Polly was born Clara Elnora Walker on June 12, 1926 in Coldwater, Branch County, Michigan, daughter of John H. and Gretchen Walker. Her family roots extend far back in the area, with her great-grandparents, the Buttons, settling in the 1840s, and the Walker family in the 1860s. Polly’s grandfather, Arthur B. Walker, was a popular citizen of Coldwater, serving as mayor, founding the Coldwater Steam Laundry, and performing regularly in vaudeville and minstrel shows at Tibbits Opera House. Her grandmother, Nora Button Walker, was in great demand as a pianist and organist. John Walker followed his father in the laundry business, and in amateur theatrical productions. He was also a gifted cartoonist. Her mother Gretchen was a quiet, loving presence. Polly’s childhood in Coldwater was surrounded with friends and family. Her aunt Dorothy “Daws” (sister of her mother Gretchen, and married to Louis E. Legg of Legg Lumber) lived across from the family home at 33 Daugherty St., and her cousin “Ned” (Louis E. Legg Jr.) was a constant playmate. Polly’s brother Jack was born in 1933. As she wrote in a 1935 poem, “Jack is 2 and I am 9, but that don’t matter, because he’s mine.” There was always some fun being planned by the neighborhood kids. Polly was a good student, cheerful, and popular with her classmates.
Throughout her life, Coldwater remained central to her worldview.
Summers were spent at the Walker cottage on Sans Souci Beach at Coldwater Lake. Purchased by her grandfather in 1892, the simple cottage provided a carefree getaway and a place for friendships to develop. Long summer afternoons on the beach, roller-skating and dancing on the weekends – these were just a few of the pleasures. The cottage has remained in the family to this day. Polly’s last trip, on September 29, 2020, was to bid farewell to the cottage.
After graduating from high school in 1944, Polly earned a BA at Duke University. She was a member of Kappa Kappa Gamma. As an “all-A” student at Coldwater High School, Polly was initially crestfallen by the more modest grades she received at Duke. But she worked hard, and had the good fortune to have teachers like English professor William Blackburn (who was the teacher of author William Styron). Post-college she worked in Chicago for Carson Pirie Scott & Co. as an editor of the house newspaper, before returning to Coldwater to work as a local reporter for the Battle Creek Enquirer.
In 1953 she met Benjamin Schwendener Jr. of Union City, a recent graduate of the University of Michigan Law School. They were introduced by a family friend on a cottage porch at Sans Souci Beach. Following courtship, they were married in 1955, and began wedded life in Manitou Springs, Colorado, where Ben was stationed in the Army. The young couple shared a bungalow nestled in the mountains. Adventures included an ascent by mule up Pike’s Peak.
In 1957, after Ben left the Army and began practicing law in Lansing, Michigan, they moved to Okemos, at that time still a country village on the way to becoming a suburb of East Lansing. Together they raised three boys: Peter, Paul and Ben in their woodsy home on VanAtta Road. The boys recall special moments with their mom: such as riding a bike to Cottage Gardens and sitting under a tree while eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches; to being tucked into bed with Mom telling her original stories of Sam Squirrel who lived in their woods and frolicked with the boys. Like her mother before her, Polly was the anchor of the home: always there, always supportive, and almost always cheerful.
Polly later worked for Uniforce, helping people to find short-term employment. She was involved in many volunteer groups, and was a dedicated member of the Junior League, the Lansing Woman’s Club, the MSU Choral Union, the Great Books Club, and especially Saint Katherine’s Episcopal Church in Williamston. She followed in the vaudeville tradition of her father and grandfather, with memorable renditions of “Huckleberry Finn” and “Joan of Arc” at the Okemos Barn Theatre and the Junior League Follies. Her charitable activities were wide-ranging, and included Highfields, Tibbits Opera House, and Forster Woods Adult Day Center (a project of St Katherine’s.)
Husband Ben has said, “In her time Polly played many parts, and she performed all exceptionally well. Above all, she was a friend to the many in Coldwater, Lansing, and elsewhere who were fortunate to know her. During WWII she began writing to a girl her age in England. That friendship, like many others, became a lifelong affair. Her friendships were precious to her.”
After 93 years of exceptionally good health, age caught up with Polly, and the challenges of physical and mental frailty took their toll. Luckily Polly and Ben were able to stay in their VanAtta Road home as the pandemic descended, with the help of caregivers and frequent visits from the boys and their families. A bad fall in May, 2020, precipitated an irreversible decline, despite heroic efforts to bounce back. Polly died peacefully at home, surrounded by family, at age 94 on December 20.
Polly is survived by husband Ben, sons Peter (Chicago), Paul (New York), Ben (Boston) and their wives Joanne, Barbara, and Shari, grandchildren Elodi, Leon, Uli, Lily, Maddy and Blue, nieces Lori Finch, Mary, Susan, and Martha Schwendener, and nephews Arthur Walker and John Schwendener.
Contributions in Polly‘s memory can be made to: Forster Woods Adult Day Center, 4656 N. Meridian Rd., Williamston, MI 48895