Marge Higgins owes her eye-winking wit to a lifetime appreciation for language, and her nickname to a long association with a faith community that loves her fiercely.
The only daughter of a newspaper publisher who was also the town’s postmaster, “Grammy” has always understood the power of words. So, she chooses hers carefully, kindly and with an appealing sense of glee.
She lives across the street from Xavier High School on a street some dub “Higginscrest” because Higgins family members live in three of the houses on it. Over the years, her enthusiastic and unconditional support of Xavier students and their families has earned her an honored place among countless families.
Today, at 95-years old, she is an official and active grandma to 11, great-grandma to eight and “Grammy” to nearly an entire community.
“I don’t know how I earned (that nickname),” she says. “They started calling me that and it just spread.”
Equal parts poet and prankster, she once roamed New Zealand with her like-minded friends, Wisconsin Poet Laureate Ellen Kort, Rusty McKenzie, and Marge’s cousin Mary.
“We were going up this steep path and you could see an albatross and her little babies and it was just amazing,” she said. “We walked to the other side of the mountain and on the shore was a huge walrus just flopping. Then, this zoologist we were traveling with said, ‘Quick! Get behind the rocks over there!’ and out of the water came these penguins and they waddled past us with fish in their mouths and they went over to some tall grass. They were feeding these babies. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing. We also swam with the dolphins.”
To date, she has been to 26 countries, and has revisited some of them as many as seven times.
“I love to go places,” she said. “I love to travel. My dad was like that too. Every two years my dad and his brother would take a ship somewhere – they loved to travel by ship – and they’d be gone for quite a while. He really had an itchy foot.”
Then known as “Sis” by her family and everyone else in their hometown of Jasper, Indiana, Marge enjoyed an idyllic, busy childhood.
She spent summer afternoons working as a lifeguard and swim instructor at a community pool her father built to help one of her brothers recover from polio, and her mornings in the newsroom covering for vacationing reporters.
“I wrote obituaries and a teeny bit of sports, but they didn’t like the way I wrote sports. I wrote too flowery,” she said. “I wrote good obituaries though. I really enjoyed writing them. I always added personal stuff in them that others didn’t add. They were never boring.”
She met her husband Gene at Marquette University, where she studied journalism and happily shed the nickname “Sis”.
“I got my acceptance letter and it read, ‘Dear Marge’ and I was so thrilled that I didn’t have to be Sis anymore,” she said.
Eventually, the young couple settled in Appleton where they raised eight kids in a house that bustled with laughter and activity.
In the midst of all that happy chaos, Marge also hosted a weekly poetry club that included her travel buddies Ellen, Rusty, Laurel Mills and Helen Fahrbach.
Marge is still writing and making poetic observations.
“Every day I get to look out my window at that beautiful tree with the golden carpet around it,” she said as we chatted Monday afternoon and then, when her neighbor came out to do yard work, she said, “Oh no! He’s vacuuming up my golden carpet!”
She is also still traveling and seizing as much joy out of every day as she can.
It’s fun to watch Marge enter a room and to see the sea of smiles in her wake. This old world could use a few more Grammys, such uninhibited spreaders of joy, and I’m really glad to know ours.