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Rediscovering Eugenie Anderson: Author recalls world-traveling grandmother in book

Eugenie Anderson appears with former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt on June 19, 1950. Submitted photo

Mary Dupont's personal memories of Eugenie Anderson are of a warm, loving woman who read stories to her and was generous with hugs when her granddaughter came to visit Tower View on holidays.

But Dupont also has intimate knowledge of Eugenie Anderson the world-traveling diplomat.

Combining all she learned researching documents Anderson donated to the Minnesota Historical Society, along with personal letters from Anderson and other family members, plus interviews to gather people's memories, Dupont has written her grandmother's biography.

"Mrs. Ambassador: The Life and Politics of Eugenie Anderson" was published this spring by the Minnesota Historical Society Press.

The book is a candid yet affectionate look inside the life of a woman who pushed beyond society's expectations — and made history.

Eugenie Anderson became involved in politics while in Red Wing. She joined the American Association of University Women, and expanded her involvement to the state level as an adviser to and supporter of Hubert Humphrey. She is credited with playing an important role in the creation of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota.

Anderson achieved historic diplomatic status in 1949 when President Harry Truman appointed her the first woman ambassador for the United States, with a post in Denmark. She went on to serve in Communist Bulgaria and at the United Nations.

Dupont will talk about her grandmother when she presents a book talk and sign copies of "Mrs. Ambassador" at 6:30 p.m. April 18 in the historic barn at the Anderson Center.

The Anderson Center is an appropriate location for the book talk because Tower View, as it is also known, was home to her great-grandparents, founder A.P. and Lydia Anderson; her grandparents, Eugenie and John Anderson; and her parents, Hans and Margaret Kaehler Anderson. Her grandparents lived in the white house at the estate.

Hans and family moved to La Crosse, Wis., when Mary was 5, but they returned to Red Wing for holidays. Their first stop was 905 W. Third St., home of her mother's parents, Arnold and Edna Kaehler.

"The next day we would drive out to Tower View and have another dinner and another holiday," Dupont said, describing it as a warm and wonderful place to visit.

"Eugenie gave constant hugs and put us on her lap to read books, always invited me and my sisters to follow her upstairs where she sorted linens for dinner or arranged things in her office, and laughingly told stories about herself and her siblings when they were young and mischievous in small-town Iowa."

Dupont admitted, "I often snuck away from the kitchen, because even then I was more interested in John's darkroom and photographs than in baking and fixing dinner.

"I would go down to the basement where John and Hans were discussing new enlargers and comparing liquid to powder developing chemicals, sit on a stool, and look around the walls at the shelves and photos, art prints, vases, stones and grasses, and equipment.

"John was very serious when he explained photographic procedures, but he often threw in a joke and then waited to see if you caught on."

Many voices

Not until she was in college and older did Dupont look back on her encounters with her grandmother and wondered whether her "persona or character" altered between life at home and her life at work.

"Unfortunately, by that time Eugenie was quite ill and not able to discuss those things," Dupont said. Anderson died in 1997 in Red Wing.

When Dupont decided in 2017 to write her grandmother's biography, "I made a concerted effort to combine as many sources as I could to see a deeper picture. ...

"Only after going through all the material, and reading history books about the times and events she lived through, did I see that deeper picture," Dupont said.

"I know that the warmth and humor she showed at home would have shown through when she met people from all over the world. But I also know that she took her work very seriously, and her primary goal was to commit to that work with dignity and energy."

Dupont's father, Hans, was an important source of information. He and his sister, Johanna, traveled with Eugenie and John Anderson while his mother was on diplomatic missions.

Hans grew up living in the white house at Tower View, Dupont said. "After returning from Denmark in 1953, he rejoined the junior class at Red Wing High School," where he met Margaret Kaehler. Both were in the drama club.

They married in 1960, and while Hans was making his way through medical school at the University of Minnesota and Margaret taught high school French and art, plus she danced in the corps for the Andahazy Ballet in St. Paul.

'Crusading spirit'

A few years later he was drafted to serve in the Navy as a psychiatrist during the Vietnam War. Political discussions and disagreements were common, Dupont said, even at the dinner table.

"Politics were never ignored for politeness' sake. They were woven into every context and every circumstance."

Her grandmother was a tireless advocate for human rights. Although she was quoted in newspapers saying she was not a feminist, she constantly pushed against expectations set by society and the media, Anderson Center officials commented.

In her book's afterward, Dupont credits her grandmother's "crusading spirit — her need to act."

The family has an extensive photographic record of her experiences.

John Anderson was an avid and talented photographer, Dupont noted — he learned to use his mother's movie camera when he was just a boy. "The pictures and footage that exist from those early Red Wing days are just breathtaking."

Dupont's cousin Gita Ghei is having much of that material transferred to digital format.

Hans Anderson also started using a camera when he was quite young. His father taught him both the technical science and the artistry of photography. Over the years, Dupont said, he accrued "a lifetime archive of beautiful black-and-white, color slide and movie film work." It also is being preserved.

Not surprisingly, Dupont learned to use the darkroom as a girl. She believes photography "records and reflects people like nothing else can."

Educated in English, she has worked in education and the arts as she pursued a career in writing and photography. Dupont lives near St. Paul with her husband and three children.

The April 18 book event at Tower View is free and open to everyone. Copies of the book will be available to purchase. For more information, contact the Anderson Center at 651-388-2009.