Nancy Davison Booth, a beloved mother, wife, teacher, grandmother and mother-in-law who could manage a classroom or a lake resort, drop those jobs in a second in order to make sugar cookies with her children, or give other parents a break by taking their kids on a tree-identifying craft journey into the woods, died the evening of Monday, July 5, 2021, surrounded by family. She was 86.
Nancy met the love of her life, William Booth, when they were both 13, and they spent a lifetime supporting each other as parents, travelers and hosts. Through more than 60 years of marriage, people came to Nancy and Bill’s home to be themselves, to find themselves, or to become themselves, growing under Nancy’s calm and nurturing touch.
After 18 years as a master teacher of young children at Laporte Elementary School, Nancy spent a lifetime hearing from her students that her classroom was their sanctuary. Everyone who met her who had not been her student told her they wish they had been.
Nancy first entertained a kiss from Bill Booth on her front porch in the ninth-grade, after a Muskegon junior high dance. She was forever charmed by Bill when he and his fraternity sang love songs under her balcony as she visited her sister sorority at the University of Michigan. Nancy accepted Bill’s “pin” in a ceremony, and then beamed as the brothers sang, “In my heart you’ll reign supreme throughout eternity.”
Nancy and Bill sang, played and listened to beautiful music together ever since, raising five children and helping to raise 10 grandchildren with enduring love and bottomless patience.
“Everyone else came first, in little things and in huge things,” as one of Nancy’s children said. “You showed me how to be a good person by your example, every day,” said another, words echoed by everyone who ever met Nancy.
Nancy Joyce Davison was born in Belding, Michigan, on Jan. 20, 1935, as her mother Edna Davison said, “a long wait” after her older sister Mary’s birth in 1929. Nancy’s grandmother, Inez, had a huge vegetable and flower garden, with a creek running at the back of the big yard. The grandchildren loved to swing on a rope over the creek.
Nancy attended Muskegon Community College, in their home town on the western shore of Lake Michigan, and then finished her teaching curriculum while graduating from Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. When Bill graduated from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, they immediately launched a lifetime of adventure on Bill’s Rotary fellowship to study in Bristol, England.
In England, Nancy typed Bill’s English literature papers on a manual Olivetti typewriter, taking breaks to cook thick British rashers of bacon, feeding a coke-fired heating stove and hauling in milk from kept over the windowsill to stay cold. Nancy and Bill took turns putting dents in a VW Beetle, navigating the narrow lanes of villages in Britain, Germany and France.
Nancy and Bill moved to California on return from European adventures, and decided that graduate school and very little money living in Berkeley were no reason not to have twins. Laura and Greg arrived in 1959. In those years, Nancy deftly juggled the constant arrival of both new children and new Santa Rosa Junior College students taking Bill’s classes, all of them looking for a kind place and a bite to eat.
What all of Nancy’s children and grandchildren say is that she made each and every one feel that they were the only thing that mattered. When Greg was home sick from school for a few days, but well enough to play outside in pajamas, Nancy bought a heavy rainbow balloon for him to enjoy in the yard. He promptly burst it on the nearest oak tree. Nancy immediately went and got another one. And maybe another? “At least in my memory, I thought Mom would just keep going to the market to buy a new balloon, indefinitely.”
And somehow, through juggling five children under the age of seven, Nancy kept thinking of other people who might be missing something. At a picnic lunch at a California park, with all those children in tow and food spread out on a blanket, a stranger walked off with Nancy’s purse. Mom, her kids asked, why would someone take all your money? “I don’t know,” Nancy said. “Maybe they need it more than we do.”
Nancy’s favorite necklace at that time said, “War is not healthy for children and other living things.”
Did we mention that she also played the piano, beautifully, and accompanied Bill on clarinet, Jean on flute, and performed double hand keyboards with Jan, and many others? To have talked with Nancy, sat down at her table for a meal, and then listened to her play Sinatra’s “In the Wee Small Hours,” and to have heard the loons calling through the window screen in the silence afterwards, that was good fortune.
”Bill and Nancy gave that love of ideas as a gift to their children, and those hours around the table remain some of the sweetest memories I have of the many lives of thought,” said one family friend, on their 40th wedding anniversary.
As if raising five children and supporting Bill were not enough, Nancy signed on to additional chaos in 1973, driving an overstuffed station wagon to move the brood from California to become owners, employees and hosts at a small family resort in Minnesota. The lakeshore was spectacular, and the name of their new venture signalled the sublime retreat Nancy and Bill had always provided for others: Cry of the Loon Lodge.
Their legendary creation was profiled in Minnesota’s top magazines, and for generations, the loons competed for air time with the screams and laughter of visiting children. Weeks were full of cleaning cabins, keeping the books, leading children on craft walks, and shepherding her own children through school. Nancy also found time to sponsor four Vietnamese brothers through Trinity Lutheran Church in Laporte, giving them bedrooms and helping them find jobs.
One of Nancy’s favorite lessons to her children, one daughter remembers, is to “Be kind, for you do not know the burden another carries.”
In her 40s, Nancy switched careers entirely, going back to school to get a Minnesota teaching license and becoming a second grade teacher at Laporte. As always, she dropped everything when needed, but also sometimes just because she wanted to. She volunteered to direct the Laporte High School musical, “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” when her son, Steve, played hapless Charlie.
During these years, Nancy also took in Bill’s sister, Nancy, to make her later years joyful, and her mother, Edna.
Nancy could host a tea party for one 8-year-old, or a wedding party for her daughter’s 100 guests, and look equally calm doing both. When grandchildren came, she was not just “there,” she was “right there,” moving her daughter and son-in-law and very first grandbaby into a cabin 100 feet away in order to help.
To her grandchildren in the next generation, Grandma Nan was simply “the best grandma.” If you spent more than one hour with Grandma Nan at any point in your life, you have a craft project to remember. Collecting a bucketful of pine cones from Cry of the Loon pine trees earned grandchildren an ice cream treat.
One of Nancy’s much-loved daughters-in-law noticed that in any family work or play time, Nancy quietly and firmly doled out tasks and responsibilities. A family-made quilt for a wedding? Nancy organized it, not to be bossy, but from her instinct as a teacher that everyone’s happier when they know they have an important role to play.
Without Grandma Nan, how would children know how to make chocolate chip cookies, banana bread or meatloaf? Nancy’s handwritten cards, going back through generations of family recipes featuring irresistible flavors and dubious health benefits, were presented to each new generation of young couples. Later in life, when Nancy helped her grown children host massive Thanksgiving weekends, they worked from a favorite corn pudding card annotated in mom’s best teacher handwriting: “Remember to add fresh red pepper along with the pimentos.”
If a Booth child knows how to play Crazy Eights, Kings in the Corner or Solitaire on a rainy afternoon, it’s because of Nancy.
While dealing cards to her grandchildren, Nancy also kept thinking of new generations of children in northern Minnesota. She was a co-founder and early organizer of the Laporte Education Endowment Fund, raising scholarship money for the first time for local high school students to continue their education.
When Nancy and Bill retired from the family resort business in 2012 and moved to another lakeside in Bemidji, she kept up with her multiplying grandchildren through travel and hosting watermelon-fueled picnics on a big lawn. People continued to visit Nancy and Bill for the calm, and the conversation, and the reassurance that out of busyness and turmoil can come satisfaction, accomplishment and joy. And kindness, always kindness.
Nancy is survived by Bill; their children Laura (Rick) Kempnich, Greg (Vickie Kettlewell), Steve (Kristi), Ann (Bryan) Osmonson, Michael (Pam Rotberg); and grandchildren Michael Kempnich (Annie Testin), William Kempnich, Erin and Jackson Booth, Amber and Erik Osmonson, and Maya, Madeline, Quinn and Hayden Booth.
Nancy’s mother, Edna, father Voigt, and sister, Mary Sery, passed away earlier.
The family suggests that any memorials in her honor be sent to the Laporte Education Endowment Fund, in care of the Northwest Minnesota Foundation, 201 Third Street NW, Bemidji, MN 56601.