Sue Mielke

Behind The Scene

Sue (Isabelle) Mielke was the first to stand - and sing a solo (accompanied by her daughter Nancy) - at the All Church SingAlong in Lennep in June. That wasn’t so unusual for Sue. She generally sings a solo for Special Music at the Wesleyan Church at least every quarter.

What is a bit unusual for a soloist anywhere is to be 91 years old. While Sue “sat back and watched” and supported her daughters and husband Ed perform for decades. These days, she does solo work to the delight of her church congregation and friends.

Sue tries to suggest that she “doesn’t do much.” But, Mrs. Mielke seems busier and more focused than many people half her age. With her husband gone for two years, Sue is still active at her church, Senior Center, and Hospital Guild. She traveled recently to Glacier Park and a grandson’s wedding, and intends to go to a banjo event and visit family back east before the year is out. At the request of her daughters, Sue is writing her memoirs. The task is far from complete since her 40+ single-spaced, typed notebook pages take her life only up to 1976.

Isabelle Marie Miller Mielke was born October 29, 1916 in Chadwick, Illinois. She grew up on a farm and handled all the chores that a farm girl did in those days.

Isabelle graduated from Milton College in Wisconsin in 1938 with a major in French and a minor in English. She received a full scholarship for the first three years which amounted to $75 per semester. To renew her scholarship for her senior year, she was required to teach Spanish. Her senior thesis was on writers of Alsace-Lorraine.

Why French? “I took French in high school and liked my teacher. I was fascinated by languages. I had four years of French and two of Spanish in college.”

A highlight of her career at Milton was acting in the role of Mrs. Means in a play called “The Hoosier Schoolmaster.” To get into the role of the cranky, old woman who was always ordering people around, Isabelle walked the campus and went to class with an old corncob pipe in hand. She played the part so well, the audience hooted and hollered when she was taken off stage.

Isabelle got another scholarship to go to the University of Wisconsin to study for her Master’s in French. But, there was no place for French teachers when she graduated. So, Sue took jobs teaching in rural schools in Illinois. She taught all grades in rural schools (10 to 15 students) and was paid $80 per month.

“It wasn’t too bad teaching all grades, because I had gone to country school. The students were pretty well behaved. The big ones helped the little ones.”

But in all of her teaching career, Mrs. Mielke got to teach only one day of French. And that was as a substitute teacher at Harlowton High School much later in life.

In the thirties when Sue started her teaching career, a woman teacher lost her job if she married. And that presented a dilemma when she met Ed Mielke. “Ed was an ambitious young man. He helped his father on the farm, did wiring work, and was on the extra board for the railroad until he eventually got taken on as a machinist trainee by the Milwaukee. Ed could make engines work when no one else could.”

Well, she didn’t lose her job when she married. Sue and Ed eloped. They didn’t tell anyone until a couple months later after students noticed a wedding ring on her hand one school day. Isabelle Mielke continued to teach despite being married. Apparently, the school boards liked her teaching.

You’ve been wondering? Isabelle became Sue when her husband Ed decided, “Isabelle is too long to be saying all the time.” Daughter Nancy says, “She is Sweet Sue.”

Ed eventually got affulltime railroad job as a machinist. After being laid off, he found work in Harlowton in 1951. The Mielkes moved to Lewistown in 1953 and spent six months in Deer Lodge before returning to in Harlowton in 1957.

“Railroad people were just one big happy family. We were fortunate. When we came out to Montana from Illinois, we met people all along the line. Then when Ed became head of the Foreman’s Union, we traveled twice a year between Mobridge and Tacoma-Bellingham to meet with machinists and roundhouse workers. We did know more railroad people in those days than any others.”

Isabelle learned to play piano along with her daughters many years ago. She had missed out when a child. “I had wanted to play. But, we had no money in the 30s. The girls - Nancy and Elsie - started singing at age 3 and 4. Then, Nancy took to the piano when in kindergarten. She was a natural with the piano. But, neither of the girls had formal lessons until college.”

“Nancy found the old piano in the basement of the old State Theater where we lived for a while. We had to get a piano when we moved.” So, Sue learned to play by way of the Schaum Piano Books as she helped her daughters. She also taught piano to local children between '66 and '76.

Mrs. Mielke not only taught the girls piano, but also made all their clothes along with costumes for their musical performances. “The girls didn’t have store-bought clothes until they got to college.” She made and remade many of Ed’s work outfits.

All three Mielke women were valedictorians of their graduating high school classes. And all three have Master’s degrees.

Nancy graduated from Western Montana College in Dillon with a degree in Elementary Education and a Music minor. She taught for five years in Missoula before moving to Nevada and settling in Carson City. Nancy is recently retired from teaching music at the K-8 level. She now has private students coming for piano lessons at her home.

Elsie started out studying music at the University of Montana and finished her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at the University of Alberta. “She sang throughout high school. Elsie was known as The Voice in her Missoula days. These days, she teaches Voice and Performance at her home studio in Edmonton.”

Music was and continues to be a big part of the Mielke Family experience. Ed played guitar in a small dance orchestra in Illinois. “Before he retired, we got started going to Old Time Fiddlers events in Big Timber, Columbus, Billings, etc. Ed was playing guitar, but there were few banjo players. So, he took up the banjo and joined the Billings Banjo Band.”

“Then, I said, ‘What am I going to do while he is playing?’ So, I learned to chord on the banjo and then on the piano. We eventually got to open at many shows. Ed would tell a joke or a story. We found that opening was the best place on the bill. We got done and could watch the rest of the show.”

Ed wrote, “We didn’t need to be good.” Ed and Sue, the banjo players, traveled and played from Idaho to Wisconsin and Washington to California to perform and enjoy the other entertainers. Nancy often joined them on their travels and became a banjo player herself.

Sue says, “We were different. A husband and wife team. We made contact with the audiences. We did a couple songs and a story. We got on and we got off. We learned to always keep ‘em wanting more.”

“What we didn’t have in talent, we made up for in glitter. We always had colorful costumes, metallic fabrics, and special hats. And, we met the nicest people.”

The later years of the Mielkes’ lives saw them snowmobiling, canoeing, and trailering with their Airstream. But, they didn’t give up working for sure. Every week for many years after Ed’s retirement on July 4, 1976, Ed and Sue took the latest issue of the Times-Clarion up to Lewistown to have it printed. “We had to be there by 7 am and the papers were ready by 11:00."

Mrs. Mielke remembers a charge from her college French teacher which she has carried with for all her years, “No matter where you live, make that town a better place.”

Sue says, “We tried at least to help out a bit.” Surely more than a bit. Ed was the Airport Manager for many years. Sue has always been involved in  church work from many angles, the Girl Scouts, Library Board (she still volunteers at the Public Library), Hospital Guild and Election Board.

Isabelle’s family probably says it best.  Ed wrote many years ago, “My wife was always ready to come to the rescue.”

Nancy says, “Mom deserves to be ‘the star,’ after all she did for the rest of the family ‘behind the scene.’”