Melba J. Hendee
June 24, 2020
Melba J. Hendee, a western Nebraska native and former longtime Sidney resident died June 16. She was 89.
Melba, who moved to Highlands Ranch, Colorado, nearly five years ago for dementia care, suffered complications from a fall nine days earlier.
Melba was the fifth of Jack and Matilda Nelson’s six children, and the last surviving grandchild of the founding settler of the pioneering Danish community southwest of Potter.
Born on the family’s Bar J Lazy V Ranch during a blizzard Nov. 19, 1930, she often said that the biggest news in the countryside that night was not her arrival, but fire destroying a neighbor’s house during the snowstorm.
Her immigrant father was the son of Julius and Sophie Nielsen, the first Danish homesteader in the area. They arrived in 1886. Her mother was the only child of Danish immigrants Andrew Andersen and Elsie Jensen.
Melba attended school in Dix until her parents semi-retired to Potter in 1944. She was one of 12 Potter High School graduates in 1948.
While attending Boyles Business College in Omaha during the 1948-49 session, she lived with her aunt Bina Hansen in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and worked at the Virginia Dare dress shop in downtown Omaha.
Melba received a teaching certificate after completing summer courses at Chadron State College in 1949. She was the lone teacher at the one-room District 15 school northeast of Potter for two terms from fall 1949 through spring 1951.
Melba married childhood friend and Korean War veteran Darold Hendee of Englewood, Colorado, on May 17, 1951, at First Lutheran Church in Potter. The evening ceremony was the first wedding in the remodeled sanctuary.
(Darold lived a few blocks up Potter’s Sheridan Street from Melba from 1939 to 1946. His father was superintendent of the village’s electrical plant until joining the Navy during World War II. Melba recalled with delight decades later of tormenting young Darold with teasing critiques of his sidewalk snow shoveling as she walked past his house to school. Melba’s dog, Zip, was a gift from Darold and she taught it to drink grape pop from a glass bottle. Darold’s family moved to Colorado after the war.)
Darold, a Marine Corps artilleryman, kept a color portrait of Melba tucked inside his parka during his Korean combat tour.
After a honeymoon visiting Darold’s relatives in his native southeast Nebraska, the newlyweds bought a small trailer for a home. They towed it to Seacliff Trailer Village in Oceanside, California, breaking down near Salt Lake City. Brake repairs set the newlyweds back $48.23.
Darold was based at Camp Pendleton and assigned to 1st Marine Division headquarters. The couple moved to an Oceanside apartment for married Marines at Sterling Housing after the birth of their first child, David. The Hendees moved to Denver after Darold’s military discharge later that year. Darold worked at Gates Rubber Co. during the day and attended Barnes School of Commerce at night. Their second son, Craig, was born in Denver in 1954.
The family moved to Alamosa, Colorado, in 1955, before settling in western Nebraska during the oil boom the next year. They briefly rented the second-floor of a house in Potter before buying a two-bedroom home in Sidney’s Sky Manor neighborhood. Their daughter, Susan, was born in 1957.
After Darold suffered a second bout with cancer, Melba enrolled in the licensed practical nurse program at Northeastern Junior College in Sterling, Colorado, in 1964. She made the 78-mile roundtrip drive daily for a year in the family’s 1962 Rambler station wagon. She graduated with the No. 1 academic record in her class. Melba worked as a nurse and the Sidney hospital’s Medicare utilization review coordinator from 1965 to 1975.
In the mid-1960s, Melba and Darold took flying lessons from her brother Leonard Nelson on the ranch where she was born and bought Leonard’s Cessna 120. Darold went on to earn his private pilot’s license. Melba was content with learning how to take off, fly and land an airplane solo.
Her children have vivid memories of innocent Sunday afternoons ice skating on the Lodgepole Creek lagoon in Sidney interrupted by their mother picking them up to accompany her to Alfred Hitchcock and Bette Davis-Joan Crawford thrillers at the Fox Theater.
Melba was an active member of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Sidney, teaching Sunday school and participating in a women’s circle. The family lived in two other homes in Sidney, one on 11th Avenue and another the couple built on King Street. Melba and Darold enjoyed traveling to state and national hospital conferences and golfing vacations to the Black Hills in South Dakota, an upgrade from the family of five’s single-tent camping trips to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks years earlier.
The couple moved to Scottsbluff when Darold resigned as administrator of the Sidney hospital to be business manager at Western Pathology Consultants in 1978.
In Scottsbluff, Melba was active in Bible Study Fellowship. She and Darold read the entire Bible to each other yearly, and sang along to cassette tapes of old hymns. Melba was a crossword puzzle and “Jeopardy” game show whiz and read World War II and Cold War historical fiction. She played the piano, gardened and sewed.
She enjoyed playing bridge and was saddened when the group fell apart as members moved away or died.
Melba delighted in hosting and visiting her four granddaughters — and introducing them to Tin Roof Sundaes at the Potter Sundry. She was a significant customer at the Bunny Shop in downtown Scottsbluff for her two elder granddaughters in the 1980s. Several of those outfits now hang in her great-granddaughters’ closets.
She was a shrewd card player and took no prisoners when playing Hearts with her grandchildren. Her children and grandchildren considered her homemade gravy to be world-class, not to mention her beef-and-noodle dinners and pies. She rarely encountered a recipe that couldn’t use a bit more sugar.
Melba drove white Buick Park Avenue sedans during the last decades of her life, nicknaming each, “Marshmallow.” A closet smoker most of her adulthood, she would be chagrined to read about it in the newspaper.
Melba and her siblings hosted a centennial reunion of descendants of their homesteading grandparents in 1986. The event drew relatives and friends to Potter from across the country. Melba and Darold visited her father’s birthplace in Kulby, Denmark, two years later. She celebrated her Danish heritage through food traditions, especially her mother’s recipe for æblekage, an apple dessert.
Darold died of pancreatic cancer in 1993.
Melba continued living in Scottsbluff until moving nearer to her daughter in Colorado in 2015. Sister-in-law Julie Hendee of Centennial, Colorado, was a frequent and engaging visitor, whisking Melba away from the care center for scenic park and mountain drives, hamburger and milk shake lunches, strolls through garden centers and peaceful visits to her church.
Melba settled into life at Brookdale Highlands Ranch with her characteristic kindness, good humor and appreciation of others. She referred to her caregivers as her students. The love and mutual respect was reciprocated by the parade of caregivers who stopped by during her last days to share stories about Melba.
Survivors include sons David (Polly) of Northfield, Minnesota, and Craig (Sheila) of Estes Park, Colorado; daughter Susan Hendee of Highlands Ranch; granddaughters Dana (Matthew) Bork of Saint Paul, Minnesota, Laura Hendee of Washington, D.C., Sarah Hendee of Englewood, Colorado, and Claire Hendee of Highlands Ranch; great-grandchildren Oscar, Ruby and June Bork of Saint Paul; and many beloved nieces and nephews.
A celebration of life will be held at a later date, with inurnment at the Potter Community Cemetery.
Memorials may be made to the Potter Historical Foundation, P.O. Box 323, Potter, NE 69156.