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Life Story / Obituary
Sally Mae VanOtteren (nee Wiersma), 92 of Grand Rapids, MI, passed away peacefully on October 16, 2022, while in the company of her family. She was born December 27, 1929, to the late William and Ada Mae Wiersma.
Sally, the most loving and devoted wife, mother, and grandmother, is preceded in death by her parents, her sister Marjorie VanAllsburg, as well as her precious daughter, Beth Anne. Sally is survived by her husband Gay VanOtteren; sons Robert (Cindy) VanOtteren, Bruce (Lili) VanOtteren, Craig (Vickie) VanOtteren, and Glenn (Kate) VanOtteren; and grandchildren Carali, Andrew, Ava, Natalie, Nathan, and Nina; as well as her twin brother Bill, and step-grandchildren, Meghan, Brandon, Stacey, and Steven, as well as many nieces and nephews.
Growing up on the northwest side of Grand Rapids, Sally attended Oakleigh elementary school. Her father worked as a furniture salesman and her mother stayed home to care for her older sister and twin brother. She and “Billy” were very close twin siblings, and the two made for a great partnership growing up as where Bill didn’t lack in his social skills, he was able to take benefit from Sally’s studious and nurturing tendencies. At Union High School, the pair participated in student government, with Bill serving as the class president and Sally as secretary. Sally graduated fifth in her class. Even though her future husband was in the same graduating class, their romance did not begin until a year later when Gay returned home from college for Christmas break, and he was encouraged to ask out Sally for their first date.
Consistent with her caring nature, Sally chose to pursue a career in nursing. She attended Blodgett Memorial Hospital nursing school where she met several classmates who became dear lifelong friends. She spoke often and fondly of her time together with this special group of ladies. In 1951, she graduated as valedictorian of her class and began working in the operating room at Blodgett Hospital.
Sally and Gay were married on August 8, 1952, and celebrated their 70th anniversary together this past year. Soon after marriage, Gay joined the Army and was briefly stationed at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. Sally began nursing work there at the 75-bed Army hospital. When Gay was subsequently assigned to Baltimore for counter-intelligence training, Sally continuously applied her nursing talents working at Johns Hopkins Hospital. The couple happily returned to their home city of Grand Rapids, and Sally resumed her nursing work in the intensive care unit of Blodgett Hospital.
Soon thereafter, the newlyweds began raising a family. Beth was born in 1954, Bob in 1955, Bruce in 1957, Craig in 1959 and Glenn in 1962. Her biggest heartbreak struck in May of 1956 when Beth was tragically killed at the young age of two in a local car accident.
In 1964, the young family moved to Kokomo, Indiana, where Gay had been offered a new position as an engineer at Chrysler Corporation. Sally worked diligently as a full-time mom for several years. Then, with the four boys now fully in school, she once again put her nursing services into action. For the remainder of their time living in Indiana, Sally served as the school nurse at the Bona Vista school for children with disabilities. In 1983, after all the children had graduated from high school, Sally and Gay decided to return to Grand Rapids where they maintained many close personal friends and virtually all their extended family. Sally continued to challenge herself and cultivated new skills working as a psychiatry nurse at Pine Rest Hospital until her full retirement in 1993.
Despite being the only woman among five males, Sally not only tolerated but loved the energy of her “boys,” even when it left the household looking rough. She welcomed the myriad of pets, including some wild animals and cats that seemed to accumulate. Sally’s home was not just a nurturing place for her children, but also a welcoming residence for all her children’s friends, and she made sure to show them all the love and care as if they were her own.
Sally loved the outdoors, and happily traveled with Gay and the boys on vast camping expeditions. Each summer while the kids were growing up, and with one of the distant corners of the country in sight, Sally and Gay would travel with the boys in tow to many of our national parks, wildernesses, and cities, having saved up their precious vacation time for these extended trips. Sally and Gay loved visiting friends and family, taking spontaneous weekend excursions, virtually always traveling with their children rather than stealing the time alone. Even when the kids were grown, Sally and Gay would invite the boys to take time from their respective pursuits around the country and invite them for family fellowship to a cottage or campground in their beloved northern Michigan.
Sally, in retirement and in older age, led a healthy lifestyle and maintained good health, with her and Gay’s thankfully long lives attributable to their strong faith, access to excellent local healthcare, and a family of children and grandchildren which kept them on the move. In her spare time Sally enjoyed knitting, needlepoint, bridge, antiquing, entertaining family and friends, and any activity to help her family. She enjoyed organizing class reunions and frequent nursing get-togethers.
Sally was Christian and leaned on her faith throughout her lifetime; she was an active member at Oakview Community Church for decades. Her principles were guiding, yet not overbearing, and were stemmed by her strong religious faith. With all friends, family and strangers, Sally was caring, generous, inclusive, kind, forgiving, and loving. In disagreements, she sought compromise and cooperation, and where needed, forgiveness and reconciliation. She was selfless, but with a strong sense of self. She was slow to anger and when disappointed she would express herself such that others would be compelled to resolve differences and make peace. She saw the good in all people and made the best of every situation.
Sally was a truly great woman. She was a beloved wife, mother, and grandmother. She will always have a most prominent place in the hearts of her family and friends. Her work, love, kindness and spirit will forever be an inspiration to all who knew her. In retrospect, thinking about all that she brought to this world, it is possible to believe her only weaknesses were chocolate and ice cream.
A memorial service to remember Sally’s life will be held on Friday, October 21, 2022, at 12 noon at Heritage Life Story Funeral Home (2120 Lake Michigan Drive NW, Grand Rapids, MI 49504). Friends are invited to visit with her family prior to the service beginning at 11:00 AM, and there will be a reception immediately following the memorial service.
In lieu of flowers, for those who wish, memorial contributions may be made in Sally’s memory to Oakview Community Church, The Leelanau Conservancy, or the Spectrum Health Foundation. To share a favorite memory of Sally and to sign her online guest book, please visit www.heritagelifestory.com.