Obituary & Remembrances

Gus Friedrich

Remembering Rena


Rena was and is the most important person in my life. She was beautiful both externally and internally. I loved her and I admired her. She was a wonderful wife and a wonderful mother.  Most of all she was my equal partner in life and my best friend. While our roles in our marriage changed over time (for example, in Nebraska, Rena, Bruce, and I rotated cooking meals on a weekly basis; in Oklahoma, I did the laundry), we were always lovers, partners, and friends. We stayed together for 47+ years because we wanted to, not because we had to.

When Rena and I talked about our life together we referred to it as "Gus and Rena's great adventure." It began in 1959 when we met at a Concordia Junior College orientation session in St. Paul, Minnesota. Rena, who loved art from an early age, would have much preferred to be enrolling at the Minneapolis School of Art, but her parents wanted her to have a more practical education. I had just graduated from Concordia High School, which shared the campus with the Junior College. It was assumed by both my family and me that I would, as had my father and his brothers, become a minister.

When we met, we could not have been more different. Rena had graduated from one of the largest high schools in Minnesota. She was very social, had lots of boyfriends, knew popular culture, was a sharp dresser, and loved dancing. I had graduated from a small all male high school where I was a jock, had no prior romantic relationships, didn't know anything about popular culture or dancing, wasn't overly concerned about my appearance, and was not in the least socially oriented.

Rena was by far the most attractive woman at the orientation event and we did interact briefly. Our first impressions of each other weren't positive. My roommate that year was Bob Eifert; Rena's roommate was Tammy Ginkel. As luck would have it, they had been dating since high school.  The day after I first saw Rena, Dave invited me, and Tammy invited Rena, on a blind double date. Because of our negative first impressions, we felt no need to try to impress each other . . . and we had a wonderful time.

We ended up going "steady," as it was called then, in a matter of weeks. Over the next three years our relationship developed and survived multiple transitions. Rena left Concordia for the University of Minnesota the second year. I taught seventh grade in a Lutheran elementary school during the third. We got married on August 4th, 1962.

During our first two years of marriage, Rena worked as a secretary first in Hopkins and then downtown Minneapolis as I finished a B.A. degree at the University of Minnesota. Her co-workers kept asking Rena why I didn't drop out of school so that we could buy a car.

When I decided to go to graduate school at the University of Kansas rather than enter law school at the University of Minnesota, Rena went back to school as well. She started with a major in education but after one semester of that transferred to Fine Arts with a focus on printmaking. There she met the first of the four best girlfriends listed in her obituary, Anita Lee, in her art classes. In addition to these classes, she was very fond of her English classes. While at Kansas, she read and commented on my papers; I ground ink for her in the printmaking studios. We didn't have much money, but we had a wonderful time and lots of friends.

Four years later we left for Indiana and Purdue University where I started a job in the Department of Communication and we started a family. Our son Bruce (the apple of our eye) was born on August 7, 1969. He is our only child. We tell people, only somewhat factiously, that if you do it right the first time, you don't have to do it again. A little time later Rena went to work in Purdue's Office of Student Teaching. When a job opened up in Medical Illustration in the Vet School, she applied and was offered the job. She turned it down because it didn't pay as well as her current job. After talking about this decision over the weekend, she called Al Allen and asked if the job was still open. It was and Rena worked at Medical Illustration until we left Purdue for Nebraska in 1977. During the first week, as an initiation rite, Dave Williams brought a formaldehyde saturated dissected dog head to Rena's desk and asked her to draw it. Medical Illustration was a wonderful collection of interesting, talented, and idiosyncratic people . . . and Rena was doing art. She loved it. It was there that she met the second of her best girlfriends listed in the obituary, Maribeth Berg.

It was in Indiana that Rena's innate feminist beliefs took sharper focus. In 1972 she became editor of the Tippecanoe County NOW newsletter and developed regular features for it. She realized that there was a huge need for good graphics in the feminist movement and she designed countless logotypes, newsletters and state conference materials—everything from the visual interpretation of conference themes to posters and name badges—for state and local chapters of NOW. She also began her many-decades-long campaign to eliminate sexist language in society, writing to the editors of publications guilty of the practice. Her work as a visual artist also addressed the repercussions of sexist language in the home, at schools, and in the workplace.

Rena and I had a wonderful social life at Purdue. I was the first untenured assistant professor added to the department in many years and the graduate students adopted Rena and me, inviting us to their social gatherings. We reciprocated by hosting many parties as well. It was at one of these parties that Maribeth Berg met her husband, Jim Walsh. One of our favorite possessions from these years is a church pew given to us by the Purdue graduate students that sits inside our front door.  The brass inscription on the back reads "To Gus and Rena from their Congregation."

In 1977 I was offered a position as chair of the department at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.  Rena believed it offered her better opportunities to be part of an art community and, while she didn't like leaving Medical Illustration, was pleased to be going to Lincoln. Once there, she joined Brewster Advertising as their Art Director, where the third girlfriend listed in her obituary, Liz Nelson, was working. While at a conference in Kansas City, upon hearing of additional turmoil in the agency, Rena and Liz decided to resign from Brewster Advertising and form their own agency, E & E (for Erena and Elizabeth) Communication Design. It was housed in the basement of our home. Rena and Liz were a formidable team (Liz doing the selling and Rena the art) and the list of clients kept growing stronger.

Rena was born in 1941 and named Erena Rae Bakeberg. Erena is a name she shared with her mother and grandmother. When we married in 1962, she took my name, as was the custom, and became Erena Rae Friedrich. In Nebraska, as a result of her feminist beliefs, she legally changed her name to Erena Rae. When doing so, the judge asked our son Bruce, who was nine at the time, if he objected.

In 1982 I was offered a position as chair at the University of Oklahoma. I asked Rena what she thought. She said, "if you want to go, fine; I'm staying here." I was able to get her to visit Oklahoma, though, and, after meeting the people there, she agreed that we should move. It was in Oklahoma that Rena met Ellen Jonsson, the fourth, and final, girlfriend listed in her obituary.

E & E Communication Design continued with Liz heading the north branch and Rena the south branch. Rena didn't want to manage people, so she became a one-person firm. She built an impressive client list in the larger Oklahoma City area, including state government agencies. Logos she created continue to be used today by the Oklahoma Arts Council and the marching band of the University of Oklahoma.  It was during these years that Rena served as the Art Director of Calligraphy Review, the international journal focused on calligraphy.

While in Oklahoma, Rena and I did lots of traveling. Several times a year we would travel to DC where we would stay in the OU apartment on Dupont Circle. I would do some teaching, and Rena and I would explore the art, food, and sites of DC. We spent time visiting our son in London, where he was studying at the London School of Economics, and also visiting Germany. The highlight of our travels, though, was part of a sabbatical that involved a month for both of us in Paris. We rented an apartment there and Rena's high school French got us through.

In 1998, I was offered my current position at Rutgers. Rena and I were equally excited about this move. For Rena, it meant greater access to the art community. Especially important for her were relationships with the Rutgers Center for Innovative Print and Paper and the Printmaking Council of New Jersey. Rena retired from commercial art and went back to her roots in fine arts. You see some of the results in this room and you will see slides of more in Winants Hall when you join us for the reception. Other than the last two weeks, our time in New Jersey has been among the happiest of our lives. It's hard to visualize a more perfect life than living in Highland Park (a walkable community that is close to a train station that can get you quickly to NYC, Boston, DC, and Philly).

I've told you a little of Rena's and my relationship. I also want to share a little of Rena's relationship with others by reading from several letters. The first two are from our nieces.

Shelly Rohe, daughter of my sister Mary and her Husband Chuck:

"I have no other way to say goodbye.  God how I wish I could've spent more time with you.  The freedom that you embrace has inspired me throughout my life.  So many times I have asked myself "what would Rena do?"  I remember as a little girl, I must have been about 8, when you and Gus came to visit.  I was showing off in the front yard, doing cartwheels and jumping off of my dad's saw horses.  Instead of brushing me off as a little kid trying to get attention, you talked to me.  You gave me that attention I was seeking without making me feel embarrassed.  You wanted to know about my interests.  God, you just talked to me.  I have never forgotten that.  And even though I felt self-conscious around you sometimes when I was growing up, I never lost that awe I feel for you.  You are such an amazing woman.  I am thankful that I call you aunt.  I am so sad to say goodbye. I love you.  I just really love you."


The second niece is Jonna Stark, daughter of my sister Muriel and her husband Gene:

"Rena: what a vibrant and beautiful woman she is.  I just hope she knew how much of a positive and inspirational impact she had on me and everyone around her.  I wish I could have told her that.  I grew up seeing this cool, intelligent, AND beautiful woman who was not only happily married, but also a great mother, and ALSO never gave up her passions for her artwork.  She remained true to herself, and that is something that I have always really admired about Rena. 

I had decided a long time ago that I would not change my name when/if I ever got married.  I know that having Rena as an aunt, who never compromised who she was as an individual, was a big part of my influence in this decision.  I remember when I was a lot younger having discussions with her as to why she never changed her last name.  She really impressed me with her passion and her thoughtfulness on all matters of her life.

Another story that always stuck with me is when Rena would bring her video camera to family get-togethers.  Although most adults would not let a child touch their video camera with a ten-foot pole, Rena would always let Jolene, Rachon, and myself take the camera and make "movies."  She loved that we wanted to be so creative with the camera, and she encouraged it and even gave us ideas.  Although this is just a small story, it is one example of many of when I was amazed by Rena's thoughtfulness and giving nature, and was impressed by how much she cared about everything she was involved in."


In addition to the two cousins, I want to share messages from two Rena's acquaintances.

First, from Jan Eliot, the cartoonist who created Stone Soup:

"I just have to say that, when I was a very new cartoonist, isolated in my studio wondering if anyone really liked what I was doing, and 12 year old boys were spamming my website with "this strip sucks, Foxtrot rules" day and night, out of the ether came the most wonderful letter from Rena. A sweet woman who was also an artist, had a strikingly similar background to me... living in Norman, Oklahoma and finding my strip online. Her letters of appreciation and encouragement were so welcome, so helpful, so warm... It meant the most to me because she is an accomplished artist, and therefore her compliments were from one who really "knows".

Anyway, I was inspired to name a character after her and you know the rest. How lucky I am to have actually met all of you (Bruce, well, your mom has shared stories and I saw you on Fox:-) so I almost feel we've met)."

The second friend is Betsy Swart, a social activist who organized a trip to Northern Ireland that Rena went on:

"I let Bernadette Devlin and all Rena's friends in Ireland know that she was ill. They expressed a desire to plant a tree in her name in Derry, where she stayed with artists and activists and where they remember her so fondly.  So, in that city where they need peace, greenness and art so badly, a beautiful tree will grow and thrive in her memory."