'Letters to the Chief' memoir tells a sweet story of growing up in Willmar

Judi Lifton grew up in Willmar as the granddaughter of Swedish immigrants. Her memoir "Letters to the Chief" tells of her childhood years during simpler times. The spirit of her hometown and her love for it are at the heart of her first book.


Judi Lifton grew up in a small, rural Minnesota community where she writes: “Every citizen acknowledged three necessities — COFFEE, SWEETS, and RELIGION.”

The good citizens celebrated it all every summer with Kaffee Fest.

No secret, the town she calls Parker Falls in her memoir “Letters to the Chief” is Willmar. Lifton, who today lives on the shores of Lake Erie near Cleveland, Ohio, published the memoir in early 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic delayed its release until later in the year.

“Letters to the Chief” is all about growing up in a rural community during much simpler times in the 1950s. It’s made all the sweeter to readers here for her references to life in Willmar.

Chief White Feather was a Native American man that Lifton knew during her childhood. Her letters to the chief are "letters of the heart" from a 14-year-old. They serve as the means for her to share her childhood stories. They are stories filled with humor and memories of how things were in her hometown. They also tell of personal heartaches and losses.


While the childhood stories she tells are hers alone, they are all about a very real place. Readers will discover that her hometown still retains much of the spirit she celebrates in “Letters to the Chief.”

And, of course, her hometown and the neighboring area retain all of those places she enjoyed so much. She writes about all sorts of young adventures, everything from learning to ice skate on Foot Lake, working up the courage to ride her bike with friends to "Bum's Alley" by the railroad yard, and pulling pranks on summer outings to Green Lake and Eagle Lake.

Lifton is the daughter of the late Esther and Robert N. Franklin, and grew up as the granddaughter of Swedish immigrants. Her uncle, Reuben Bengston, wrote the “Man About Town” column that was once a staple of the West Central Daily Tribune.

She had another uncle who made the local newspaper pages in recent years. John E. Anderson gave his life for his country during the D-Day invasion of Normandy Beach. His remains were returned to Willmar for interment in 2016 after lying in a grave in Saint Lauren Cemetery, Baveux, France, for seven decades as those of an unknown soldier.

Lifton and her family moved to Minneapolis when she was a teenager. She retained a lifelong love for Willmar. After earning a degree from the University of Iowa, she worked in radio-chemistry at Washington University and later did research in immunology at the University of Minnesota and the Minneapolis VA Health Care System. She moved to Cleveland, Ohio, for a lab management position, according to her book.

She left her science career to open an art gallery, which was her passion for 25 years, she wrote. She became a fulltime caregiver when the love of her life for 30 years, Leland Emerson, developed cancer.

She credits her late partner for encouraging her to spend sequestered hours writing. Her love for writing comes naturally: She is the third generation in the Franklin family to produce published works.

Her creative presentation and skills at the craft of writing make "Letters to the Chief" an enjoyable read for anyone who can appreciate a small town upbringing.


“Letters to the Chief” is available locally at the Middle Fork Cafe in both Willmar and New London as well as from online book sellers including Barnes and Noble, Amazon and Calumet Editions.

Judi Lifton Submitted photo

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