Interview and Article by:
Judi Freeman, MA (MTF 2001)
When Darryle Clott (LaCrosse, WI; MTF 2002) first met Holocaust survivor and resistance fighter Vladka Meed in the summer of 2001, she was thunderstruck. Darryle had some exposure to the Holocaust during her MA program in history in 1969 but it wasn’t until 1998, when she was teaching freshman English in La Crescent, Minnesota (population: 5000) that she first undertook a two-week mini unit on the Holocaust. The response astounded her and other students began asking when they too could study the Holocaust. As she reflected, “When students want to learn, that is success.”
Darryle is one of those people who, when she feels as if she doesn’t know enough about something, reads, reads, and reads—did I mention that she reads?!—until she feels she has mastered the topic. That’s what she did, between 1998 and 2001, regarding the Holocaust. When she participated on the legendary Vladka trip to study the Holocaust and Resistance in Poland and Israel in 2001, she remembers, “at the end of the second day, I was seated across from Vladka at dinner and she looked at me and said, ‘You certainly ask a lot of questions, don’t you?’” (Full disclosure: Darryle was my roommate on that trip and I confirm the conversation!)
Darryle does ask a lot of questions. And the questions she asked of Vladka led to a long and warm relationship until Vladka’s passing in 2012. But Vladka’s example, as well as what she learned from that seminal trip, especially from one of the trip’s leaders, the legendary Stephen Feinberg, was transformative.
Returning to her hometown of La Crosse, Wisconsin, Darryle insisted that she had to bring more awareness of the Holocaust to her community. Once retired from teaching secondary school, she took on a role at Viterbo University. Her vision: to bring Holocaust survivors to town. And she was thinking big. As she says, “If you don’t ask, how will you ever find out? You have to go for it! I’ve always lived by a philosophy of ‘seizing the moment.’”
Here’s what ‘seizing the moment’ on Darryle’s part led to: the greater La Crosse community has heard from Elie Wiesel, Gerda Weissman Klein (twice!), Henry Oertelt, Nesse Godin, Mary Rostad, Sabina Zimmering, Manya Friedman, Marty Weiss, Peter Feigel, Sam Harris, Cipora Katz, Eva Schloss, Magda Herzberger, Fela Warschau, as well as liberator John Regnier, Rwandan genocide survivor Immaculee Ilibagiza and, as of this writing, Father Patrick Desbois. Attendance at these events is massive—we’re talking in the thousands–and attendees return annually to hear the featured speakers. As Darryle says, “Holocaust survivors fill our hearts.”
From Holocaust survivor talks for the public to annual Holocaust Educators’ Workshops, Darryle has brought a wide array of scholars and educators to southern Wisconsin. Her passion for increasing understanding about the Holocaust extends not just to the general public but especially to teacher-practitioners who will reach the next generation of young people. She has been recognized with numerous awards.
Somehow Darryle asks and people respond. She goes above and beyond in hosting them, welcoming them into her home, taking them to the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River, developing lasting relationships. Gerda Weissman Klein has said that coming to La Crosse has been one of the most memorable experiences she has had as a survivor-speaker.
Darryle’s husband Marv is clearly her partner on this. He encouraged her to invite many of the speakers, served as chauffeur to and from the airport, and is often the chef for dinners with survivors at their home overlooking the Mississippi. As Darryle has scoured the country hearing survivors and determining whether they would be a good fit for Viterbo, Marv is often at her side.
As Darryle puts it, “[each of these survivors] have enriched and blessed our lives. Each story is different and each story is haunting and inspiring, but all the survivors we know have something in common. . .They all believe in the goodness of humanity. Not one of them is bitter.” And she adds, “Each one of them started out as Holocaust survivors to us, but they have ended up as our friends who continue to be great influences in our lives.”
Darryle says her motto is to “dream big.” Dream big she has. With great humility, she says, “when I first began, I felt like I started by making a tiny snowball and the snowball kept getting bigger and bigger and soon I had made a gigantic snowman, and who knows where it will end?” Who knows? Under Darryle’s capable and visionary watch, it’s a snowman not destined to melt any time soon.