Zola Marie (Hollister) McElrath, age 93, passed away peacefully on Monday, Sept 24, 2018, at the home of her son and his wife in Urbana. She will be buried with her husband at Fort Custer National Cemetery in a private ceremony at a later date.
Zola was born in Spivey, Kansas on July 28, 1925 and later moved to Eads, Colorado. The fifth of seven sisters, she grew up during the Great Depression in the middle of the “Dust Bowl”. Her family owed its survival to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal program. Her mother died when she was eleven and she moved to Wichita to stay with relatives. She paid her way through high school by waitressing during breakfast and lunch at a nearby diner, and working in the evenings and weekends for room and board at her aunt’s confectionary. At age nineteen she took a job at a defense plant in Wichita, and in a chance encounter on the street, was introduced by a friend to her future husband, Robert McElrath, who was attending military school at the time. Zola, the daughter of a Dust Bowl farmer and Robert, the son of a northern Michigan lumberjack fell in love and their WWII romance resulted in marriage on Dec 13, 1944 during his first furlough. They spent a “working honeymoon” staying with his parents in Kalkaska, Michigan, picking cherries for extra money in the neighboring orchards, followed every day by swimming in nearby East Lake. Her husband survived action in Europe and service in occupied Japan, and upon his return they settled on 3 acres of land near Morgan’s Corners in the rural Battle Creek, Michigan area.
The two cultivated a large garden in order to can and freeze food. They developed an acre of strawberries, which Zola picked for sale to neighbors and passersby. Eventually, she took a job as cook at the newly constructed Sonoma Elementary School that was built across from their house. She honed her already considerable skills as a cook and made many lifetime friends of teachers, co-workers, and the many eager student helpers who regularly rotated through her kitchen. Seldom did she go anywhere in the Battle Creek area that she was not approached by one of the many former students who had come to appreciate her cooking.
Zola’s lifetime experiences taught her to appreciate the positive role that government could have in our lives. She recognized the importance of strong unions, and had a tremendous respect for the hard work that both men and women performed in our country. Like many who had lived through the Depression, she was extremely frugal, but her frugality was always exceeded by her generosity and kindness to others.
Following the death of her husband in 2000, Zola moved to Urbana, Illinois, in 2005, where she has been residing at Florida House for thirteen years. She leaves behind two sisters living in Colorado, Georgina Gray and Doris Nykos. She also leaves behind two sons, Dennis and his wife Marcia of Manistee, Michigan; and Dale and his wife Carolyn of Urbana, Illinois. She leaves two grandsons, Jason and wife Michele, and Aaron and wife Chiemi as well as six great-grandchildren, Eric, Cameron, Lauren, Vicki, Alex, RobertJ, and three great-great-grandchildren, Natalie, Amelia, and Liliana.
Her family requests that any gifts or donations in her memory be sent to either the Library of Michigan Foundation (michigan.gov/btbl), or Carle Foundation Home Hospice Care. Condolences may be offered online at www.renner-wikoffchapel.com.
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