Mary Ellen Ralfs peacefully passed into God’s care on Monday, September 14, holding her daughter’s hand, after having suffered a stroke a few days prior. As Mary Ellen fought hard and had an iron will, we know the Lord told her it was time to come home to Him. She is survived by Donald Ralfs, her husband of more than 60 years; her sons, Scott and Mark (Carrie) Ralfs; and her daughter, Ann Marie (Greg) Armbruster. She is further survived by her five grandchildren, Matthew, Emma, Margot, Niels and Sander, who were the light of her life. As an only child, she was particularly close to her brother and sister-in-law, Jerry and Diane Ralfs, whom she regarded as her own siblings.
Mary Ellen was born to Allen and Olive Ringstad on May 21, 1938, in St. James, Minnesota, a small town populated largely by Norwegian immigrants including her grandparents, John (Johannes) and Mary (Mari) Ringstad. Although Mary Ellen was an only child, she was surrounded by a large extended family that proudly celebrated its Norwegian heritage. Mary Ellen continued this tradition by displaying her grandmother’s Norwegian steamer trunk at home and frequently patronizing Milwaukee’s “Sons of Norway” restaurant. A less popular celebration of her Norwegian heritage amongst her children was the serving of lutefisk, a gelatinous cod dish. Later in life, she and her husband were able to visit her family’s birthplace in Ringstad, Norway, meet Norwegian cousins, and finally see the fjords firsthand on a Norwegian cruise.
Naturally, Mary Ellen attended St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. A spot of disciplinary trouble that led her to take a semester off turned out to be fortuitous as it was then that she met her future husband, Don, when both were working the Alcoa Offices in Davenport, Iowa. They were married on November 7, 1959, in Davenport, and recently celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary with family at the Osthoff Resort. They welcomed their first child, Scott, two years later, and their son Mark and daughter Ann Marie followed.
After moves to Pittsburgh and Minneapolis, Don and Mary Ellen moved to Milwaukee in 1971 and settled in Milwaukee’s North Shore for the next 18 years. Along with raising her children, Mary Ellen was highly active in the Clovernook Garden Club, Fox Point Lutheran Church, and bridge groups during those years. She spent many years working part time at the Boston Store, where she had a talent and fondness for helping her customers find the right outfit.
In 1990, Mary Ellen and Don moved to Elm Grove, where they have resided ever since. They found a new church home in St. Matthew’s Wauwatosa church and were active members, with Mary Ellen frequently staffing the Welcome desk and organizing the new member brunch. Not a driver herself, she would jump through hoops to make it to Bible study when Don could not attend.
Mary Ellen loved the theater, having been a drama major at St. Olaf, and for many, many years was a season ticket holder at the Milwaukee Rep, as well as at the Sunset Playhouse. She traveled frequently to Chicago and New York to see various shows. She also loved other travels, visiting Europe many times to see her daughter’s family in the Netherlands, and exploring many other countries. Her favorite city was Venice, but she also loved antiquing in Paris and always managed to get her purchases safely home and through Customs. She also loved the people and culture of China, cruises, and many trips with the Wisconsin Club.
Although Mary Ellen’s interests waxed and waned over the years, her thoughtfulness, her love of her family, and her faith were constants. She was always one to send a card, find the perfect gift, welcome the new neighbors, and make special treats for the neighbor’s children. She shamelessly advocated and networked for her grandchildren – if you had a connection to them, you were in for a long conversation! We will miss her terribly but know the joy she must now be experiencing in us feeling the Lord’s presence and comfort in her passing.
Due to the current pandemic, a private family service will be held at this time. A large celebration of Mary Ellen’s life will be held in the future.
If desired, memorials to St. Matthew’s church in Wauwatosa would be appreciated. Otherwise, to honor Mary Ellen’s spirit, send a card, make a call, or extend an invitation to someone you think may be lonely, troubled, or suffering.