A master decorator during Christmas, Eleanor Moody Pettit dies of COVID-19 weeks before turning 100
A Cubs fan, the "flower lady," husbands, wives, and more are part of the more than 1,400 Iowans lost COVID-19 as of early October 2020. Des Moines Register
Christmas was Eleanor Moody Pettit’s favorite time of year.
Decorating — and there was a lot of decorating — started the day after Thanksgiving, said her daughter Sally Munson. The 40 or so people who had dined the night before knew the tradition well: In the morning, they’d be conscripted to bring down boxes from the attic and place them in front of Eleanor, who’d dole out marching orders to her Christmas elves.
“She took down the curtains,” Sally said. “She had different pictures for the walls. She wrapped the poles around the front of her house, so they looked like candy canes. My mother loved to decorate for Christmas.”
And that was just the inedible portion of the December celebration.
“She baked cookies, fudge, bread,” Sally said. “Our mother loved to bake. We had a big freezer in the one little room. And you would open the lid and the whole thing would be filled. We would sneak in there and eat frozen cookies.”
The old farmhouse looked and felt like a Christmas wonderland, Sally said, and her mom, a consummate host of parties and people, was their very own Mrs. Claus.
“People would come and have coffee and eat things and she could just laugh and tell stories," Sally said. "She was quite the lady.”
This year, the decorating, cooking and merrymaking happened without its matriarch.
Eleanor died of COVID-19 on Oct. 27 in the Quad Cities. She was just a few weeks shy of her 100th birthday.
Born in 1920, Eleanor skipped third grade by learning division during recess, Sally said. She was salutatorian at Cordova High School, graduating in 1937 at age 16.
Admitted to Iowa State University, Eleanor packed two dresses and one pair of shoes for the trip. When her dad dropped her off to live with a bunch of older women near campus, he gave her a box of canned fruit “so she didn’t get scurvy,” Sally said.
Eleanor faced loss early when her older brother, Robert, her best friend, died during World War II. A captain in the Pacific Theater, his plane was shot down over Japan.
At the time, Eleanor's first husband wanted to move to California for a fresh start, but she felt the need to stay and comfort her mother as she struggled with Robert’s death.
Her decision to remain in Iowa ended that first marriage. Left with five little kids, Eleanor shouldered a lot of stress, Sally said, but she “looked to the bright side of it.”
“She always could find something good in everything,” Sally said.
Eventually remarrying and adding two kids to her brood, Eleanor, an educator, taught at four schools over a 30-year career. In retirement, she was a substitute and a mainstay during the local library’s Storytime.
“She had hundreds of students and we would go to Walmart and people would come up behind us and they would wonder if she would remember them,” Sally said. “She would say, ‘I had you in the third grade. How can I remember you?’ But she would always say, ‘We had a good time, didn't we?’
“They would always say, ‘Yes, we did. Yes, we did.’”
Sally rarely saw her mother without a smile, she said. Even as coronavirus rattled her lungs, she was grinning.
“I sat with her that last day after she got sick,” Sally said. “She was struggling to breathe. She was still smiling even then.”
A farm girl who loved her roots, Eleanor had an unbreakable optimism. She was a devotee of the adage that the “glass was always half full.”
“I don’t remember my mother ever thinking about what coulda been, what shoulda been, what ought to have been,” Sally said.
She was just always “trying to find the best in people and in the world.”
This story is part of the Iowa Mourns series, a collection of remembrances about Iowans who lost their lives to COVID-19. If you've lost a loved one to COVID-19 in Iowa, let us know by filling out this form or emailing Iowa Columnist Courtney Crowder at email@example.com.
Iowans lost to COVID-19
The following are deaths from COVID-19 were added in the past week to our list of more than 400 Iowans who have died from the disease, found at DesMoinesRegister.com/IowaMourns.
Norma Breitbach, 93, Charles City. Spent hours traveling the state in search of the perfect crock or jar.
Nancy Brokaw, 89, Monticello. Held an Order of the Eastern Star membership for a half-century.
Rodger Christensen, 92, Union. Read to children as a volunteer at Union Library.
Dixie Deitchler, 90, Glenwood. Published poems and prose in Capper's Weekly.
Gary Lee Eschen, 69, Cedar Rapids. Enjoyed making bracelets and necklaces.
David "Doug" Hall Jr., 80, Cedar Rapids. A professor of art at Kirkwood Community College.
Ann Harris, 63, Cedar Rapids. Deeply passionate about preserving Iowa's history.
Gilbert Hewett, 85, Cedar Falls. A lifelong teacher at high schools, colleges and other educational organizations across Iowa.
Fred Hickman, 78, Evansdale. Achieved the rank of lance corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps.
Doris Hintz, 92, Urbandale. Made costumes for the Urbandale 4th of July parade.
Carl Hoffman, 84, Cedar Rapids. Sold his family insurance business after 13 years to pursue his boyhood dream of driving an "18-wheeler" across the country.
Margaret James, 81, Monticello. Always up to attend a Hawkeye tailgater or follow the Hawks to bowl games.
Gladys "Jeannie" Jones, 91, Eldridge. Hosted a WOC Radio talk show about business on Saturday mornings.
Arlene Duggan Maloney, 92, Cedar Rapids. Proud of her volunteer work at Whitwer Senior Center.
Betty Jean Meis, 89, Cedar Rapids. Worked at Collins Radio as a graphic artist.
Richard Meyer, 82, Davenport. Ran a wholesale grocery business.
Marilyn Schornack, 89, West Des Moines. Taught Sunday school, Bible school and sang in the choir at Windsor Heights Lutheran Church.
Edward Schultz, 73, Muscatine. A former detective and police officer for the Iowa City Police Department.
Larry Smalley, 87, Tripoli. Sang in the River City Barbershop Chorus in Mason City.
Elmer "Skip" Stoddard, 72, Sioux City. Known by friends to give the best hugs.
Ruth Ann Lass Van Meter, 90, DeWitt. Served as both choir director and organist for Grace Lutheran Church.
Steven Wright, 64, Solon. Elected mayor of Solon from 1980 to 1987 and retained the lifelong nickname "Mayor Steve."