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A Life: Lurline Tuttle, 1920-2013; ‘We Grew Up Seeing a Woman Do Men’s Jobs’

  • Lurline Soukup Tuttle and George Francis Tuttle, Jr., in their 1945 wedding photograph. (Family photograph)

    Lurline Soukup Tuttle and George Francis Tuttle, Jr., in their 1945 wedding photograph. (Family photograph)

  • Virginia Phippin, left, and Lurline Tuttle paddle on Crystal Lake in Enfield, N.H., in an undated photograph. (Family photograph)

    Virginia Phippin, left, and Lurline Tuttle paddle on Crystal Lake in Enfield, N.H., in an undated photograph. (Family photograph)

  • Lurline Soukup Tuttle and George Francis Tuttle, Jr., in their 1945 wedding photograph. (Family photograph)
  • Virginia Phippin, left, and Lurline Tuttle paddle on Crystal Lake in Enfield, N.H., in an undated photograph. (Family photograph)

Lebanon — During the dozen years Lurline Tuttle lived at the Harvest Hill retirement community, she maintained a low-key life of reading, watching television, creating intricate craft projects and enjoying near-daily visits with her daughter, Lebanon Mayor Georgia Tuttle.

There was no hint that the quiet, pleasant woman who returned to her native Maine each summer had packed a wealth of self-reliant activity into a life that stretched to nearly 93 years.

Lurline Tuttle, who died during September in her hometown of Southwest Harbor, Maine, was not only independent and accomplished, she passed those traits on to three daughters. A child of the Great Depression, she nursed her husband through a terminal disease, then raised her children while working as a school librarian, maintaining rental properties and taking college courses at night and during the summer.

“We grew up seeing a woman do men’s jobs and being told that we could do anything we wanted to if we worked hard,’’ said Georgia Tuttle, an Upper Valley dermatologist who has held her current political post since 2009. “She handled the stress well, but we all knew it was there. We never gave her trouble because we knew she couldn’t take it.”

Despite that strain, Georgia Tuttle recalls seeing her mother cry only once as a child. The woman came from rugged New England stock and wasn’t one to entertain self pity, much less wallow in it. What would her ancestors, the ones who helped settle the Maine coast during the 1700s, have made of that?

Lurline Frances Soukup was born on Nov. 14, 1920, in Northeast Harbor, a village in Mount Desert, Maine, which is one of four towns that make up the populated centers on Mount Desert Island. The land mass includes the tourist town of Bar Harbor as well as Acadia National Park. The eldest of three children, Soukup’s father was an electrician and a tailor and her maternal grandfather was a carpenter and paper hanger, so she grew up learning practical skills.

During Depression-era winters, she lined her worn shoes with cardboard and stuffed newspapers in her coat to take the worst chill out of the daily, mile-and-a-half walk to school. It was another four miles to basketball practice, and although there were sometimes car rides to be had, there were plenty of times when that journey was also undertaken on foot. She played on a 1937 Pemetic High School team that qualified for the state championship game.

Years later, when Georgia Tuttle and her sisters would spend summers at their mother’s childhood home, they would puzzle at the lack of closets. Each bedroom had only a few pegs on the wall, because the earlier occupants didn’t have more than a handful of garments.

“The Depression just permeated her entire existence,” Georgia Tuttle said. “Her family grew a lot of its own food and would exchange eggs for a doctor’s visit or pay for other things with food.

“She made a lot of our school clothes and whenever we got cranky about it, she’d tell us how my uncle had only one shirt, a white one, and how my grandmother would wash it every night so it would be clean for school.”

Soukup enrolled at what was then known as the Washington State Normal School, now the University of Maine at Machias, with the help of a scholarship from a local women’s club. She was honored as her class’ commencement speaker at its 1943 graduation, after handling a student-teaching assignment in a one-room school house with eight grades of children. Following graduation, she landed at a similarly rural post, this time teaching six grades in one room.

At the latter job, her contract paid her an annual salary of $900 and forbade her to smoke or marry. When the superintendent saw her in the company of her fiancee in Portland one day, he confronted her over the latter issue and Soukup resigned in 1946, soon marrying George Francis Tuttle, Jr. She had met him years before when he came to the island with the Civilian Conservation Corps and before he served in the Pacific theater during World War II.

George’s posts as a career U.S. Navy man bounced the young couple around the country before they settled in Virginia Beach in 1953. George climbed the ranks to become a Chief Warrant Officer, serving 22 years and working on classified assignments that included the handling of nuclear weapons. In 1960, what started as a numb toe in February turned into paralysis six months later and a tentative diagnosis of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, a progressive and fatal neurodegenerative affliction commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

Lurline Tuttle cared for her husband at home and with little help from the Navy. Before her husband became bedridden, she would seat him in a kitchen chair placed atop a small rug and slide him down the wood-floored halls of their house.

“First he had a brace on one leg and then he walked with a cane and then he was in a wheelchair,” Georgia Tuttle said. “I remember going to the store with him and I had to carry out a gallon of paint he bought, because he couldn’t lift it from the ground and over the running board to put it on the floorboards in the back seat.”

About 10 days before her father died, Georgia and her older sister Ellen were playing at different, nearby neighbor’s houses when an ambulance arrived to take their father to a hospital, where he was placed in an iron lung. Both girls stayed where they were and Georgia refused to even go outside and watch the scene.

“Neither of us wanted to admit we would never see him again,” she said. “They didn’t allow kids to visit in the hospital back then.”

Single, working mothers were somewhat rare at the time but Lurline Tuttle represented them in fine fashion. Needing a four-year college degree when she only had a three-year one, she attended night and summer school for 10 years, graduating from James Madison University the same week her oldest daughter, also named Lurline, graduated from Bayside High School.

The Tuttles had bought five houses along with their own when their neighborhood was first developed. Used as rental properties, they required constant upkeep and Lurline and her two older daughters would fix, paint, clean and maintain not just the houses, but also their yards.

As the local elementary school’s librarian, she established a club for children who returned all their books on time and held a party for them at the end of each academic year. Because students weren’t allowed to check out books until they could write their names, she was often the one who taught them how to do so, along with deciphering the mysteries of the Dewey Decimal System.

At night, Lurline typed and glued check-out pockets and cards into recently-purchased books, which were often stacked in the family’s home, allowing her daughters prized, early access to new titles. One year, each of her 600 students received a handmade, felt bookmark with the school’s name on it.

Helping the household function was Lurline’s mother, Elizabeth Soukup, who had lost an eye and hearing in an ear when struck by a thrown rock as a child. She also had a dental bridge replacing her front teeth and would occasionally entertain her granddaughters’ pals by simultaneously removing it and her glass eye.

“My friends thoughts Grammy was the Bionic Woman,” Georgia Tuttle said, wincing and chuckling at the memory.

Soukup helped with cleaning, ironing clothes and some cooking, while it wasn’t rare to find her daughter under the hood of one of the family’s two venerable and troublesome Packard automobiles. Georgia Tuttle and her sisters pitched in, not because they were told to, but because they could see the work being undertaken around them.

“My mother was a fun person and we became really good friends as we got older,” Georgia Tuttle said. “But that really came out later. She was so serious when we were kids, because she was under so much pressure.”

Despite the burden, Lurline found a way to pay for her daughters to attend Girl Scout camp, pottery and cooking schools and take horseback riding lessons, payoffs for her frugality and careful budgeting.

With her daughters out of the house and gaining steadily less enjoyment from an increasingly unruly and disrespectful student body, Lurline retired in 1973 and moved back to her childhood home in Maine. She put each of her daughters through college at the University of Maine at Orono and helped as best she could with tuition for their advanced degrees.

One summer, facing $5,000 in medical school bills, Georgia Tuttle, her mother and grandmother picked and sold enough blueberries and raspberries to pay $2,000 of that sum.

Although she suffered a heart attack in 1988 and struggled somewhat financially when medical insurance for military dependents was greatly reduced for a stretch during her retirement, Lurline Tuttle hid that burden from her daughters and once again made do with less. She was persuaded by them to move south to Lebanon in 2001 for the winters, where she settled in at Harvest Hill before returning to Maine once the ground thawed.

Georgia Tuttle laughingly described her mother as “having all her marbles” right to the end of her life, while making gorgeous quilts and teaching herself how to “quill” or curl small strips of paper into three-dimensional works of art. While her health worsened, her attitude never did.

“She looked at death in a very positive way, as part of the circle of life and she wasn’t afraid of it,” Georgia Tuttle said. “It made the process easier for us. I’m not sure I’ll be that noble.”

Although Georgia Tuttle, who was with her mother in Maine when she died on Sept. 11, shed tears in occasional bursts while remembering her life, she said the last years they spent together were wonderful.

“I loved my mother but I also really liked her and she provided to me and I think to lots of other people, a sort of a compass,” Georgia Tuttle said. “She could make me realize what was and wasn’t important.

“My nephew said in his eulogy of her that even when you were having fun with her, you were also learning something. That’s how our whole lives with her were.”

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com or 603-727-3227.