Life Story / Obituary
Tamsen Otis Wilcox-Rainer Fitzgerald Vanderwier was an exceptionally giving person. Always putting the needs of others ahead of her own, she selflessly gave of her time and resources over the years. There is no doubt that her family was important to her as she enjoyed spending time with all of them pursuing fun activities. Although Tamsen will be deeply missed, her wonderful collection of memories will be shared for generations to come.
Born in 1929 as Doris Marie Otis, in Kalamazoo, Michigan to Ray and Vivian Otis, she and her twin brother, Robert were adopted by Robert and Helene Wilcox, due to the tragic loss of their birth mother shortly after delivery. When adopted, she was renamed Tamsen Helene. The twins were fortunate to find a couple to take them in together at the beginning of the depression. The family returned to Grand Rapids in 1934, where Robert Wilcox died on July 5, 1935, at his mother’s residence (which was later donated to the YMCA and is now the Domestic Crisis Center.) Later Helene married James Rainer, who adopted the twins when they were 14.
In her 20’s, Tamsen was reunited with her birth family, adding three siblings, Harold, Lorraine and Barbara to her family.
Growing up in Grand Rapids, Tamsen held a passion for horses and worked at the Aquinas College horse stables across the street from her home. Her father always said he didn’t understand how she could come home smelling like a stable, and when she came back downstairs from cleaning up she smelled so sweet and looked beautiful. She attended St. Thomas Catholic School through the eighth grade, and graduated with the Class of 1947, from Catholic Central with the highest GPA in the class. As a young student, she fell in love with writing poetry. Her natural talent of writing was a lifetime gift that opened many doors for her. She pursued a nursing degree through Blodgett Hospital School of Nursing and Grand Rapids Community College, where her teacher suggested she instead go on to be a physician. Instead, she married, which ended her opportunity for education due to the rules of the time. In 1949, she was the founding president of Epsilon Sigma Alpha Sorority in Grand Rapids. Ambitious as well as bright, Tamsen never let circumstance dim her passion for helping others.
Tamsen knew she would marry Gordon Fitzgerald on their first date as much as she could tell you he had brown hair. Her father was known to fly her back and forth to Bowling Green where Gordon was attending school. Never wanting Tamsen to be afraid, he was known to do a few barrel rolls in an open cockpit biplane before they landed, telling her he wanted her to know she could survive anything. After four years of dating, Gordon and Tamsen joined in marriage on February 10, 1951, at East Congregational Church. They flew to the Windy City of Chicago for their honeymoon taking in the city sights. Tamsen was blessed with four children; Steve, Kathy, Carol, and Betsy, and though their marriage ended in divorce, she always said she created four wonderful children and couldn’t have done it without Gordon, who remained a lifelong friend.
As a single mom in the 1960s, she faced challenges and met them head on. The day Betsy started kindergarten, Tamsen started selling World Book Encyclopedias to support her family, and won an international sales award. While others flew in from around the world, she earned a train ride to Chicago. She was employed at Michigan Bell Telephone Company, Bowman Associates Personnel Agency, American Girl Services, and from 1969 through 1992, at Amway Corporation, where she was the first female manager. She specialized in Public Relations, but also was responsible for local advertising, and was a corporate speechwriter, writing for Rich DeVos and Jay VanAndel, and acting as ghost writer for many books. Tamsen established the Community Relations program at Amway and took joy in working with many community agencies, including the Grand Rapids Public Museum during its initial efforts to build a new museum. She chaired the All-America City Committee of the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce in 1980-81, which won the award for the city (noted on the many signs around Grand Rapids) and chaired the committee from Amway which established a partnership with Sigsbee Park Elementary School in Grand Rapids. She retired from Amway in 1992 and founded TRV Public Relations in 1993. During her ‘retirement,’ she continued her committed relationship with Baxter Community Center and assisted In the Image and other community agencies with fundraising and other public relations services.
While at Amway, when celebrities or dignitaries visited, Tamsen often accompanied them, sharing her knowledge of Amway and Grand Rapids. She worked with celebrities such as Tom Landry, Paul Harvey, and Barbara Walters, who met her in New York City where Tamsen hosted a luncheon for Barbara. A few Miss America’s came to her home for dinner while in town. The children never knew who might show up.
Tamsen held a vast array of special interests. Known to love fishing, she once took a door screen and placed it into the stream behind her home landing nineteen salmon in one day! It was no surprise that each of her grandchildren were gifted a fishing pole by their second birthday. Tamsen was a nurturer of plants and people. She would find a delicious tomato and grow more by propagating their seeds. She received great pleasure tending to her flowers or harvesting her vegetables and sharing the bounty with others. An exceptional cook, she’d often use the harvest in her dishes featuring fresh foods. She loved watching and feeding birds. But, once while golfing, she had a mishap where her drive hit a goose in another fairway and killed it instantly. Another golfer gave her a feather as a keepsake.
Her quick wit and sense of humor often carried her through, and she was able to laugh at life’s irony. Her ability to forgive and never hold a grudge were traits for all to follow.
Tamsen learned about many subjects through voracious reading. Self-taught on many topics, she enjoyed reading National Geographic for many years, which she said took her around the world. Time magazine kept her up on politics, which could lead to fun discussions. In her last years, she finally settled in at Covenant Village of the Great Lakes, where she met many wonderful people, and enjoyed tending to her deck garden and feeding birds that came to visit. Well into her later years Tamsen kept her mind sharp by editing documents, articles, and newsletters.
Tamsen was briefly married to Don Vanderwier, and had a long special friendship with Lee Dennis Briggs of Niles, MI, who predeceased her. Although they never married, they travelled together, hosted many gatherings and enjoyed golfing and fishing.
Without question, Tamsen was a woman ahead of her time. Her fearless optimism, as well as her determination, helped her survive breast cancer twice as well as become a successful businesswoman. A genuine lover of all people, Tamsen touched countless lives during her extraordinary life. May all who knew and loved her be comforted in knowing they were blessed beyond measure and loved unconditionally while sharing her journey.
Tamsen Otis Wilcox-Rainer Fitzgerald Vanderwier, aged 89, born February 6, 1929, with her twin brother Robert Otis Wilcox-Rainer, to birth parents Vivian and Raymond Otis in Kalamazoo, Michigan, died January 10, 2019. Because their mother passed away after giving birth, the twins were adopted by Robert C. and Helene Minogue Wilcox of Kalamazoo, formerly of Grand Rapids. The family returned to Grand Rapids in 1934, where Robert Wilcox died on July 5, 1935, at his mother’s residence (which was later donated to the YMCA and is now the Domestic Crisis Center.) In 1937, Helene Wilcox married James E. Rainer, who later adopted the twins and raised them as his own. Her parents both pre-deceased Tamsen, as did her ex-husbands, Gordon Fitzgerald, who remained a lifelong friend and Don Vanderwier, special friend Lee Dennis Briggs, and granddaughter Jennifer Barker.
Tamsen is survived by her children and their families: Steven (Ruth) Fitzgerald of Atlantic Mine, MI, Leah & Alfred FitzGomez of Richmond, VA, and Christian Fitzgerald, Chassell, MI; Kathy and Robert Barker of Spruce Head, ME, Jessica & Joe O’Neil, Ada, Ml; Carol and Doug Robinson of Ada, MI, Andrew Robinson, AZ, Greg (Rachel) Robinson, TN, and Grace Robinson, Ada, MI; Betsy and Steve Carlson of Cascade, MI, Adam Carlson, Kentwood, MI and Anna Carlson, Longmont, CO, and 9 great-grandchildren, nieces and nephews. She is also survived by her twin brother Robert H Rainer of Venice, Florida.
Memorial contributions to Ada Congregational Church, St. Labre Indian School in Montana, https://bit.ly/2Ch4NpZ, In the Image, https://www.intheimage.org/donate, or Making Choices Michigan, https://makingchoicesmichigan.org/, would be appreciated.
Thank you to Covenant Village of the Great Lakes for providing a wonderful place to live for years in Independent Living, and recently in Assisted Living, Hospice of Holland, and to Making Choices Michigan for helping Tamsen put all her final desires in writing in advance so the children did not have to make any difficult decisions in the end.
Tamsen’s memorial service will be held at 11 am, January 14 at Ada Congregational Church, 6330 Ada Drive, with visitation, starting at 10 am. A luncheon will follow.