Madison, Wis., may not evoke the same “make it there, make it anywhere” aura that Frank Sinatra sang about. But it was where Nancy Merkt was determined to make her mark in the world as an 18-year old, newly minted high school graduate — even if she was venturing only about 15 miles from her parents’ 160-acre dairy farm in Cross Plains.
“I wanted to get out, earn my own way, and see what I could do,” Nancy recalls with a laugh. It’s not that Nancy, the daughter of Matthew and Viola Crabb, considered farm life dull or difficult. There were chores for everyone, of course, but Nancy also loved watching small animals grow up. As young entrepreneurs, she and her brother, Harold, would buy a calf, raise it to about 100 lbs., sell it for veal, then start over with a new one, splitting the profits along the way.
After graduating in 1962 as a member of the National Honor Society, Nancy made her fateful 15-mile move to Madison. She soon found herself working as a secretary for an insurance cooperative located next to Wisconsin’s Capitol Square, and sharing an apartment with two girlfriends.
It didn’t take long for Nancy to find a social life. As a volunteer with the local USO, she joined young servicemen at events such as square dances. One of her weekend beaus was Donald Callaway, a staff sergeant from Baraboo, Wis., who suggested they take dance lessons together. Romance blossomed with each do-si-do. Don proposed on Valentine’s Day 1963, and they married the following year.
An even bigger move in Nancy’s life came when Don was transferred to Germany in 1965. She got a job as a secretary with the European Exchange System, and was first American to earn Employee of the Month honors. She and Don visited Berlin, which at the time was still a divided city. Observing strict protocols as the tour bus made its way through the Berlin Wall into the Soviet-dominated east side, Nancy nevertheless felt a sense of relief when they returned to the American Sector through the famous “Checkpoint Charlie.”
That experience, Nancy recalls, “made you appreciate the freedom Americans have.”
The couple remained enthusiastic square dancers during Don’s three-year deployment, and his subsequent assignment to Ft. Meade, Md. By 1973, they were back in Madison. Don had taken a job with the state, while Nancy had her hands full with three daughters — Susan, Karen and Christine. Home life wasn’t dull.
In 1977, she was treated to seeing one of Elvis Presley’s last concerts at the Madison Coliseum. Nancy even snared a piece of “The King’s” scarf as a souvenir. Don passed away in 1992, but Nancy wasn’t alone for long. Some friends set her up on a blind double date with John Merkt, a former Wisconsin state representative who was then involved with developing a new baseball park for the Milwaukee Brewers.
Despite their rather ominous movie choice, "Fatal Attraction," Nancy and John fell in love and married later that year. Although all their children were grown, the couple enjoyed combining their respective family traditions, including Nancy’s annual Christmas card that always featured a family photo.
“It had changed over the years as the daughters arrived and grew up, and we did different things,” Nancy says. She’s particularly fond of the card showing her and John at Milwaukee’s old County Stadium, with the new baseball yard rising in the background.
“It was a real treat for us to get that view,” Nancy says. Since John’s passing in 2009, Nancy has kept busy visiting with her daughters and her grandchildren, Katheryn or "Kitty," Keith and Martin. And having been married twice to Freemasons, she stays in touch with the organization’s group for women, the Order of the Eastern Star.
Nancy’s still a dancer at heart, though, and she enjoys watching any TV show that spotlights performers’ flair for music and song. “There are a lot of talented people out there,” she says, “and it’s fun watching them do what they love.”