Deacon Tom Weiss poses with a photo of Annette Blanchette and one of her buttons. A strong supporter of the Newman Center at UW-River Falls, Blanchette died two years ago. (Submitted photo)

Joe Winter
Special to the Catholic Herald

In River Falls, an elderly Catholic who died two years ago is still deeply missed by young and old alike.

A retiree from teaching and advising at UW-River Falls, she was known as the Story Lady, although her love of reading was only part of her multifaceted generosity.

She was likely the Newman Center’s most active volunteer, and it was to their mission that she donated many thousands of dollars.

Annette Blanchette was known throughout the city of River Falls, said Deacon Tom Weiss, who serves at St. Bridget and the UW-River Falls campus Newman Center.

“She did not drive, so she walked all through the city to any activity to read to children,” he said. “Every Easter, she wore a set of pink coveralls with a white bunny tail wherever she went. For Christmas, she delivered boxes of candy mints to everyone she knew. Annette loved reading and books, and gave them away all the time.”

Despite her limited budget, Blanchette would also buy hundreds of butterscotch candies and take the time to fashion the twist ties into either pigtails for gifts to girls, or something like a mohawk for gifts to boys.

The candies were given out to students at area schools, including those at St. Bridget Catholic School, River Falls, and also at nursing homes, where she was dressed up in a costume and always promoting reading.

As the always smiling Story Lady, she would also draw a beaming face on the candies with an ink pen, one by one, but much of her effort was in walking across the north end of the city to get from one volunteer role to the next, and making those Newman Center-related monetary donations, despite her meager means.

What came out at the time of her death is despite her comforting others, Blanchette never complained about the many painful medical problems she had, said Deacon Weiss.

She also wore and distributed a button — now found around the country and world — that said, “I’m No. 3,” with God being listed as No. 1 and family and friends as No. 2.

“My life is in order,” she would say.

Supporters of the effort to design and produce the button included Fr. Jerry Harris of St. Bridget, and members of St. Mary’s, Hammond.

“Wear this button proudly as you put God first in your life. Feel free to make more buttons and cards on your own; however, please keep the design and color the same. Buttons and cards are now in several states as well as foreign countries,” Blanchette wrote in an accompanying pamphlet.

The Newman Center was where Blanchette carried on much of her ministry and served on the board of directors.

The center was almost like a second home; even in those latter days, she was giving volunteers gas cards for driving her around when walking became difficult.

“She was very giving of herself,” said one of her colleagues there, Jean Conant.

Perhaps her biggest fan among many, Deacon Weiss worked for 30 years as director of general services at UW-Rirver Falls.

“I got to know just about everyone on campus, including Annette. When I started, she was working in the library, but after the College of Education restructured, she transferred over,” he said. That was in the early 1990s. She then became an adviser to elementary education students and retired several years later.

“Our previous chaplain left suddenly in 2002, and the diocese offered me the job as director of campus ministry,” Deacon Weiss said. He was ordained as a permanent deacon in 2003.

“During this time, Annette was an active participant at the Newman Center,” he said. “Fact is, she was our only regular contributor and a member of our Corporate Board.”

“Annette had a huge heart,” the deacon recalled.

In 2003, there were thefts from the sound system at the chapel, and Blanchette approached him and paid $10,000 for a replacement.

She never made a lot of money at the university, but she always shared her wealth, he said.

“A few years later, we were just chatting about the beautiful icon we have displayed in the back, and I noted that the stand upon which I wanted to place it ran about $1,000. She said, ‘Oh, I’ll pay for that!’ And she did.”

Blanchette was a promoter and supporter of the center, he added.

“Our previous bishop came to visit about seven years ago, and we had a dinner for him after our Sunday evening Mass. As he came up the stairs into the building, she grabbed him and talked to him for about 10 minutes about what a difference Newman made in our students’ lives,” Weiss said. “She believed in what she was and what we did.”

“My favorite contact with Annette was whenever I said, ‘Hello, and how are you?’” the deacon added.

“Her standard answer was ‘rude, obnoxious and incredibly mean.’ I would laugh and say, ‘so you are normal,’ and she would nod her head and laugh back at me,” he said. “She was, of course, none of those things.”