rather than later.
Several months after Bobby’s passing, Marian found herself filled with the unexpected feeling of delight at becoming an Oma upon the birth of her first granddaughter, Susan Elisabeth. Two years and two months later, a second granddaughter, Karen Eileen, rounded out what turned out to be the ideal number of grandchildren. It made it virtually impossible to run out of spoiling material.
It is in the role of Oma to her two “Amazon” granddaughters that Marian did some of her finest work. She would roll up her sleeves and get down on her hands and knees to play with them in the few years they were shorter than her. At every visit, Oma and the girls were equally eager to line up back-to-back to compare heights and she was arguably more delighted than they were with each inch they grew beyond her 4 ft 11-inch frame. Oma put a great deal of effort into forging and maintaining close relationships with the girls by seeing them for several weeks every winter and summer. This was cemented in place when she convinced their parents to ship them out to see her solo for two weeks every summer beginning when they were 9 and 7 years old. Even when the girls moved to Switzerland when they were in their early teens, they would continue to “stop over” in Kansas every summer. During their summer sojourns with Oma, her granddaughters were treated to excessive pool time before 12 pm and after 3 pm, the non-cancer sun hours, tuna fish sandwiches, healthy-yet-still-tasty meals, sometimes pizza, frozen yogurt, movies rented from Blockbuster, multiple trips to the book store, shopping trips, visits to Oma’s friends’ homes etc. While Oma loved to show them the good life, she also used the opportunity of her one-on-one time with them to imprint upon them her values. She always scheduled at least one volunteer activity for them to participate in during each visit and asked them questions that forced them to reflect and think about themselves, the world, their values, and their future. She challenged them because she loved them. Needless to say, she instilled in them Rock Chalk values and a love for KU Men’s Basketball. She gave them driving lessons and taught them how to skinny dip without parent permission or knowledge. Oma could also not suppress her inner prankster when she was with them and would at times tell some tales. For example, one year, she cautioned the girls against swimming at night because one time, while skinny dipping in the community pool with her friend and neighbor, Betty, she had unintentionally received a tan by the full moon and then turned into a werewolf. When they challenged her on the veracity of the story, she asked them to explain why she always howled at the moon and proceeded to howl at the moon. Because she (i) believed everything Oma told her and (ii) howling at the moon was not a new or odd behavior for Oma, her granddaughter Susan believed every word out of her mouth. At the age of 13 years. **No need to worry about the emotional adjustment of her eldest granddaughter either then or now, as she is now a psychologist and teaches children how to not be afraid of the dark. Or believe any stories fed to them by any nonconforming grandmothers.** Oma was generous, kind, challenging, loving, funny, the best back scratcher, adventurous, patient, wise, smart, curious, proud, loyal, faithful, forgiving, petite, loud, and best grandmother to two women who are more worldly and wise than they would have been without her insistence.
Marian was a limit pusher of both herself and others. She lived for adventure and yearned for knowledge and experience. Whenever she wanted to do something, she would just join a group. Marian loved to travel, so she joined travel groups. She loved to read and write, so she joined a writing group and published poems and short stories. When a group did not exist, she just created one, as she had the bereavement group. Marian loved groups because she loved to form connections with and between others. She wanted her passion to instill passion in others, to incite them to action, to help them reach for the stars as she had. She taught others that they could get what they wanted by showing them the way. Marian walked what she talked…and loved to talk while she walked.
By the age of 92, Marian had done and seen just about everything and still had a thirst for adventure that her brain and body could not always accommodate. This must have become exceptionally burdensome for her as she had become accustomed to pushing aside any barrier placed in her path in the last 9.2 decades and the laws of physics were starting to win.
In line with a lifetime of shucking expectations put upon her by others, Marian defied the best hopes of her assisted living center’s shelter-in-place rules and, against all odds, contracted COVID-19, and, in the presence of her daughter, Susan Godfrey, and daughter-in-law, Melissa Hazel, swiftly and peacefully left for the greatest adventure of all.
We are sure she cannot wait to tell us about it.
Her family, Gail Gillo of Norco, CA, Susan Godfrey and Melissa Hazel of Overland Park, KS, Susan Gillo and Steven Vas of Durham, NC, and Karen Gillo of New York City, NY, will carry on her spirit of love, generosity, growth, travel, and adventure.
On Friday, April 24, 2020, Marian ‘Oma’ Mills Godfrey, world traveler and beloved mother, grandmother, and friend passed away at the age of 92. She was born Dec 13, 1927 in Russell, Kansas. She will join her parents, wheat farmers, Clyde and Marian Mills, son Robert Charles Godfrey, brother Steve Mills and sister Gertrude Mills in heaven. She leaves behind her daughters Gail Gillo of Norco, CA and Susan Godfrey of Overland Park Kansas and granddaughters Susan Gillo of Durham, NC and Karen Gillo of NY City. She attended the University of Kansas and became a speech pathologist and a lifelong Jayhawks fan. Watching and attending basketball games in Allen Fieldhouse brought her unrivaled joy – and everyone knew it was a time to never try and call. She was an active member of the PTA and brownie scout leader and encouraged her kids to participate in a myriad of activities. After her children were older, she became substitute teacher and then a beloved middle school counselor at Meadowbrook Middle School. Everybody knew Mrs. Godfrey. After her son’s death in 1977, she started a bereavement group at Prairie Village Presbyterian Church. After retiring, she lived her dream of traveling all over the world, including China, England, Morocco, Nepal, across Europe, including Ireland where she traced her family roots back to County Clare – where she visited their gravesites – and a memorable trip to Greece with her daughter Gail where they were kept up all night killing mosquitos. She walked with the Sherpas, hiked in Nepal, traversed across the Wall of China, and rode camels across the desert. She traveled across the US as well – from Alaska to Texas to one particularly adventurous week-long cross-country drive with her granddaughter Susan from California to Pittsburgh, PA to help her move there for graduate school. Her natural curiosity and desire to constantly try something new meant she was often the most courageous person in the room. Often cajoling her granddaughters to join her in a new adventure, particularly in the summers spent with her in Prairie Village. Once Marian became a grandmother, she proudly became ‘Oma’ – a name she wore proudly – including on her personalized license plate for many years. Being Oma allowed her to amplify her greatest assets: her dynamism and ability to entertain her audience with her storytelling skills with a dash of imagination for amplification an played to her boundless, optimistic energy and passion for trying everything in life. Summers with Oma, meant summers of adventures: whether it was a simple as illegal night swims in the pool or husking endless amounts of corn on the steps of her building to learning how to drive in the post office parking lot, even though Karen was only 14 to knowing how to tell a tornado is coming for these West Coast kids. Small in stature, but large in personality – she loved when people would look at how much taller her granddaughters were and ask if they were really hers. Her spryness translated to cheekiness, where she would keep friends laughing with often audacious comments or ‘amplifications’ to stories. She was flat-out funny – a trait she has passed on to both of her granddaughters, including the dash of wicked humor. Everyone that knew Marian, knew her insatiable hunger – and has a story about her being naked at one point or another. A fearless warrior – she stood up for her beliefs and loved ones, volunteering for various charitable organizations, and was the de facto ringleader of any group. When she realized it was time to move into an assisted living facility, she became the self-appointed greeter for new residents and social activities leader. Organizing pre-dinner happy hours where everyone was welcome to join. No one was ever excluded or left behind by Marian, and once you became friends, you were friends for life. She wrote poetry – even published in her favorite Kansas City Star, loved reading, healthy eating, exercising, jogging and walking throughout her life. This love of reading was passed down to both her daughters and granddaughters – and why she was the leader of her book club. She made the best ever vegetable soup and brisket. She was a caring and compassionate person who loved her children and grandchildren. She never stopped going or learning up until the end, bringing joy and warmth into the lives of those who knew or met her. It is an understatement to say, Marian will be missed by family, friends, and co-residents, but Oma’s legacy and indelible impact will continue on.