Menke MatriarchOctober 20, 2018
Story by Candy Neal
Photos by Brittney Lohmiller
A group of interior designers visits OFS Brands’ Cool Springs to learn about how the family-owned company sustains its manufacturing brand while helping the environment.
But before they learn about the present doings, they learn about the company’s past, shared in detail by family matriarch Phyllis (McMurtrie) Menke.
OFS was a merger of smaller companies, she explains to the group.
Cool Springs serves as an educational preserve, reforesting site, retreat and meeting center for the company and visitors who fly in to see the nature site. The group there that day was from Texas.
Phyllis tells the designers, who happen to all be women, the different companies created by her husband’s family and by her family, and how those companies ultimately merged into what is now OFS. Phyllis points out a replica of the scoreboards, an actual wagon and photographs of earlier products like blinds, and she lovingly describes it all in detail that only family would know.
Phyllis, now 93, is very proud of her predecessors. And it is soon obvious that no one could tell all the loving details about the families like she can.
She ends the tour by giving each woman a Lincoln penny that highlight’s Abraham Lincoln’s time in Indiana. Part of the trail the Lincolns walked is located on the Cool Springs property, which is located off of State Road 64 in Velpen.
“It’s great to see so many women in the these fields,” Phyllis says, as she watches the group leave to go plant a tree on the grounds. “Back in my day, rarely were there women in any kind of manufacturing fields. So this is a treat for me.”
Phyllis herself has always been active and involved, whether through the company or community work in Huntingburg and Dubois County.
“I’m still pedaling furniture at 92,” she said this spring from her home. “My salary isn’t very good, but I have lots of perks.”
She was born on Aug. 5, 1925, to Mary and Harold McMurtrie. Her family was heavily involved in manufacturing, with her grandfather Titus manufacturing wagons during Civil War time. The family business transitioned to furniture and moved from Wisconsin to Huntingburg, creating the Huntingburg Furniture Company in 1911.
Meanwhile, another company, DuCrafts, was expanding in the city. Owned by the Menkes, the company manufactured wooden scoreboards and venetian blinds, and ultimately moved into making furniture as well.
Being in the same industry and city, the two families were friends. Through the families, Phyllis met Bob Menke, who was six years older than her. “I was in the group of kids who would follow the Menke boys around,” she said.
He was a star basketball player at Huntingburg High School and, later, Indiana University.
“Bob asked me out on a date when I was in eighth grade,” Phyllis said. “But the war came along.”
So the date didn’t happen. Not then, anyway. Menke went to IU, and then enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. Phyllis attended Stevens College. She eventually got a letter from him, reminding her of their impending date.
“He had remembered after all that time,” Menke said.
They went on the date, got engaged and married in 1944, before Bob was sent overseas. “My parents thought I was too young,” Phyllis recalled. “But they really liked Bob.”
By the time Bob finished his service in 1946, the couple had their first daughter. While he wanted to pursue a legal career, Bob instead started the furniture company Styline Corp. with his dad, William, in 1952. That company eventually morphed into OFS Brands.
And the Menke family morphed as well, into four children Phyllis raised as a stay-at-home mom.
Son Hank now heads OFS Brands. The other three went into the medical field: Susan Kruger, a physical therapist in Dubois County; Karen Middendorf, a veterinarian in Athens, Georgia; and David, who is a doctor at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida. The family now also includes 14 grandchildren, and 23 great-grandchildren.
“I remember one Sunday when we were having Sunday dinner, and my husband told our kids that the world is overpopulated, and each of them can only have 2.3 children,” Phyllis said with a laugh. “He said, ‘So you can have two apiece, and one of you can have an extra child.’ Well two of them had three, and two of them had four. And I’m now working on a quilt for my 23rd great-grandchild.” That little one was born this month.
Bob Menke died in 2008, after a long battle with Lewy body dementia. “That was a rough time,” Phyllis recalled. “He’d been a basketball star in high school. He ran the company while I took care of the children. We were both so active in the community. Watching him slip away was tough.”
Phyllis purposely stays busy, continuing the restoration, historical and environmental work she did with her husband.
“When you get older, you have to have passions,” she said, “otherwise you will shrivel up.”
So along with giving visitors historical tours of OFS at Cool Springs and running a few errands here and there for the company, Phyllis works on personal family endeavors — like researching her own family history.
“I have more than 5,000 names listed on my genealogy chart,” she said, spreading out a huge sheet showing the historical chains. “It’s taken a lot of research, a lot of digging, but I do enjoy it.”
She also quilts, tends to lush greenery at her Huntingburg home — with some help from family and a landscaper — and hosts family when they come to visit, including breakfasts with Hank as his schedule allows. She is also the face of the company, and has attended several events and conferences.
She also continues to serve her community. One of her philanthropic activities over the years has been the restoration of Old Town Hall in Huntingburg, which started in the 1970s. She convinced her mother to provide funding for the restoration. The city and community have used the building for many functions, like meetings, banquets and weddings.
On Oct. 12, the building’s balcony was the site of the dedication of Market Street Park, which extends east of the structure. The section of the park near Old Town Hall is named Menke Plaza, with the family and OFS Brands funding its development.
Cory Menke, director of operations for OFS, recognized his grandmother as she sat in the audience, proudly watching the ceremony and admiring her surroundings.
“Nana, I know how much the Old Town Hall means to you, and how much you worry if it will be around for generations to come,” he said. “I can only hope that with the construction of this park, it gives you the comfort that Old Town Hall is here to stay. ... Your passion and drive all those years ago is what inspired me to help make this park the beautiful place we see today.”
The warm embrace Phyllis gave Cory radiated her happiness.
Supporting her family and her community is a lifelong mission Phyllis will continue, she said.
“I’m not sure how much longer I will be able to do this,” she admitted. “But as long as I am able, I will.”