By Jennifer Kotila
COKATO, MN Rita (Wandersee) Hayek, a 1969 graduate of Cokato High School, recently retired after 30 years of teaching.
For the last 24 years of her career, she taught high school English in the diverse community of Pelican Rapids.
This year, Hayek presented the first Maria Battaglia First Generation Scholarship to a graduate of Pelican Rapids High School in honor of her mother, Maria (Battaglia) Morris, of Cokato.
Hayek’s husband, Greg, suggested a scholarship honoring Morris when Hayek started considering offering a scholarship to youth from Pelican Rapids.
Morris was a war bride, having met her first husband, George Wandersee, in Italy during World War II.
“This scholarship is basically in honor of all parents who sacrifice for their children to have a better education and a better life,” Hayek said.
The scholarship is awarded to students who learn to speak English as their second language.
Pelican Rapids is populated with those from many different cultures, including people whose families immigrated from countries such as Somalia, Mexico, Vietnam, and Bosnia.
Therefore, many of the children in the school where Hayek taught had parents at home who could not speak English.
Because of her own experience being raised by an English language learner (Morris), Hayek could relate to the children she was teaching.
“Life provides many different circumstances for all kinds of people. We are all on a journey to do the best we can, and to provide a better life for those who come after us,” Hayek said.
“Whether you are 8 years old or 80, you may have an ancestor who came from another country, struggling to learn English,” she continued. “We need to embrace all cultures in this struggle for a better life for everyone.”
An Italian war bride comes to Minnesota
Morris had a hard life. Growing up in Italy during World War II, she was not able to complete school past the second grade, and did not know how to read or write.
“I went through the war, it was terrible,” Morris said, noting when she was about 12 years old, her family would be awakened at least three times a night to take shelter from the bombings that were taking place.
“When we would come out from the shelter, there would be people dead all over,” Morris said. “War is nothing to play with. It went on for years and people had to go to work if they liked it or not.”
Morris also recalls waking up hungry in the middle of the night due to the rationing that was taking place in Italy during the war.
Her family would capture baby sparrows and cook them with pasta in order to have enough to eat.
Although living through the war was difficult, Morris’ parents and seven siblings all survived.
Following the war, Morris worked in a laundry for the US Army, where George Wandersee, of Waverly, was the sergeant in charge.
Even though Wandersee did not speak Italian, and Morris did not speak English, he took a liking to the young Italian woman.
Despite the fact that Morris was in love with an Italian man named Angelo, her strict, policeman father encouraged her to marry Wandersee.
“One day he noticed this guy liked me, and told me ‘Maria, I want you to marry him, you’ll have a better life in America.’ He said in America, money grows on apple trees,” Morris said.
So she became an Italian war bride, marrying Wandersee in 1946. Because he was still on active duty, Morris made the trip to the US by herself, not knowing a bit of English.
“I was not used to snow, and thought I was going to freeze to death,” Morris said.
She also had never seen a cow before, and was now living on a farm, and had to help milk cows.
“It was a total culture shock,” Hayek said of what her mother endured. Morris admitted to crying for many months, feeling all alone in a strange place.
“She has a very strong faith, that’s what pulled her through,” Hayek said, adding that Morris’ wonderful sense of humor helped, as well.
When Wandersee finally came home from the war, the couple began their family. Morris would give birth to three girls and a boy before Wandersee died in 1954, leaving her a widow with four young children at the age of 25.
Following the death of Wandersee, Morris went back to Italy. Again, she could have married Angelo.
However, Morris was determined to build a better life for her family, and returned to the US.
In 1955, Morris married Russel Morris, of Cokato, and had five more children all boys.
Throughout the years, Morris has kept in touch with her first love in Italy, even visiting him the few times she has returned to her homeland.
When she first arrived in the US, she would call Angelo every Saturday at 2 p.m. and allow the phone to ring twice before hanging up, just to let him know she was OK.
“It was their way of checking on each other so sweet,” Hayek said.
Both Angelo’s wife and Morris’ husband knew the two dear friends remained in touch over the years.
Today, Morris is still in contact with Angelo, and they talk on the phone every couple of months.
“Mom worked very hard to learn English. She knew we could be successful if we did well in school, behaved, and helped other people,” Hayek said.
Morris never spoke Italian at home, and did not teach her children Italian. The only time Hayek heard Italian, was when Morris was speaking to someone in Italy, usually at Christmastime.
“She had many little angels along the way,” Hayek added, noting that people from Howard Lake, Cokato, and Dassel all helped Morris, teaching her to speak, read, and write English, how to live in the US, and helping her study for her citizenship exam.
Morris passed the citizenship exam before returning to Italy in 1954, after Wandersee died.
“I do think that God’s love shines through it all,” Hayek said. “That’s the bottom line to allow God’s love to shine through people.”
When presenting the scholarship this year, Hayek told the seniors to thank the caring people who encouraged their education.
“That is what this scholarship is all about. Grandparents, parents, and others who have sacrificed to make the world a better place for each of you for each of us,” Hayek said.