Emma Lou was born in Newton, Iowa, on July 30, 1926, to James and Helen (Roth) Leeper. She was the sixth of eight children, seven of whom survived to adulthood. The family lived in the Brooklyn, Iowa, area, where Emma Lou attended the local schools. Immediately after high school graduation, Emma Lou moved to San Diego to join other family members there and to help with the war effort. As soon as she turned 18, Emma Lou was hired by Ryan Aircraft and became a real-life Rosie the Riveter. While working at Ryan, she met her future husband, Robert W. Phelan, also from Iowa. After the war ended, they married and returned to Bob’s hometown of Cherokee. While Bob worked at various local automobile dealerships, Emma Lou concentrated on raising their five children, often sewing their clothes and fixing wonderful meals. Throughout her life, Emma Lou participated in volunteer community activities as time allowed. While her children were young, she served as a Cub Scout leader, was a CCD instructor at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, and worked with the Catholic Daughters of America. Later in life, she participated in Peace Links, volunteered at the Cherokee Archives, quilted with the Cherokee Regional Medical Center Auxiliary, and delivered Meals on Wheels. She also took paid positions as a home health aide and as an assistant librarian at the Cherokee Public Library. Emma Lou enjoyed golfing and walking with friends. She also began taking piano lessons at age 69 and played regularly.
Emma Lou was a busy, involved resident of Cherokee for almost 70 years, from 1945 to 2015. For the last three years of her life, Emma Lou received wonderful care from the staff at the Gardens (Episcopal Church Homes) in St. Paul, as well as devoted attention and companionship from her daughter Laura and daughter-in-law Kris.
Throughout her life, Emma Lou provided a wonderful example of resilience, strength, and loving service to others. Her family was always her highest priority, and they are grateful for her lifelong devotion. She was and will continue to be a well-loved inspiration.
Emma Lou is survived by her five children: Patrick (Donna) of Tucson, Arizona; Michael of Council Bluffs, Iowa; Joan of Lincoln, Nebraska; Laura (Kris Thornwall) of St. Paul, Minnesota; and Mary (John) Kuhn of New Ulm, Minnesota. She also delighted in her nine grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. She was preceded in death by her parents, her husband, her seven siblings, and her daughter-in-law Ruth.
A funeral service will be held at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, April 28, 2018, at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Cherokee.
In lieu of visitation a luncheon will be held at the church fellowship hall following the burial.