Photos courtesy of Veda Ponikvar and Lexi Walters Wright
PEARL HARBOR: “I JUST FELT I HAD TO SERVE”
Drake alumna Veda Ponikvar, 92, grew up in Chisholm, Minn. When she graduated from high school in 1937, she was offered a one-year scholarship to Drake. Ponikvar spent a year in Cleveland, Ohio, with her aunt and uncle before realizing she needed an education to be able to make a living. She came to Drake to use her scholarship and entered the School of Journalism.
Since Ponikvar was on the staffs of The Times-Delphic and the Quax Yearbook, she finished her first year at Drake and then received a full scholarship for all four years. Ponikvar did, however, want to work for her room and board, so as soon as she arrived at Drake, she asked the Dean of Women for a list of families who would hire her to work in their home. Ponikvar was hired by the first family on the list, the Vickerys. She stayed with the family and took care of their 5-year-old son, Jimmy, while also helping with cooking and cleaning.
On Dec. 7, 1941, Ponikvar had gone to the Quax office to work on the yearbook. The phone rang, and Mrs. Vickery was on the line:
“Veda, I need you to come home immediately,” Vickery said. “I will pick you up in five minutes.”
When Ponikvar arrived outside, Vickery was already there.
“When I got to the car I asked her what had happened,” Ponikvar said. “She bent over the driver’s wheel and started to cry like I had never heard anyone cry before. She said the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.
“From then on, it was unbelievable.”
When Ponikvar arrived at school on Monday the campus was deserted since hundreds of male students had enlisted in the service.
Ponikvar continued working with the Quax and The Times-Delphic, but it was less than two months later before she told President Morehouse that she had enlisted in the United States Navy. Ponikvar graduated from Drake in June 1942 and received her orders shortly after graduation.
“I just felt I had to serve,” she said.
Ponikvar reported to Washington D.C. in August for a training session for women who had come from different parts of the United States. She was assigned to an office of Naval Intelligence because she spoke Slovenian. She was in the service for four years.
After World War II was over, Ponikvar said the United States experienced an era of peace.
“Everybody was willing to work together and be together and make the United States the empire of the world,” she said.
Ponikvar went on to found the Chisholm Free Press where she worked as a writer, editor, publisher and Northeastern Minnesota opinion leader for nearly 50 years. At age 91, she has retired to a life of full-time community service and activism in Chisholm, serving on several boards and committees and as a civilian aid to the Secretary of the Army for Minnesota.
9/11: “IT WAS A REALLY MANIC TIME”
When Drake alumna Lexi Walters Wright, 30, learned of the 9/11 terrorist attacks nearly 10 years ago, she was in a panic. Her father had just accepted a job in the South Tower, and her brother had been scheduled to fly on one of the hijacked flights.
Wright was attending a print media editing class taught by journalism Professor Jill Van Wyke. Halfway through the class, Dean David Wright interrupted, saying “There has been a bomb in New York; all classes are cancelled for the morning.”
Lexi had grown up in Queens in the Tri-State area, where her family still lives.
Before leaving the classroom, Dean Wright pulled Lexi aside and told her she should contact her family.
“Shocked doesn’t begin to cover it,” Wright said. “Your animal brain kicks in and begins asking so many questions.”
She went directly to the nearest pay phone located in Meredith Hall to try to contact her family. Unfortunately, all the lines were down. She lived a couple blocks off campus on Cottage Grove, where she turned on the television right before the South Tower was hit. To Wright, it all felt surreal.
Several friends called Wright because they knew she had family living in New York. With no word from her family, Wright tried her best to keep the line open for that one phone call. The only contact she had with someone in New York was through the blog of one of her friends, who was in midtown Manhattan. Through descriptions of the panic on the street, Wright became more and more petrified. Five hours went by before hearing from her mother.
“It was a really manic time.”
At long last, Wright received an email from her mother, around 4 p.m.
“Thank God — your brother didn’t get on that flight,” Lexi’s mother said. “Your dad didn’t go to work today.”
Her family was safe.
“All of my suspicions were confirmed that things could have been really terrible,” Wright said. “But I was elated.”
For the next couple days, her professors showed live news broadcasts during their classes and offered discussion on the attacks.
“I got a lot of solace to watch with others,” Wright said.
Wright is thankful to this day that her dad and brother had not been in the places they anticipated on Sept. 11, 2001.
“I don’t know that I believe in fate, really, but I am so deeply thankful that the universe had different plans for my family that day,” Wright said.
Wright is currently living in Western Massachusetts working as a freelance editor. She is also finishing up her Master of Library and Information Science at Simmons College and will graduate in May. She is married and expecting her first baby on May 2.