GLEN RIDGE, NJ — Family members and friends gathered to remember Lillian Ashenfelter at a memorial service Jan. 19, at the Glen Ridge Congregational Church. Ashenfelter died Dec. 11, at the age of 94.
She was recalled as a devoted mother, wife and Glen Ridge teacher, who had far greater influence on her family of four sons, and Glen Ridge children in general, than her illustrious husband, Horace, an Olympic gold medalist and premier distance runner. At no time during the morning’s recollections was there ever the slightest notion that she had lived in anyone’s shadow.
Her youngest son, John, said his mother was frugal and would cut her boys’ hair, saving up on the little things with the big things in mind.
“I didn’t get my first haircut in a real barber’s chair until I was a teenager,” he said.
His mother loved to tell stories and several were recalled.
One was how Horace had stumped a celebrity panel on the TV show, “To Tell the Truth.” No one believed he had won a gold medal at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics because he could not identify Sibelius, the composer of “Finlandia,” a composition identified with the country where Helsinki is the capital.
John said one time his mother dressed up as a man so that his father, a member of the U.S. Army Air Corps and fighter pilot, could covertly take her on an airplane ride.
He also said when his parents married, a technicality arose because his father did not have all the necessary papers. So the couple had to have published in the local newspaper a legal notice. It said, to the effect, that if anyone had reason to believe that they should not be married, to make their objection known.
If his mother were a young woman today, John said she would have done amazing things. But as a teacher she had an impact on borough children. She loved teaching and reading, playing golf, bridge and anything Penn State.
She taught 26 years at Glen Ridge Middle School. It was at Penn State where Horace began his track career.
Reflecting upon the last time he met with Ashenfelter, the Rev. Damien Lake said she was tired and worn.
“She didn’t know why she was still alive after ‘Nip’ had died,” he said.
‘Nip’ was Horace’s nickname.
Lake told her to remember the visits by her family.
“She warmed up,” he said. “She was lonely, but focused on her family.”
Ashenfelter had helped to create an after-school program at the church for disadvantaged children, Lake said.
Her son, James, offered correspondences from friends and acquaintances to create a remembrance.
One email told him that his mother was the best teacher the writer had ever had.
“She taught me hard work and some aptitude in the classroom will have an impact,” they wrote.
This person said his mother surprisingly chose them for an academic competition.
“I was proud that she had this confidence in me,” they wrote.
James said his parents had been married for 73 years and his father died in January 2018.
“My father had peace and quiet for 10 months,” he said to laughter. “They’re together again.”
He read from another letter. This one was from a high school friend of both of his parents. All had attended Collegeville-Trapp High School, in Collegeville, Pa.
“Your dad and mom were friends of mine,” James read.
The writer said he lived on the farm next to the farm where James’ mother lived. He sat across from her in the library, but knew that ‘Nip’ was interested in her.
“I was a frequent visitor to the farmhouse,” the writer said.
He was told, by James’ grandmother, that when he came visiting, to just open the front door, walk in and holler.
“This is a wonderful letter,” James said. “I felt like I was looking at a Norman Rockwell painting.”
Other family members who took part in the service were Andrew Ashenfelter, who read Psalm 23; Mark Ashenfelter, who read 1 Corinthians 13; and Mary Jo Ashenfelter, who sang. A reception in the Blue Room followed.