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A 'wunnerful' uncle, 'wunnerful' home: Lawrence Welk's niece recalls happy days at the family home in Strasburg

FNS Photo by Jenna Watson Myra Collette, the niece of American entertainment icon Lawrence Welk, holds a portrait of Welk that she keeps on her refridgerator. Collette recalled meeting him for the first time just a young girl and what a positive influence he was. The State Historical Society is debating the purchase of Welk's childhood home in Strasburg, not only as a dedication to Welk's legacy, but to serve as a historical preservation of the agricultural area surrounding and culture of Germans from ...

STRASBURG -- Fern Welk was a nurse and a nutritionist and a ferocious protector of her husband's diet, but when he came home to Strasburg, Lawrence delighted in breaking the rules and sitting down to a plate of dumplings or noodles with real farmer's cream.

"He'd fill up on German food when he came to visit," said Myra Mattern Collette, 79, of Grand Forks, Lawrence Welk's niece. "Fern tried to keep him away from German food because it was so rich, so heavy. She was very protective."

But the bandleader loved the food he associated with home, Collette said, just as he loved North Dakota and the people, Germans from Russia, who had settled the region around Strasburg, including his own large extended family.

On his visits home, they ate the foods and walked the land and told stories of when they were young, and Myra, a schoolgirl, listened. On Sundays, she rode with Uncle Lawrence to church in Strasburg, and she delights today in telling how he once drove off the dirt road and into a deep ditch but muscled the car back onto the road.

The State Historical Society of North Dakota is considering buying Lawrence Welk's boyhood home and promoting it to tourists to honor him and his distinctive "champagne music."

For Collette, that would be -- to borrow her uncle's trademark phrase -- "wunnerful, wunnerful."

To broaden the appeal, given the passing or advanced age of so many of those who were most fond of Welk and his music, the site also could celebrate the culture of dry-land farming and the heritage of Germans from Russia who settled here, supporters say.

Some have voiced opposition to the state purchase, just as critics mocked and eventually overturned a 1992 plan by Congress to spend $500,000 to develop a Germans from Russia museum at the Welk homestead, which includes a barn, summer kitchen, granary and other structures.

The homestead was restored 20 years ago with private funds, including a substantial gift from Welk himself. Two of his elderly nieces have continued to give tours since, though visits have declined considerably in recent years.

The state historical society's board plans to meet in Bismarck on Friday and may decide then whether to spend money included for the purpose in the society's budget by the 2013 Legislature.

Two migrations

Collette's mother, Anna Mary Mattern, was one of Lawrence Welk's seven siblings. Like many contemporaries in and around Strasburg, she spoke only German.

In the 18th century, czarist Russia enticed large numbers of Germans to settle in regions the Russians hoped could be developed agriculturally. Immigrants were told they could maintain their language, religion and other aspects of their culture as well as be exempted from military service.

When those privileges were revoked in the late 19th century, a second great migration began. Many of those people found their way to the prairies of America, which resembled the steppes of Russia, farmland their families had worked and called home for more than a century.

That history, as well as the memory of Lawrence Welk, deserves to be preserved, Collette said.

"My first memories of Lawrence are from before he was famous," she said. "He was living in Chicago, and he would come to visit. That was a happy time."

Collette's daughter, Janine Collette Weber, 52, also got to spend time with Welk, whom she remembers as a warm, engaging man -- with family -- even after he achieved wide fame with his weekly television show.

"He was completely approachable with all us kids," she said.

Collette also remembers him as a generous man -- again, with family -- who helped many people, quietly and privately, and whose frequent refrain was a gentle "What do you need?"

Welk brought his band and crew to Strasburg for a concert once and gave the proceeds to the local Catholic order, the School Sisters of Notre Dame, to help sustain music education. In return, the sisters gave young Myra free piano lessons.

The lessons didn't take, though, she admitted. She quit after two years. Her excuse, she said, "was that Lawrence had sucked all the music ability out of Strasburg."

But she remembers plenty of music at family gatherings. Welk's brother, John, was accomplished on the accordion, clarinet and violin, and played often.

And Lawrence?

"He never did," she said. "When he was there, he was on vacation."

Ambassador Welk

Collette remembers joining the rest of the family in later years as they gathered around a television to watch the Saturday night TV show, with Lawrence settled in her mother's favorite chair and children seated on the floor between him and the set.

Once, when Myra's son Craig was about 3, "he kept looking back and forth, from Uncle Lawrence on the TV to Uncle Lawrence in grandma's chair, trying to figure it out," Collette said, laughing. "Lawrence really got a kick out of that."

In addition to being an accomplished showman, Lawrence Welk was an ambassador, she said. "Strasburg and North Dakota were always mentioned. Everybody knew he was from North Dakota, and proud of being from North Dakota," she said. "And that went all around the United States."

Since his death in 1992 at the age of 89, Lawrence Welk's music has enlivened Welk family reunions, held every four years at the farmstead and attended by scores of nieces and nephews and their families. Recordings of Lawrence on the accordion, ever bouncy and joyful, play from the barn loft as long tables set in the yard groan under the weight of German dumplings and noodles.

"We eat and dance," Collette said, "and eat and dance some more."

What would Uncle Lawrence say about the possibility of North Dakota buying the family home?

"I think he would say don't let it be just a tourist mill," she said. "But he would be pleased if it could be something of historical value."