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A legacy of laughter

Members of the Upsilon Chapter of Alpha Delta Kappa, left to right, back row, Gloria Murphy, Patsy Weaver and Debbie Ritzinger, pose Aug. 10 with Tom Stewart, seated, beside a bench dedicated to his mother, Jo Stewart, on Main Street in the Village of Solon Springs. A sign nearby touts The Laughing Club, which Jo Stewart founded. Maria Lockwood

A wooden bench along Main Street in the village of Solon Springs is a mute testament to a retired educator with a big laugh.

"In memory of Jo Stewart 'The Laughing Lady,'" reads the inscription on the back. "Love, ADK sisters."

Stewart brought her passion for laughing, writing and drama with her when she joined the Upsilon Chapter of Alpha Delta Kappa, an organization of women educators, in the mid-1980s.

"She was our secretary and she was a writer as well," said Debbie Ritzinger, who taught in Iron River and Solon Springs. "We just came to the meetings to listen to her minutes. They were very entertaining. It was like reading a novel."

Stewart taught English and was a drama coach at Northwestern High School. She was also a member of St. Croix Writers and founded the village of Solon Springs' Laughing Club in 2006.

"And she incorporated laughing in when we had our ADK meetings too," said Gloria Murphy of Iron River, a retired high school librarian. "We started our meetings with laughing. Put a smile on everybody's face."

The laughing lady passed away in 2014 at the age of 85, but Main Street bears her stamp. Small silver ornaments and a wooden cat shape with the word "Meow" on it were hung up in a nearby tree recently. Such mementoes began showing up immediately after Stewart's death, said her son Tom.

"This was full," he said. "It looked like a shoe tree."

He paused to touch the wooden cat.

"I guarantee you that's from my niece, because she called my mom 'grandma meow,'" Tom Stewart said.

His mother's novel, "Amber Knows Best," which was published after her death, can be purchased at The Gift House down the street.

The memorial bench sits beside a sign advertising The Laughing Group, which meets there every Thursday at 10 a.m.

"Those who laugh, last!" it reads.

"The ladies at the bank (across the street) say they still peek out here on Thursdays to see," Tom Stewart said. "Once in a while, there's somebody over here."

Although they have planted trees in memory of past members, Murphy said this is the first time Alpha Delta Kappa sisters have planted a bench. It was placed this spring, but sorority members waited until Aug. 10 to shine a spotlight on the new seat because of road work on Main Street.

Despite earlier rain, the gathering took place in sunshine. Stewart would have approved, they said.

"She would have been laughing harder if it would have been raining and we stood here with umbrellas," Ritzinger said. "That would have been really, really funny. But she brought the sun."

The Upsilon Chapter of Alpha Delta Kappa is actively seeking new members. Female educators from throughout the area — Solon Springs, Maple, Superior, South Shore, Minong, even Duluth — are invited to join.

The group hosts monthly meetings nine months of the year, inviting speakers to share topics of local interest, including history. They hold an annual Kids In Need of Duds (KIND) winter clothing drive for students in Superior and Douglas County and work at the Bayfield County fair to raise funds.

"And of course we go out to eat," Murphy said.

It's a chance to make new friends or re-unite with old ones, they said.

"Maybe one of them is a former teacher you might like," said Patsy Weaver, who taught for decades at Northwestern High School with Stewart.

Both current and retired educators are welcome to join. For more information, call Ritzinger at (715) 364-2539.