Grace McCleary Jorgenson

Honored by:Kristina Jorgenson Ahlrichs
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Grace McCleary Jorgenson Popejoy was born in 1899 in Jefferson County, Iowa, near Fairfield and was the oldest of six children. Her parents and grandparents were farmers.

“It was during the passage of the 19th Amendment of our Constitution that I became interested in Carrie Chapman Catt and the suffrage movement. Some people feared that women's participation in politics would lead to the end of family life. At that time I was teaching high school in Ollie Iowa in 1920 and I became excited about the thought of voting with women casting their very first vote in the national election," Grace said. "Then suddenly I realized that my birthday was not on election day November 5th but on the day following. Hence I was not old enough to vote and needed to wait another four years."

Grace's father took her to their voting precinct to register as a Republican but she soon turned Democrat and has remained so ever since. After graduating from Fairfield High School, Grace attended the two-year Parsons College in Fairfield. She later transferred to the University of Iowa and graduated in 1923 with a degree in home economics. Grace has remained interested in women's rights and has followed them through the years. "I strongly feel that if women would vote for women who were equally qualified for an office it would soon end the domination of men. However, I do not want the pendulum to swing so far that women dominate. No, just far enough that women are accepted as equal to men. In other words, women should use their power in voting. I am a graduate of the University of Iowa. I graduated in 1923 and in those days a woman was fortunate to be educated and we didn't have many choices," Grace said.

She began teaching home economics at Buena Vista College in Storm Lake, Iowa. There she met a history professor, Sigurd Jorgenson, a St. Olaf College (Northfield Minnesota) graduate who had grown up on a Minnesota farm. Sigurd and Grace were married in 1926 and moved to Fairfield where Sigurd taught history at Parsons College and the Jorgenson's three children, Harold, Kristina and Alf, were born. (Harold and Kristina graduated from Iowa State University and Alf from Lewis & Clark College Portland, Oregon. Kristina married James Ahlrich also an ISU graduate.)

With the Great Depression of 1929 and the hard times that hit, Sigurd lost his job at Parsons and became employed in the Fort Dodge Schools. Grace returned to teaching as principal of the Birmingham (Iowa) High School at a salary of $1300 for nine months of teaching. “I was first to get a job. To economize, we had removed our telephone. The school board president called through our neighbor at about 10 p.m. to ask if I would accept the job. Without hesitation I said yes then returned home and gave Sigurd the news. He said I should have told them 'Hell Yes!'" 'Hell' was a word that Sigurd never never used.

When World War II struck in 1941, Sigurd obtained employment in the Secret Service division of the government in San Antonio, Texas, searching the mails for objectionable material. After the war, the family moved to Washington D.C. where Sigurd was employed in the U.S. Army Map Service. Grace retired from teaching in 1964 in Washington. D.C. For her last year of teaching, she was paid $5000 for the nine months. In 1963, when Sigurd retired from employment, together with their son Harold they purchased the property next door to their home, a room and boarding house. The property housed a foster care program for mental health patients discharged from St. Elizabeth's Hospital (now the Commission on Mental Health Services - St. Elizabeth's Campus) in Washington D.C. There were two discharged patients in the home at the time of purchase. "We became most interested in the work; at times we wondered who should be in the foster home and who should be on the streets," Grace said.

Son Harold, who had a degree in geology and was hired by the navy to help in Saigon during the Vietnam war, was to have helped with the guest house after returning from eight months in Vietnam. He was killed on his third day home by a wrong-way driver, which was for Grace an extremely painful experience. Afterward as she and Sigurd sat on the sofa one day saying little, Grace finally said "Harold was to have helped us." Sigurd responded "Now it's dropped in our laps and we will do the best we can." They did and the program flourished.

The Jorgensons expanded to 12 residents in 1964 and eventually cared for more than 30 people at a time. For sixteen years, they provided special foster care through the Jorgenson Guest Houses. During those years, Grace also faced the death of husband Sigurd. She was now alone, the foster care program was changing, she didn't like what was happening and as she approached her 80th birthday in 1982, she decided to close the foster home.

She then married her teenage sweetheart, Virgil Popejoy, who as a widower wrote to her that they were friends in the early part of their lives; why couldn't they spend the rest of their lives together? In a wedding that was taped and televised nationally by The Fantastics television show, they were married. She and Virgil moved to Green Hills Retirement Community in Ames, and just nine years in their marriage, Virgil died in 1990.

Grace continues to live at Green Hills at age 95 and is writing her autobiography.