Ullrich celebrates 108th birthday Sunday
Catherine Ullrich had just turned 20 years old when she filled out an election ballot for the first time in the 1928 presidential election. She recalls voting for Democrat Al Smith, who was later defeated by President Herbert Hoover.
The Red Wing native sat down at her dining room table Wednesday morning to fill out an early ballot for the 2016 presidential election — her 23nd presidential election as a registered voter.
Ullrich will celebrate her 108th birthday this Sunday.
"I never expected my life to be this long, but I'm happy I've got it," she said. "I'm happy to be here."
Ullrich built an impressive resume with active roles in the community's arts, culture and politics. She served as secretary to both a Smithsonian anthropologist and to a U.S. ambassador, whom she later assisted during a run for Minnesota's Senate.
A lifelong reader and learner, Ullrich remains abreast of today's politics, though she usually avoids the topic with her partner, Dr. Ralph Rayner.
"We tease a lot about this, but her boyfriend is a good Republican and she's a good Democrat," said Ullrich's son, Jim. "So, we wave the ballot in front of him often — 'We've got the ballot.'"
Ullrich's awareness of politics and current events began at a young age during World War I.
"I remember that vividly because my mother's best friend's sons were both in the fighting part of war, so we kept track of them," she said. "One of them was badly wounded on his leg from the hip down to the knee and it took him a long time to recover."
Germany, Great Britain and France signed an armistice in 1918, signalling an end to fighting on the Western Front. Ullrich, who was 10 years old at the time, was standing in front of her family's West Fourth Street home when a Ford drove up her street with good news.
"It was the editor of the paper waving his hand and yelling, 'The war is over, the war is over!'" she said. "It was very exciting."
Ullrich continued to witness historical junctures throughout her more than 100 years.
She served as secretary for anthropologist and fellow Red Wing native Frances Densmore known for her extensive recordings of Native American music.
Ullrich recalls Densmore's passion for music and her beautiful singing voice.
From her childhood bedroom, Densmore could hear Mdewakanton Dakota singing during the night at Bay Point Park. Inspired to study and preserve native music, Densmore traveled throughout southeastern Minnesota to record tribes' songs using wax cylinders.
"A lot of if was very difficult," she said. "She didn't have a car; they would go with a horse and wagon from farm to farm. Whatever farm they were at at that moment, she'd ask to spend the night and they'd always say yes."
Densmore went on to work with the Bureau of American Ethnology with the Smithsonian Institute. Her repertoire included recordings of nearly 2,500 from tribes throughout the United States.
"She was a friend of the Prairie Island (tribe) always, and got to know many of them very well," Ullrich said. "We recorded all those songs because otherwise they would have been lost."
Ullrich also worked as a secretary for fellow Red Wing resident Eugenie Anderson, who helped found the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. President appointed her ambassador to Denmark in 1949.
As the first woman to serve as a U.S. ambassador, Anderson gained the Danes' adoration. She successfully ushered Denmark into an active role in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and helped negotiate the Greenland Agreement, granting U.S. access to Danish strategic air bases in Greenland.
During that time, Ullrich handled Anderson's letters and paperwork in the United States.
"That was the time I had my most interesting experiences," Ullrich said. "Her correspondence was exciting because of all that was going on in Washington at the time. She was a wonderful woman."
Ullrich offered her secretarial skills again when Anderson returned to Red Wing and ran for U.S. Senate.
Jim Ullrich recalls Minnesota DFL Party founder Hubert H. Humphrey attending an event at Central High School to kick off Anderson's campaign.
"My buddies from high school and I had a big German oompah band and we played at this gathering," he said. "My mother fought hard for that, so it was kind of a disappointing loss."
Congressman Eugene McCarthy eventually gained the Democratic nomination for the Senate.
Although Jim Ullrich described it as a "disappointing loss," his mother's loyalty to Anderson never wavered.
"I always was a staunch supporter of anything Eugenie did," Catherine Ullrich said. "She was so knowledgeable. She was indeed a brilliant woman."
Ullrich's affinity for art, music and literature inspired her contributions to a number of Minnesota's cultural assets. She and her late husband, Harold, worked to bring the Metropolitan Opera Series to the Red Wing and had a hand in the development and promotion of the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis.
The couple shared their love of reading by establishing Red Wing's first book club.
"Growing up around that home, in retrospect, it was fascinating to sit in one of the side rooms and listen to the arguments," Jim Ullrich said. "All of these things that were going on in the town, it was fun to be on the outskirts not realizing how important these things were."
Ullrich's eyesight prevents her from reading on her own, but her love of literature continues today with the help of others. Lately, the centenarian has enjoyed listening to Rayner read to her from his high school English textbook, which features authors ranging from Jeffrey Chaucer to her personal favorite, Charles Dickens.
Although Jim Ullrich says he can't pinpoint his mother's secret to a long life, he believes her thirst for knowledge has helped keep her young.
"My parents, every evening, sat down with a glass of sherry, my dad would set up the music and they'd listen to classical music and read books every evening," he recalls. "They'd read and read and read. She still carries that passion."