Olive Bernadine 'Teresa' Puetz: Earned her college degree at age 73
For more than two decades, if you happened to visit St. Mary’s Health Center on Clayton Road, you probably heard Olive Puetz’s voice. It was, her daughter, Jeannette Puetz said, the voice doctors called “the nice one.”
“When she paged the doctors, she did so in a lovely voice, even for a ‘Code Blue,” said Jeannette, referring to the medical shorthand for a life-threatening emergency.
From 1973 to 1998, Mrs. Puetz was one of four operators deftly routing the hospital’s high-volume incoming calls and constant announcements on a PBX (private branch exchange) system.
For 16 of those 25 years, Mrs. Puetz was also a student at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, taking one course at a time at night until she received her degree at the age of 73.
Mrs. Puetz died of cardiac arrest at Barnes-Jewish Hospital on Thursday (May 3, 2012). She was 90 and had lived in the Maplewood home her maternal grandfather designed and built in 1922.
Try and try
After “Ollie” Smith graduated from Maplewood High School in 1938, she went to work as a bookkeeper and began community college part-time.
On June 18, 1944, she married Edward Puetz, the young man she’d met at a Casa Loma Ballroom dance. Ed went to work as a tool and die operator for McDonnell-Douglas and she settled in as a mother and homemaker. When her youngest child entered school, Mrs. Puetz returned to work as a receptionist and switchboard operator, soon becoming known as “The Voice” at St. Mary’s Hospital.
“She was very intelligent and had a very pleasant voice,” said Alpha Tune, who supervised Mrs. Puetz at St. Mary’s. “She was a lovely lady who enjoyed her work and we enjoyed working with her.”
She loved her work, but she longed to complete college. So, a few years after returning to work, she returned to school at age 57 (around the time she bought her first car, a Sierra gold, two-door Buick Regal with the license plate “Try-Try”). Sixteen years later, she received a Bachelor’s Degree in General Studies from UMSL.
At her graduation, she told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that she wasn’t looking to parlay her degree into a new career. It had simply always been her goal.
"Going back to school gives you self-confidence," she told the Post, "and you know your brain is still working."
Her brain worked well enough for the university to name her secretary of the National Honor Society and she was twice named to "Who's Who Among American College Students.”
Mrs. Puetz credited her five children, all of whom have college degrees, with encouraging her continued education, a decision they would later joke caused them some work.
“She would have us type her term papers,” Jeannette said. “ She never typed our papers.”
She took courses in everything that commanded her interest, including math, anthropology, women’s issues and world cultures. The latter proved helpful during international trips, which, as a Depression-era child, she never expected to take. Daughter Jeannette’s career with Delta Airlines made much of the travel possible.
“Her motto became ‘have toothbrush, will travel,” Jeannette said.
The hill climber
In 1994, Mrs. Puetz graduated from college, celebrated her 50th wedding anniversary and was diagnosed with breast cancer.
While still recovering, she and her husband, a veteran of World War II, visited Germany. She insisted upon climbing the hill to the Kehlsteinhaus, known as the Eagle’s Nest, a retreat built for Adolph Hitler. By chance, Mass was being offered in the brutal dictator’s former lair.
“God was waiting for me,” daughter Jeannette recalled her saying.
Olive Bernadine Puetz, who chose “Teresa” as her confirmation name, was born May 25, 1921, in St. Louis. She was the older of Michael B. and Clara Jenneman Smith’s two daughters. Her father was a plumber; her mother a piano teacher who became a beautician during the Depression when few people could afford luxuries.
Her entire life, she reveled in simple things: the Cardinals, ice cream, parades, the New York Times crossword puzzle, an occasional Mass at “the fancy church,” the Cathedral Basilica of St.Louis, and giving blood.
Mrs. Puetz, whose pallbearers will include her granddaughters, was preceded in death by her parents and her husband.
In addition to her daughter, Jeannette Puetz of St. Louis, Mrs. Puetz is survived by four other children, Gerald "Gary" Puetz and David Puetz of St. Louis, James (Linda) Puetz of Overland Park, Kans., and Joanne (Gary) Anderson of Brookings, S.D. She is also survived by her sister, Rita L. Redick, of Seattle, Wash.; six grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
A funeral Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. on Monday (May 7,) at Immaculate Conception-Maplewood, 2934 Marshall Avenue, Maplewood, Mo. 63143. Interment will be in Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery.
The family would appreciate contributions in Mrs. Puetz’s name to organizations doing Alzheimer’s research.