Else Ankel: Community builder, leader, teacher
– – in life and in death

by Peggy Schulz, Photo: Else Ankel and Roger Coleman in the classroom trailer that later was transformed into the Urban Ecology Center; Coleman now works at the UEC as an executive assistant.  (Photo credit: Urban Ecology Center)

Else Ankel fulfilled one of her last goals in life – to end that life at home.

With the help and support of family, friends and some close, loving neighbors, her life came to a stop on October 28, 2016, at home, in the heart of her beloved Cambridge Woods neighborhood. She was 85.  

It’s appropriate to use terms other than “passed on” to describe the fact Ankel no longer is alive.  As an “animate atheist,” according to her friend and neighbor, Crocker Stephenson, she did not believe in an afterlife. 

And, perhaps that belief – that there was no life after death – is part of what propelled her through an amazingly active, productive, passionate life, including the raising of four children and playing a key role in founding the Urban Ecology Center in Riverside Park. Believing she wouldn’t be able to somehow influence those still living from a point in the “beyond,” Ankel likely put every ounce of energy she had into life as it happened, building her legacy on a day-by-day basis, imbuing in her family, friends and neighbors her own zest for living a life that was ethical, just and Earth-friendly.

A heart-warming example of how she shared so much with those who survive her was provided by her son, Rob Ankel.

“When my mom’s grandkids would come to visit, she would make a point of spending time with them both inside and outside of her house. They would get to know her interests, especially in the Cambridge Woods area, what trees to climb, for example,” Rob Ankel said.

“When my nieces came to the house at the time of the memorial service on November 5, they went over to the woods and knew right away which tree to climb,” he said. “They remembered their grandmother in that special way.”

And, like so much of her life, whether spent earning her Ph.D. in Switzerland, pursuing studies in biochemistry, at work at the Medical College of Wisconsin, or while delving into some of her most intense off-the-job interests, Ankel used her commitment to both age in place and die in place as a teachable moment.

It takes a village to live; it takes a village to die

Jeanne Dawson, Stephenson’s wife, found an article in “The Alantic” magazine entitled “Living, and Dying, at Home,” dated May 1, 2015. Dawson shared the article with Ankel’s fellow neighbors in Cambridge Woods after Ankel had expressed her desires regarding the end of her life.

“It [the article] talked about a neighborhood network,” Dawson said, that the person at the end of their life could remain in their home, surrounded by and getting help from their neighbors and friends.

“Else wanted Crocker to see how she had modified her home,” Dawson said, referring to the time shortly after Ankel had returned from a stint at the Catholic Home, after a fall in 2014 left her with a brain injury that affected her short-term memory.

When Stephenson and Dawson had first moved around the corner from Ankel in 2006, they were busy with raising children and their respective jobs and unable to regularly attend the Cambridge Woods Neighborhood Association meetings.  They met Ankel, but it wasn’t until after her accident that they became much closer to her.

At her home, Ankel had the stairway railings reinforced, as “she wanted the continual challenge of moving up and down the stairs,” according to Stephenson. An extra-bright light was installed over the rear steps leading into Ankel’s backyard, and non-slip material was put on the steps.“She wanted her house to be an example of how to modify a home so the owner could continue to safely live there until their death,” Stephenson said.

Once Ankel couldn’t drive any longer, she gave her car to a young couple in the neighborhood, in exchange for them using the car to, among other things, take her shopping.

Dawson said, “If I had to summarize one word about it, about Else’s approach to life, it would be ‘community.’ It made her so happy that neighbors could help her in that way.” And Ankel helped her neighbors in return, whether it was educating them about dying on their own terms, how to grow mushrooms and kale, or the negative aspects of Great Britain leaving the European Union.

Sewing seeds of community

So many of the projects Ankel took on were a mixture of her innate practicality, her sense of thrift and a much broader sense of equity, which she applied throughout her life, but especially to children and fellow immigrants to America.

Her son, Rob Ankel, tells of how, after his parents were divorced and his father moved back to Germany, his mother opened up rooms in her house to graduate students at nearby UWM, many of whom were from China.

“She found ready students in her roomers,” Rob Ankel said. “She was able to keep her house, yes, because of the income the students brought, but she also was big on teaching them about the world.”

“My mom always was looking to make a connection,” he said, “didactic at times, even a little tiresome.” But, Rob Ankel added, “she always was in good spirits, being positive for the neighborhood, the environment or the world at large.”

Birthing the Urban Ecology Center

Chris Beimborn, who knew Ankel at the very beginning of the Urban Ecology Center, shared the view of Ankel as a driven person who often tried to drive others to take actions, sometimes not of their initial choosing.

“What influenced me most about Else was her way of instilling enthusiasm that got people to do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do, from the first excitement, followed by the ‘How did she talk me into this stage?’ to the joy of being in on a team that’s up to something big.”

Beimborn is a Science Education Consultant who got to know Ankel when the idea for the Urban Ecology Center (then called the Riverside Urban Environmental Center) was taking shape.

As were so many facets of Ankel’s life, the beginnings of the Urban Ecology Center were neighborhood-based, with Ankel pulling together a group of neighbors who labeled themselves as “Friends of Riverside Park.” At the time, Ankel had retired from the Medical College of Wisconsin, her children had all moved out of her home, and she was a “scientist-in-residence” at Riverside University High School.

Beth Heller, Senior Director of Education and Strategic Planning and currently Interim Executive Director of the Urban Ecology Center, is grateful she was able to spend time with Ankel in her final days.

“She was super-active her entire life,” Heller said, “both intellectually and physically.”

“These kids, at the UEC, deserve to have amazing experiences like she did when she was a kid,” Heller said, referring to Ankel’s childhood, with much time spent in the Black Forest in Southwestern Germany. 

Heller described Ankel as the matriarch of her community. 

“The UEC clearly is a really fertile, robust, exciting kind of place, where fun and learning are combined, when you don’t recognize that you’re learning,” Heller said. And much of that goes back to Ankel’s initial vision for the center.

It’s difficult to narrow down Else Ankel’s legacy in any way, but I think all her family, friends and neighbors, the members of her robust, exciting community, would agree that she was an incredible neighbor who won’t soon be forgotten.

RAA Artist Profile December 2016

Erika Diamond – Weaver

text by Elizabeth Vogt /
photo by John Ruebartsch

“Fabric becomes a sinew between us and other things. Cloth has the potential to relate to the body and delineate space the way architecture does with barriers.” – Erika Diamond, artist

Watching that eternal laws are obeyed, the three white-robed Fates tend to handling destiny. The youngest sister, Clotho, catches our attention—she spins the thread of human life. It is she who decides when people are born and whether they should die or be saved; it is with Clotho, I contend, that fiber artist Erika Diamond maintains an existential dialogue. 

Currently the Artist-in-Residence at the ABK Weaving Center in Riverwest’s Gaenslen School, Erika works in a labyrinth of looms. Tapestries with first aid lifesaving measures are emerging, as are tiny experiments with Kevlar thread. Her work explores our obsession with preserving life and the eternal webs of our mortal lives. Textiles, ubiquitous and often invisibly utilitarian, suddenly reveal new dimensions.    

Born in Germany (her parents, dancers, were at the Hamburg Ballet), Erika enjoyed a childhood of travel, performances, and costumes. Making her own clothes as a girl in Ohio eventually led to a BFA in Sculpture (Rhode Island School of Design) and an MFA in Fiber Arts (Virginia Commonwealth). She’s been a creative force in NYC, LA, and Charlotte, NC; her summers are now spent as Assistant Director of Galleries at Chautauqua Institution. Her artwork is, however, universal.    

Consider her 2015 Eggshell Shirt for Hugging II, a tulle vest enmeshed with eggshell pieces. It offers a new body surface, a symbolic skin. Eggshells protect, but here they evoke an eerie sense of vulnerability—ready to bestow a permanent imprinted record of an embrace. “The object becomes an artifact that extends past that moment, past our lives,” Erika offers. 

Weaving and textiles are time- and labor-intensive, requiring instantaneous actions and decisions–fastidious work historically associated with women. This empowers Erika. She revels in the labor and physicality of it, using these media paradoxically to explore serious issues of life and death. A fresh tension and relevance results in Diamond’s work. “So much of our world now is not tangible,” she smiles. “Perhaps I was born in the wrong era? I trust and believe in objects.” 

‘Material activism’ is one term for the creative energy Erika Diamond brings into the mix at the ABK Weaving Center. “It’s rewarding, an actively creative environment,” she says. The ABK model, offering classes and resources to the public, is unique. Within a few weeks Erika felt that her work there had become part of a larger conversation amidst generous, helpful people.

How busy we all are, stretching and tangling our life threads, bumbling weavers of our own destinies. Erika Diamond’s art may serve us like an appeal to Clotho, refreshing our quests to live and achieve. Consider the pieces in her upcoming Emergency Tapestries exhibit in Riverwest that depict how, instead of harming each other, we can save each other. They offer lessons, like the heroic narratives in ancient tapestries, for which we are grateful. 

Erika Diamond – Weaver