In August of 1999, the Ames Historical Society was given a suitcase and a paper sack of items found in an attic of a house in Ames. No one knew the story of how the suitcase came to be in the house or in the town.
The items in the suitcase were photographed and inventoried. Many articles carried the name Winifred Cooper or Winifred Cooper Abram. No records were found in Ames that revealed who the woman was. A grade school picture, a high school notebook, letters, and a check stub paying for a funeral in 1937 all pointed to Knoxville, Iowa as the place to start looking for information.
Research was undertaken in Knoxville, and included contacting the local funeral home, the town cemetery, the Marion County courthouse -- particularly the Registrar's office -- the Knoxville Public Library genealogy department, the school administration office, the local newspaper, and the VA hospital. Additional research was conducted outside of Knoxville, based on the evidence, and included the Story County Treasurer, Grinnell College, Ames High School, the Woodward Public Library, and the Woodward State Hospital School.
Many kinds of records were consulted, including those related to births and deaths, marriage, soldier's discharge, cemetery plots, property, Social Security, city directories, newspaper articles, Board of Education records, church and probate records.
Ultimately, it was determined that Winifred Cooper was from Knoxville, grew up and went to school there, had one sister, a mother who was at home, and a father who had a shoe and boot store with his brother. After finishing high school, Winifred studied and performed music for a time, playing the piano and organ.
When she was 35, Winifred married Evor Abram, a World War I veteran who worked as a salesman. They lived in Chicago. Approximately six years into their marriage, in the fall of 1937, Evor died of an infected appendix. Winifred's hopes and dreams of making a home for them, as evidenced by the many decorating books and recipes she had collected, died too. The couple had no children. It was the Great Depression, and Evor had been a clothing salesman. Times could not have been easy, and Winifred needed to work to support herself. Friends encouraged Winifred to stay in Chicago and to look for work at the new radio stations that were just opening. Instead, she spent a little time in Knoxville with her mother, and then took a job at the Woodward State School and Hospital as a music therapist. She worked there from January 1938 until her retirement in February of 1966 -- 28 years in all.
Copies of the school newsletter and a column in the local paper tell of musical programs and productions, and mention Winifred leading the group or playing the piano and organ. She also took groups of the residents to perform outside the community, most notably to perform for Governor Blue.
By the time of Winifred's retirement, most of her family was gone. Her parents and sister, as well as her husband, had died years before. Winifred moved to Grinnell where her brother-in-law lived, and died there in 1972. Her obituary describes the many letters from people describing how she had brightened and enriched their lives with her music and care.
Winifred rose from her personal grief to give the gift of music to special children and adults and the Woodward school. She helped the community at large gain a greater sense of the abilities and gifts of people who, in earlier days, were described as mentally retarded.
Among her possessions, in her own handwriting, is a piece of paper that says, all that we send into the life of others comes back into our own.
The Ames Historical Society is pleased that research by Cynthia Patter Bennet has uncovered Winifred's story, and welcomes any additional information others might have to contribute.