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A Small Town Girl with a Remarkable Life

In April, I spoke at the Southeast Missouri Literary Guild meeting in Cape Girardeau, and during the question-and-answer period, an irrepressibly charming woman announced she was 94-years-old. Afterwards, she came to my table and informed me she wanted to buy copies of all my books—six in total. I definitely liked this woman. In fact, she bought five books, because I traded one of mine for her novel Gone.
 
That was my introduction to Sue Vogelsanger. After the meeting, the group treated me to pizza at a local restaurant, and I had the pleasure of sitting next to Sue and learning more about her remarkable life: newspaper reporter, author, and a friend of TV celebrity Carol Burnett and all the original NASA astronauts. 
 
How did this wife and mother of two sons, who grew up in Morley, Missouri (1940 population, 522), leave the farm and experience such a life? It is a long story, but I will share what I learned over pizza and in subsequent telephone conversations.
 
Sue was born in Cape Girardeau at Southeast Hospital (now, Mercy) in 1929. Her mother, a musician and schoolteacher, and her father, a pharmacist, divorced while Sue was still a young child. She and her mother moved 25 miles south to live with her mother’s parents in Morley.
 
Sue has fond memories of her life on a farm. She said, “I loved it. It prepares you for life.” She mentioned having a favorite apple tree to climb and being chased by a blue racer snake. Incidentally, her grandmother taught her how to distinguish between venomous and non-venomous snakes by bringing dead ones onto the back porch.
 
When she mentioned slopping hogs, she paused to ask if I was familiar with the term. I assured her that on the Montier farm of my youth, we had a “slop bucket” in the kitchen for table scraps, which would be mixed with water and “shorts,” a powdery byproduct of wheat milling, which the hogs slurped up with gusto.  
 
As we compared notes on our country school experiences, she recalled an instance when she talked in class without permission, and said, “I had to stand in front of the class with my nose in a circle drawn on the blackboard.” She played basketball in high school for the Morley Bears, and mentioned a proud moment when one her shots swished through the hoop just after her boyfriend from Sikeston arrived.
One event that is etched in her memory, however, is not a pleasant one. On January 25, 1942, while returning home after visiting relatives, her mother drove through traffic congestion in Sikeston, and they witnessed the cruel aftermath of a lynching. It forever instilled a hatred of prejudice in Sue.
 
Her father remarried and moved to Texas. His brother Frank Finney continued operations of the profitable Finney’s Drugstore, which he had owned with Sue’s father. Uncle Frank funded Sue’s college education at Lindenwood College (then, an all-girls school) in St. Charles, Missouri. 
 
Sue says she “didn’t know a hoot and holler about college.” She had never heard of declaring a major or minor course of study, until she heard other girls in the dormitory discussing it. When one of the girls asked about her choice, Sue, using information she had just heard, spontaneously said, “Drama major, with a psychology minor.” 
 
Drama majors had to present a 45-minute vocal thesis. Sue memorized an entire play about Anne Boleyn. Part of the script contained “damn,” and while she was rehearsing in her dorm room, which was next to the dean’s room, the dean came over and reprimanded her for swearing. Sue says, “Today, that’s nothing.” 
On May 19, 1951, Sue married Elbert Vogelsanger in Cape Girardeau. They honeymooned at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. While Elbert was at the registration desk, Sue watched the famous Peabody ducks swimming in the inside fountain.  
As Sue walked over to join Elbert, one duck, then a whole procession of ducks began following her, as other tourists watched. She became the impromptu leader of the “March of the Peabody Ducks.” She could not understand why the ducks were following her, and a hotel employee explained the ducks were following the rice, which folks at the wedding had tossed, that had fallen out of her hair. Apparently, Sue was not the first newlywed to experience this.
 
Elbert became employed for McDonnell Aircraft (now, Boeing) and had a successful career in the aerospace industry, including working on the NASA Mercury and Gemini space programs. During that time, he and Sue lived in Cocoa Beach, Florida, for seven years, where they knew the original seven NASA astronauts. 
 
After each successful space launch, the astronauts had a party. At one of the parties, Sue had an encounter on the dance floor with Alan Shepherd, who was the first American to travel into space and the fifth person, and the only one of the Mercury Seven astronauts, to walk on the Moon.
 
As Sue danced with her husband, when Shepherd got close, he would elbow her. After a couple times, Sue said, “Alan, if you do that again, you’re going to get it!” Alan said, ‘You can’t hit an astronaut.’ Well, he did it again, and I elbowed him in the ribs so hard that he said ‘Ouch! That hurt.’ But he quit pestering me.”
 
Once leaving a party, she saw astronaut John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, standing alone staring at the evening sky. Sue said, “John, do you wish you were back up there?” John said, “I sure do.” At another party, a man she did not recognize arrived, and she asked her husband who it was. Elbert said, “That’s a new guy, Neil Armstrong.” Of course, now we know he was the first man to walk on the Moon. 
Following their time in Florida, Elbert was transferred to work on another project, and they moved to California for thirteen years. While in California, Sue had several career developments. She taught herself to read braille and became a certified braille transcriber and began teaching children who were blind. Sue says it was the most rewarding job she ever had.
 
Later, she parlayed a job writing obituaries for the Valley Times newspaper in Pleasanton, California, to becoming a newspaper reporter, covering a variety of local stories. Sue still writes a monthly column for The Banner-Press newspaper in Marble Hill, Missouri. 
 
Perhaps, her most remarkable experience in California, had its beginning in Cocoa Beach. Sue had written a song about a fantasy trip taken by a bored housewife, but she did not know how to transcribe the melody into musical notation. 
 
She queried a local newspaper column about her music issue, and a musician contacted her and volunteered his assistance. Impressed with Sue’s composition, he suggested it would be perfect for The Carol Burnett Show. 
 
Recalling the musician’s advice, Sue got tickets, and at the beginning of the show, Carol came onstage and engaged the audience. Sue raised her hand and said she had written a song, and Carol invited her on stage. Flipping through the pages of the song, Carol said she would learn the song and maybe sing it on a future show.
 
A few weeks later, to Sue’s surprise, Carol telephoned and said Sue’s song would be used on an upcoming show and invited her and Elbert. The show aired on November, 24, 1969, with guests Lucille Ball and George Carlin, and featured Carol Burnett singing Sue’s song, as part of an elaborate song and dance number with men in tuxedo tailcoats. This show, Season 3, Episode 9, can be seen on YouTube. I watched and enjoyed it.
 
Sue says her life has been full of blessings. I once heard if you want to receive a blessing, you must prepare a place for it, and Sue has certainly done that. 
 
Despite a slight age difference, I was surprised how much I could relate to Sue. Perhaps, as Muppet master Jim Henson said: “There's not a word yet for old friends who've just met."
 
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