May 5, 2023

Margaret D. Pierson

(To record some of her recollections that we, her children, think Margaret would like her great-grandchildren to know)

Margaret was born at home on May 1, 1924, at the family’s hilltop farm named “Skyline” three miles north of Fullerton, Nebraska.  She always loved her May Day birthday.  The first birthday present she remembers as the best: a basket of pansies from her mother, Margaret Isabella (Nunn).   Her father, William Franklin Downing, was 46 years old when she was born.  He had married late, having been told his rheumatic fever would lead to an early death, though he died at age 94.  Margaret’s mother died at age 96, and Margaret died April 22, 2023, about a week before her 99th birthday.

Margaret enjoyed a happy, unworried childhood filled with checkers, caroms, flinch, croquet, playing with friends, reading, Sunday school, church, 4H, county and state fairs, and family gatherings, the latter often including watermelon grown by

her father and homemade ice cream.  She had an orange, half Persian cat given to her by her 4H leader, and she named him Socrates.  When her mother knew that their father was on his way home with the children’s long desired pony, she led the kids through an abracadabra exercise that conjured up the pony’s arrival.  They delighted in pony rides, but when the pony tired of being ridden, he would take whichever child was on him under the mailbox at the end of the driveway, lightening his load.

Honesty, and cheerfully helping on the farm, were expected of Margaret.  She remembers her father sending her back to a store to return extra pennies she had received in change.  Her father farmed with horse-drawn equipment, and her mother would wake Margaret at sunrise to bring the horses in from the pasture while her father was milking the cows.  When she returned, she would have been allowed to go back to bed, but she chose to stay up and eat breakfast with her father before he went to the field.   When she felt the urge, she would run through the pasture down the hill to the end of their property.   Later in life she found it interesting that no one had ever come looking for her during those absences.  She also gained a reputation for being strategically absent when it was time to wash the dishes.

Her formative years were colored by the depression but not scarred by it because her family had what they needed, and they were satisfied with little.  They had the farm which provided meat, eggs, milk, butter, vegetables, and fruit.  Egg and cream sales allowed them to buy sugar and coffee.  They wore hand-me-down clothes remade to fit them.  She later made herself a wool suit from an uncle’s discarded one.  The depression hit home when the farm was threatened in the late 30’s, and her mother procured a job as a AAA Field Woman with the county, later becoming Nance County Welfare Director, a job that became a career until she was in her 70’s.

Margaret attended a country school northeast of Fullerton, District 37, for grades one through eight.  It did not offer kindergarten.  Margaret was always an excellent student.  Their Grandmother Downing had previously said she would give Margaret’s older brother ten dollars if he won the county spelling contest.  He did not win, but Margaret won it twice.  Grandma Downing had died by then, and the offer died with her.  Margaret did win a trophy and $10 at the interstate spelling contest.

The family regularly attended church, and Margaret took to heart the minister’s encouragement to
“go the second mile.”  Margaret’s parents encouraged reading, and they often went as a family to the town library on weekends.  Her father quoted literature and poetry to teach his children.  In high school Margaret was able to take poetry classes, her favorites.  She had a lifelong love of poetry.  Her husband admired her knowledge saying that she had a poem for every situation.

Margaret got her first job while in high school.  It entailed measuring fields on the farm program maps, and she says she was paid $.25 an hour.   Her brother had applied for the job, and when told they were only hiring girls, he responded, “I have a sister.”

She was Valedictorian of her 1941 Fullerton High School class of 65 students.  The school Superintendent had a large influence in her life, and she often echoed his encouragement: “In the effort the credit lies; In the effort and not the prize.”   The family could not afford to send Margaret to college.  Thanks to earning the Regents scholarship and a 4H scholarship, she had tuition and fees to attend the university for one year.  She worked for her room and board at Professor Carl Rosenquist’s home on university row near Lincoln’s east campus.  In December 1941 she was seventeen years old and living in Lincoln when the United States entered World War II.

Margaret claimed she did not plan out her life (characterizing it as “haphazard”) but always felt that she benefitted from whatever came her way.  After her freshman year at the University her brother, who was already in Washington DC, wired her that he had a job waiting for her.   Lacking funds to return to college, she took the train to Washington where she worked at the War Department.  She had fond memories of her time in Washington with friends and her older sister and brother.  Once when Churchill made the dangerous cross-Atlantic trip to confer with Roosevelt about the war, they waited for hours in the crowd outside the U.S. Capitol for Churchill and Roosevelt to appear.  Nature called inopportunely and the world leaders missed their chance to see Margaret.

In 1942 Margaret was named Nebraska’s representative to the American Youth Foundation Leadership training camp in Miniwanca on the shores of Lake Michigan. Her favorite class was titled “The Art of Living.” She felt the camp experience guided her for the rest of her life.

Margaret could not travel home from Washington for Christmas, and a framed photo of her was placed under the tree.  The family pony, sold when Margaret had left home, often ran away from his new home to return to the Downing’s, and Margaret, far away from home, said she understood how he felt.

During the summer of 1944 Margaret took Organic Chemistry at the University of Omaha so that she would have all the credits needed for a bachelor’s degree after her intended completion of nurses training in 1947.  In the fall of 1944, with all tuition and expenses covered, she joined the Cadet Nurse Corps as a student nurse at University Hospital in Omaha.  She was number one in her class after the first year.  Then she reassessed her pursuit of a college degree and decided to marry Kenneth Pierson.  At the time, women who married could not remain in nursing training.  She voiced her plans to leave to the program’s Director, who was dismayed and told her, “You are seeing too much of that young man, and frankly I don’t know how he has the time.  Go home and think about it and come back tomorrow.”   Margaret went home and packed and returned the next day to tell the Director the same thing.  Then she took a job at Union Pacific in Omaha.

Margaret and Kenneth were married June 16, 1946.  She continued working at Union Pacific until their first child, Susan, was born the next year on the day after Kenneth graduated from medical school.

Kenneth’s medical training took them to Temple, Texas; Ada, Oklahoma; Kearney, Nebraska (during which time Eric was born); and Detroit, Michigan (Kenneth had decided he wanted extra surgical training at Detroit Receiving Hospital).  In postwar Detroit housing was hard to find, but Margaret mentioned a lady she had met on the train trip to Detroit who owned a house but did not rent to people with children.  Kenneth said, “Call her,” and the lady rented part of her house to them.  After Kenneth’s surgical training, they prepared to leave Detroit.  They had been caring for a stray cat, and Margaret said, “I guess we won’t be able to take the cat.”  Kenneth replied, “We’ll see if he’s here when we leave.“  On his last trip to the car, their bird and fish already packed, Kenneth emerged with the cat whom he had hidden in the closet for safekeeping.   On the trip, a snow storm blocked the road, and they all spent a night in the car together.  Throughout his life Kenneth brought pets home, and his mother opined, “Margaret must really like animals; Kenneth was never that way.”  Margaret never corrected her mother-in-law.

They had liked living in Kearney.  They enjoyed attending music programs at Hastings College.  Kenneth’s parents and siblings were near, and Susan and Eric’s cousins were playmates.   However, several more medical offices had opened, and they decided to live in a different Nebraska town when they left Detroit.  The specific town was decided when Kenneth called Margaret and said, “I’ve rented office space in Neligh,” a town yet unseen by Margaret.  She went to Neligh to find a place to live.  Again, housing was scarce, and they rented part of a house (the owner lived in the other part) in March 1952.   Nancy was born in May 1952, in Tilden because the new hospital being built in Neligh was not yet open.  They later bought a two-bedroom house and added on two rooms and a bath.  The property had a very large backyard where many of the kids in the neighborhood played.

In 1955 Kenneth had purchased farm land, including a dairy farm, north of town.  He added angus cattle descended from a calf won in a 4H club drawing in 1932. They did not have to milk the cows themselves, but there were fences to fix, cows to count, expectant cows to monitor, newborn calves to find when their mothers hid them, and chasing cows who had gotten out.  Over the years they added farms in Nebraska and timberland in Minnesota, and enjoyed raising horses and more exotic animals such as bison, longhorns, and Scottish Highlanders.  Margaret had not planned to marry a farmer, but she would nonetheless come to believe that farm life had its merits.  It gave her “Kid” the colt/horse, llamas (her favorite large animal pets), and the view of wild turkeys from her living room windows.

The mid-50’s found the doctor draft calling.  The doctor draft was the military’s attempt to obtain a form of reimbursement for GI benefits paid for medical school to some servicemen.  Kenneth was not one of those beneficiaries.  When he had tried to enlist with a high school education, he had been designated 4F because of a childhood back injury.  He had worked and saved to pay for his own college and medical school.  After much delay and uncertainty, the draft notice came.   Karen was an infant.  In 1957, Kenneth had to close his Neligh medical practice, leave for basic training at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, and enter active duty in Paris, France, becoming a major in the Medical Corps.  Margaret followed with their four children.  (They would have preferred Omaha, where a single draftee they knew had been assigned).   Moving a family to France seemed daunting to Margaret, but her father-in-law, whose own mother had brought five young children by herself on a four-week ocean voyage from Sweden to Ellis Island, and on to Nebraska by train said, “You can do it, Margaret!”  And, she did.

Living in Paris was another example of an unplanned event in Margaret’s life that turned into a benefit:  a love of travel and adventure.  In Paris they lived, not on the Army base, but rather in a private rental house “on the economy,” immersing themselves in the culture.  They went to the opera.  They became friends with the neighbors.  Attempts were made to learn French.  A truck would arrive at the house and snake a large tube from the front door and down the stairs to “pump the w.c.” For two years, during every leave Kenneth had, they explored Europe in their station wagon.  Around the narrow streets of Chatou and Paris, they often opted for the smaller Volkswagon, tucking Karen into the storage area behind the back seat.  Flea markets, snail races, coal deliveries, long loaves of French bread fresh from the bakery, flood waters from the Seine rising into the backyard, and holes where toilets should be, come to mind…

In 1959 the family, the cars, and the dog all sailed back to the US on the SS United States.  By then Margaret and Kenneth had decided that if you want something from the Army, it’s best to  ask for something else.  So, they had applied for a modest transport home and, sure enough, were given a different and better option:  first class passage on the SS United States.  A serendipitously good picture exists of the family, in silhouette, viewing the Statue of Liberty from the ship’s deck as they sailed into New York.  The sight of the Mercedes dangling in the air as it was off-loaded onto the dock is unforgettable.  Likewise, was Margaret’s later glimpse of Eric and Kenneth waving from the back of a boat crossing the harbor.  Margaret was trying to follow them home to Nebraska (Kenneth driving the Mercedes, she the station wagon), but they had boarded a ferry without her.  It was just by chance she saw them sailing away.

Beyond a love of travel, the years spent in Europe had a lifelong influence on Margaret’s life.  She embraced new experiences and challenges.  Their home life was impacted.  Some of their pets were given French names; the family poodle whom they brought from France lived into the mid 1970’s; conversation was sprinkled with simple, everyday French; Kenneth’s office cars for decades included the Mercedes he had bought in Germany, and Volkswagen bugs of various colors; and the living room’s largest painting was a serene view of their French home along the Seine (masking the upheaval often felt by the family that had lived there from 1957 to 1959).

Back in Neligh, Margaret and Kenneth moved into their new home on their farm.  The house overlooked the Elkhorn River valley to the southeast.  At day’s end, Margaret would sometimes climb the hill west of the house and enjoy a second sunset (alone, as Kenneth only walked for farmwork or hunting).

Much of Margaret’s travel in the ensuing years emanated from Kenneth’s love of big game hunting.  In the mid 1950’s they took Susan and Eric on the Wyoming moose hunt that was made into a television movie to promote Wyoming tourism.   In 1965 the whole family, including the dog, took a six-week trip up the Alaska Highway in a camper to The Yukon and Alaska.  Margaret and the girls stayed with the indigenous guide’s family who lived on Teslin Lake, from which they caught, then dried and sold salmon.  Margaret learned from the guide’s wife to bead animal skin moccasins and mukluks.

Margaret accompanied Kenneth on safaris to Zambia, Kenya, South Africa, and Australia, and hunting trips to Austria and Slovenia with side trips to Greece, Egypt, New Zealand, Fiji, the Hawaiian Islands, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Sweden, and England.  The trip to Egypt and Greece was a surprise from Kenneth that Margaret learned of only when she found out their plane from Nairobi wasn’t headed to the United States.  A planned trip to China did not work out.

At the age of 90, Margaret happily toured Helsinki, Finland, and St. Petersburg, Russia, with Susan.

In addition to helping around the farm and office, Margaret found satisfaction in volunteering.  Her father had often quoted Longfellow to her:

“That is best which lieth nearest.  Make from that your work of art.”

And so underlies the inspiration and impetus for her service to her community.  She spearheaded:

1) The Antelope County Historical Society and Antelope County Museum: “In 1964, I, at Kenneth’s suggestion, drove around the county, getting someone from each township to go with me to the meeting of the county board to ask that the old jail building (the gymnasium of the former Gates College) not be torn down (as the board had already decided) but let us have a county Historical Society and use it for a county museum.  They agreed to our request.  It was after this meeting, that I asked Lois Johnson to go with me to Lincoln to talk to the Director of the State Historical Society about how to go about this.  I think our organization meeting was in 1964.  There was a lot of cleaning and painting to do. We just did the jail part (downstairs) for the November 1965 opening.  I wrote the first brochure.  It was the history of Gates College mainly with the picture of the building on the front.”

2) Neligh Mill becoming a State Historical Site and its Historical Marker, and the Antelope Historical Society hosting the annual meeting of the Nebraska Historical Society:  At Kenneth’s suggestion, Margaret called Mr. Kivett, the State Director of the Historical Society, at his home on a Saturday afternoon, about saving the mill by having the Nebraska Historical Society buy the Mill and it becoming a Nebraska Historical Site.  Neligh Mill was also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.   “I was on the museum committee and represented Neligh the year the mill was dedicated, I was working with State Director Mr. Kivett on plans for the dedication, and he asked if I thought we could have the state annual meeting the same day at Neligh.”

Margaret was captivated by history.  Genealogical research, encompassing courthouse records, libraries, cemeteries, letters, trips, and interviews, became an avocation.  A Downing ancestor who fought in the American Revolution was documented.   Christmas night 1776, Margaret’s ancestor, Henry Simmons of Hopewell, NJ, helped guide the American troops from the Delaware River crossing to the decisive battle in Trenton, New Jersey.  Future President of the United States James Monroe was among those troops that stormy night.  The American victory in the ensuing Battle of Trenton kept the Colonies’ struggle for independence alive.  In 2008 Margaret expressed to Granddaughter Kathleen Christatos that she would like to attend the annual reenactment of the battle but had no one to go with.  Kathleen said, “I’ll go with you, Grandma.”  Margaret, in turn, asked Kathleen where she would like to go (South Beach!).  Both trips happened, and Nancy went along.  From South Beach Margaret and Nancy took a day trip to Key West, the southernmost part of the Continental United States. Tiffany and Ben also went on the reenactment trip, driving everyone to Trenton and helping Margaret navigate the streets during the reenactment using her rollator walker.  On an earlier trip from New York to Nebraska, Margaret, Nancy, Tiffany, and baby Kathleen detoured south to explore the Hopewell, NJ area.  On a rainy day, the air teeming with tiny flying bugs, they found Simmon’s family tombstones and made grave rubbings of them.  This was just one of many of Margaret’s excursions to visit ancestry gravesites.  In Minnesota she found the burial site of her Civil War ancestor.

Three more notes about Margaret’s ancestry: 1) a branch of her family left the Colonies for Canada; 2) though she never traced her ancestry to the Downings of “Downing Street”, she enjoyed having a photograph of herself under the sign in London; and 3) having ancestors who were loyal to the Union and ancestors loyal to the Confederacy during the Civil War, increased her concern that American families may have been actively at war with each other.

3) Ponca Trail of Tears Marker: “I was chairman of the Committee for the Trail of Tears Marker dedication.  I didn’t know it then, but Nebraska had discontinued the Poncas as a Nebraska tribe.  After our mention of Standing Bear and the bridge to South Dakota with his name, the Ponca were reinstated as a Nebraska Tribe.  That’s a good outcome.”

Margaret cherishes her Native American heritage. She is a charter member of the National Museum of American Indians and attended its 2003 opening in Washington, DC.  Her great-grandmother was part American Winnebago (nee St. Cyr) and attended the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania.  St. Cyr’s white husband, Margaret’s great-grandfather, served in the Minnesota Regimen during the Civil War and was imprisoned by the Confederates.  When he suffered an early death related to his Civil War imprisonment, his wife Mary St. Cyr remarried, this time to a native.   They had a child, Etta, a half-sister to Margaret’s grandmother, Nelle.  Etta married a native, John Hunter, and their son, Jay Russell Hunter, founded the Mid-American Indian Center in Wichita, Kansas.  Margaret considers Jay, a native American, her most illustrious cousin.  He and his wife, Vera, both with university degrees, liked to pose, tongue-in-cheek, in the Black Hills holding a newspaper or magazine upside-down for tourists to photograph them.  Margaret’s grandmother Nelle married a white man, John Nunn, who became the guardian of a native American named Henry Cloud, a precocious student.  John Nunn sent Henry Cloud to Yale University.

4) Pierson Wildlife Museum and Learning Center:  As they collected wildlife trophies, Margaret and Kenneth allowed tours of their house and trophy room by school children.  They enjoyed the opportunity to enrich the children’s educations.  In a cherished thank you note, one boy wrote, “I saw animals I didn’t know was.” The trophies eventually overran the house, and Margaret and Kenneth began to search for an organization that would accept them as a donation, but not separate them or sell some.  A committee was established in Neligh in 2000 to accept their collection to be housed in Neligh.  After two years the Pierson Wildlife Museum and Learning Center was opened, and has continued to operate for over 20 years, thanks to the utmost dedication and hard work of the committee members.

Margaret was a member of The United Methodist Church, PEO, DAR, and the N’Ergetics.  In her youth, Margaret and her family were very active in the Presbyterian Church in Fullerton.  Her father had been on the building committee for the new church, completed in 1912.  Margaret and Kenneth were married in that church on the warmest June 16 on record.  After the building was demolished and replaced with a more accessible building, Kenneth bought some of the stained-glass windows, and, later, surprised Margaret with a mirror he had had etched with the church’s image.

Margaret is survived by Susan (Larry) Hoppel; Dr. Eric (Peg) Pierson, Ross Pierson, Diana Pierson (Trevor) and Otis Haskell, and Marie (Keri) King and Maybelle and Tully King; and Nancy (George) Christatos, Tiffany (Ben) Mills and Leah, Aaron, and Emily Mills, and Kathleen Christatos.  Her sister Elaine Francis and nieces and nephews also survive her.  She was preceded in death by husband Dr. Edwin Kenneth Pierson, Jr, daughter Karen Rathje, brother Lloyd, sister Elizabeth, and nephew Richard Francis.

The family suggests memorials to:

The Pierson Wildlife Museum and Learning Center 205 E. 5th St, POB 3, Neligh, NE 68756; and

The Antelope County Historical Society 410 L St, POB 416 Neligh, NE 68756.

Graveside services will be at Wyuka Cemetery in Lincoln at 11:00 A.M. on July 8, 2023.


  1. This was my beloved Aunt….. my gracious, unassuming, fun-loving, “Winnie the Pooh reading” Aunt. Little did I realize, comprehend, or appreciate all Aunt Margaret was quietly accomplishing as she organized and lead other community members in the preservation of important items of historical and cultural value. Her town (Neligh), the State of Nebr., and our Country have been forever enriched due to her efforts.
    As Winnie the Pooh said, “ You may be gone from my sight… but you are never gone from my heart!” ❤️❤️ Linda Snyder

    • Cousin, she spoke of reading Winnie-the Pooh to you (and us) in her very last days! She had great memories of you and appreciated that you always kept in contact

  2. Margaret was an untapped force of determination, when she set her mind on something. I was very fortunate to have known her at an early age and to have witnessed her achievements in Antelope Co and at the Museum. She was a gracious, intelligent, articulate lady.

  3. What an amazing woman. Nancy, I always remember her as being very kind and gentle when I visited your home.


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