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Meet the women working to bring home Fond du Lac 'trailblazer' after 136 years

Posted at 6:03 PM, Mar 11, 2024

FOND DU LAC (NBC 26) — A world-renowned dramatist and one-time Fond du Lac local Lisle Lester could be coming home after 136 years.

  • Lisle Lester's remains could be coming home after 136 years.
  • Group in Fond du Lac is working to get remains from New York.
  • "The third time that I called, I actually asked to speak to a female funeral director,” Zacherl Funeral Home director Dawn Nelson said. “Not kidding!"

This Women’s History Month, women in Fond du Lac are working to bring Lester’s remains back to Fond du Lac County, to be buried with her family at Reinzi Cemetary.

One of those women is local historian Tracy Reinhardt, who said she’s always been fascinated with Lester.

"I say [Lester was] a trailblazer extraordinaire, because she pushed for women's rights in everything she did,” Reinhardt said.

The writer and dramatist was born in 1837 and moved to Fond du Lac when she was six, Reinhardt said.

She's known for creating Wisconsin’s first magazine, which didn’t come without obstacles.

"The men didn't want her admitted to the Wisconsin editorial group that they had; so she had to fight for that,” Reinhardt said.

And fellow Mark Twain once called her “the worst writer in the world.”

“He felt if she had a 100 word paragraph, he could have said the same thing in 20 words,” Reinhardt said.

But Reinhardt said Lester didn’t really care.

"Public opinion, I don't think meant or had an impact on her,” Reinhardt said. “She still did her thing."

She was also passionate about the stage, and performed for prominent leaders worldwide.

"She went to countries like Japan, China... she was a guest in the palace of the kings and the queens that were ruling those countries at the time,” Reinhardt said.

But Reinhardt said despite earning tremendous wealth through her acting, she died penniless.

"Unfortunately, when she would find a cause that she was interested in, she would just stop her performances and take on these causes,” Reinhardt said. “She lived off her savings, and eventually drained it dry the last 10 years of her life."

She was cremated, and her remains were kept in a New York morgue for 136 years.

This Women’s History Month, Reinhardt and others in Fond du Lac decided they wanted to bring them home to be buried.

She spoke with Zacherl Funeral Home director Dawn Nelson, who immediately wanted to help.

"I'm very passionate about people being laid to rest properly,” Nelson said. “Knowing that a woman died in poverty after trying so hard to advocate for women and women's rights, and died alone and poor is just really sad.”

Nelson said that initially, the New York morgue wanted to charge almost $8,000 to return Lester’s remains, which Nelson said was unattainable. But, she knew how she might be able to get that cost lower.

"The third time that I called, I actually asked to speak to a female funeral director,” Nelson said. “Not kidding!"

By asking the right questions, Nelson was able to get that price down to $3,000 and so far one-third of that has been raised.

The Fond du Lac Soroptimists hope to raise the rest of the money by this summer.

Here is a link to donate.