‘Where Memories are Made’ by Franciscan Sister Martina Van Ryzin Continued

Read ‘Where Memories are Made’ by Franciscan Sister Martina Van Ryzin, as Sister recalls being a radiology monitoring instructor. Click here for the first part of the story.

Franciscan Sister Martina Ryzin served as RADEF officer in the event of a nuclear disaster.

…on her own and asked me to accompany her.  My background included the sciences, but nothing about radioactive isotopes and the health hazards caused by radioactive fallout.  However, I did agree to go with her to a training site in Wausau, Wisconsin. The course was a new venture for me.  After learning what would be involved and my lack of knowledge of radiation hazards, I knew I would need more specific training before I would be competent to instruct others.

With permission from our Community and the college, Manitowoc County Civil Defense financed my further training at Truax Air Field in Madison.  It was there that I received specific instructions in the area of monitoring, evaluating, and reporting the hazards of radiation.  Before handling nuclear substances, we had to be licensed radiological monitor instructors and became Radiological Defense (RADEF) Officers.


When it came time to conduct the first of many training courses for Manitowoc County personnel, Sister Theonella and I agreed to make the training a joint effort.  She would teach the nuclear chemistry portion of the course, and I would handle the practical aspects of using the Geiger counter to detect and measure radiation.

The first groups of trainees included Manitowoc County traffic officers, city police officers from Manitowoc and Two Rivers, and both city and volunteer firemen from Manitowoc County.  After teaching one or more of these courses together, Sister Theonella asked to be relieved of her portion of the teaching, because of failing health.  Then I was on my own   The Manitowoc County Civil Defense Director set up a new course of six sessions in each of the following years.  In addition to the new courses, refresher courses were offered for previously trained personnel.   As you can imagine, this added to my already heavy mathematics teaching and administrative load in the college.

Radiological Monitor Instructors need refresher training also.  In April, 1964 the Department of Defense (Office of Civil Defense) conducted refresher courses throughout the country.  For several states in the upper Midwest, a Radiological Monitor Instructor Workshop was offered at its Staff College in Battle Creek, Michigan. Manitowoc County Civil Defense personnel asked me to attend the workshop and become the RADEF Officer for our county.

Believe me, this was another new experience for me.  Fortunately, there were five Sisters from other Religious Communities, who attended the workshop. In this large class of about seventy students, there were no other females.  Obviously, most RADEF officers are men!

 Additional Training and Teaching

Before returning to the Radiological Monitoring classes I taught at the college and elsewhere, there is another aspect of my training in the area of Civil Defense.  In preparation for alerting the public to the hazards of exposure to nuclear radiation, Sister Julia Marie and I attended an instructors’ course at the Lakeshore Technical College, entitled “Individual and Family Survival.”  In future years, she and I taught several of these non-technical courses to several groups of interested personnel.

As I mentioned earlier, courses in Radiological Monitoring were offered on a regular basis in the Physics Lab of Silver Lake College.  The practical exercises using the Geiger counter for radiation detection and measurement took place in a large ground- floor room.  The student body was a mixed group of people from the cities and county.  In addition to police officers and firemen, representatives from the hospital and educational institutions also attended.  In 1967, seven Sisters from the college and the Motherhouse took the course to become radiological monitors.

Some of the Police Officers, who came in uniform, made an interesting diversion from our regular students attending evening classes.  These men assured us that they had checked their guns at the front desk!

The use of radioactive cobalt makes an interesting story.  These substances had to be transported to the college from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin about fifty miles to the west. The radioactive cobalt is enclosed in small metal capsules with a metal tag attached to each one.  The entire set was placed in a small lead container with a handle. This, in turn, was stored in a large lead container called a “pig.”  Can you imagine what this lead cylinder, about a foot in diameter and a foot high, must weigh?  Its actual weight escapes me, but I do know that it took two strong men to lift it in and out of the trunk of the car! 

You might wonder how I, the licensed trainer, could remove the radioactive cobalt capsules from the “pig.”  This was no problem.  Once the lead pig was transported to the training exercise room and stored in a permanent location, I was able to lift the cover from the small container and with long metal tongs, remove the tagged capsules one by one.

I hid the capsules throughout the practice room. Using the Geiger counter the students found and measured the radiation level at each location.  Naturally, the students found this part of the training interesting and exciting.  It was an adult version of a treasure hunt.

 After several years of conducting radiological monitoring courses at the college, two groups requested that some of their personnel be trained on site and on company time.  The first of these was the Anheuser Busch Plant in downtown Manitowoc.  Members of the chemistry testing and research section, under the direction of Paul Bouril, became my students.  After the last session, the instructor was treated to a glass of beer on tap!

The second off-campus group of Coast Guard men was taught at the Coast Guard Station in Two Rivers, WI.  I was informed that I would be giving the training on the mess deck.  “How do I get there, I asked?”  The Chief replied, “You just go up the ladder, and you will be there.” I had visions of climbing a ladder to get to the mess deck on one of the Coast Guard ships.  I thought, now what am I getting into?  How wrong I was.  The course was being held in the Two Rivers Lighthouse with ordinary stairs leading to the dining room for the Coast Guard service men.

The course and training exercises went well.  The Chief Coast Guard Officer took me around the facility and showed me one of their boats.  He offered to give me a ride when Lake Michigan would be calm.  Apparently, that never happened during the weeks when I taught the class, so I never did get a ride on the lake. I’m sure he wondered what he would do with a seasick nun!

I was not the lone female among the Coast Guard men.  Sister Brigid decided she wanted to take the course also.  So for six weeks, she and I traveled to Two Rivers.  One of my math students, Joanne (Schulze) Denu, whose home was in Two Rivers, drove us to the station.  The Chief drove us back to the college after each class session.  Being his first acquaintance with nuns, he must have thought that we were not used to car travel either. Believe it or not, he drove down Memorial Drive and Waldo Boulevard at the fast speed of ten miles per hour!  I’m sure the drivers of the other cars on the road were saying more than their prayers.

On the final day of the course, the Chief and Coast Guard men invited Sister Brigid and me to a dinner on the mess deck. We arrived at the Station around noon.  Thinking we would be joining the men for their noon meal, we were shown to our places at table with the Chief at my side.  We waited for the others to arrive, but nobody else came.  They had eaten their dinner earlier.  One of my students, acting as “Chef for the Day,” served us a huge steak dinner.  For dessert, he made chocolate pudding, which he decorated with small colored marshmallows, especially for the Sisters!  We enjoyed the meal, laughed about it after, and wondered whether the Coast Guard men had had the same menu earlier.

In addition to the monitoring courses offered at Silver Lake College, mention should be made of two other ways in which the College cooperated with the Manitowoc County Civil Defense Department.  As a part of the overall Disaster Plan for Manitowoc County, the College served as an evacuation shelter to provide protection from radioactive fallout.  Huge quantities of shelter supplies were stored at the college.

The presence of two nuclear power plants at Point Beach and Kewaunee posed an additional threat to the people of Manitowoc County.  The Three-Mile Island disaster was an example of what could happen.  Whether the fallout comes from a bomb or an accident at a nuclear power plant, the effects would be the same.  Providing for care of victims of such a disaster becomes a major concern. Here again, the College offered its facilities.

Silver Lake College agreed to serve as an emergency hospital, fully equipped with two hundred cots, emergency generator, and hospital supplies for treating the victims.  Since the Sisters on the college staff lived in the building, there would always be personnel available to assist in providing immediate care for victims who could not be treated at one of the hospitals.

Eventually, both the fallout shelter and the emergency hospital supplies were removed from the college.  I have no recollection of the years when this happened. I was not actively involved in this aspect of Civil Defense, except to serve as the RADEF officer in the event of a nuclear disaster.

My role in civil defense continued for several more years.  The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) mandated that local civil defense departments, in counties where nuclear power plants were located, conduct regular mock disaster exercises. Naturally, as RADEF officer for Manitowoc County, I played a major role in these exercises.

The operating control center for the simulated disaster exercises was located in the basement of the Manitowoc County jail.  All major areas of responsibility for responding to a nuclear accident were represented by key personnel, including city and county government officials, city and county police and firefighters, transportation and medical personnel, nuclear plant officials, the County Farm Agent, representatives from several local educational institutions; and members of the local communications media.  I acted as the RADEF Officer whose main responsibility was the evaluation, and reporting of the radiation hazard to the persons in charge of each area and to the State Civil Defense Headquarters in Madison.  A FEMA representative observed, evaluated, and reported on our overall performance of the exercise. 

My pseudo-career in Civil Defense ended in the mid-seventies.  At that time I was heavily engaged in academic responsibilities, both as Academic Dean and as Mathematics Professor at the college.  I felt it was time to submit my resignation as RADEF Officer for Manitowoc County.  On April 21, 1987, the County Board of Supervisors accepted my resignation and approved a Resolution to recognize me for the past twenty-five years of service as a radiological monitor instructor and RADEF Officer for Manitowoc County.  Approximately two hundred men and women in the county received certificates of successful completion of the course in Radiological Monitoring.

14 thoughts on “‘Where Memories are Made’ by Franciscan Sister Martina Van Ryzin Continued”

  1. Smaryb says:

    It is a well written and interesting to read. I was happy to have been able to share some of those memories with her.Our trip to Europe was a very memorable time.
    I was amazed how Sister remembered so many details.
    Thanks sister for sharing with us.
    Sister Mary Bodwin

  2. Jodenu says:

    Thanks for sharing – you are a very versitile, special person. What an awesome undertaking – writing your “Memoirs”. I am sure it took lots and lots of thought and time, and the finished product is quite an accomplishment.
    Joanne Denu

  3. I am enjoying the chapters on the early years of your vocation, Sister Martina. Your generosity in responding affirmatively to whatever was asked of you is quite the story. The fact that you knew and loved our Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity beginning at a young age and could think of no other religious community that you would want to join is an example of following your heart (true discernment).

  4. Sister Kay Elmer says:

    Congratulations, Sister Martina! What a responsible position you held — and what a wonderful service to the total community! I remember you were still having the classes in the early 1970's when I arrived at the College to work there, and we still had the room set aside with the special shelter supplies. I did not realize the breadth and depth of your involvement in this effort at that time! It was most informative to read your chapter here! God Bless all your efforts for the wider community!! Sister Kay Elmer

  5. Srt834 says:

    Wonderful! When she entered the convent, Sister Martina never dreamed she would be involved in something like this. It shows you the different ways in which God works. Join the convent and find out you can do many things! Congratulations, Sister Martina!
    Sister Renita

  6. Madden says:

    Sister Martina, you certainly were and continue to be a “life long learner!” You are young at heart.

    What are your thoughts regarding the current situation in Japan with the nuclear plant problems?

    Sister Marcolette

  7. Sister Ann Joachim says:

    An interesting adventure given to the county at the time needed. Congratulations for the service given. Would it still be a service-area in our today's world?

  8. Sister Anne Marie Lom says:

    How interesting, Sister Martina. I look forward to further articles from you!

  9. Sister Marialee says:

    Sister Martina…WOW! Thank you so much for having some of your book printed here for those of us farther away. A few years ago I remember sitting at lunch with you and you would talk about so many events you wanted to share in your Memory Book. Please share more. I can't wait for the next issue. I have so many fond memories of you. What a great and delightfrul Lady. Am sure God looks on you with Love and a Smile of Joy. Gentle Blessings,
    Sister Marialee

  10. Sister Martina Van Ryzin says:

    Thank you for your comments on my memory book. I really had fun recalling some of the stories of my many experiences throughout my long life. They were printed in the communications department here at the Motherhouse. Only fifty copies were made for me to send to my family and close friends and several former colleagues. I am not able to post further sections on the Internet. This was Sister Julie Ann's work. I did give several copies of the booklet to the Library here, St. Francis Convent, and Chiara Convent. Hopefully you can hold your interest to when you get back to Manitowoc.
    Sister Martina

  11. Srosangela says:

    Sister Martina, I enjoyed reading this and marvel at your ability to do all you have done in your life. I'm reading and enjoying all the pictures in your book. You have a terrific memory. It is so interesting to read about your life.

  12. Sr. Delores W. says:

    Amazing, Sr. Martina… I had you for alot of math courses in college. This part, I did not know. Thanks for sharing.
    I am grateful to you for being my teacher. You are a great one. God bless you.

  13. Barbara says:

    Hi Sister – I found this portion of your book very interesting. This is your niece, Barbara, in Gainesville, FL. I called mom today to wish her a happy Mother's Day and she told me about your book. She was very excited about it and read me the name of every chapter. I decided to go on the internet and see if you had possibly posted it there. I was very happy to at least be able to read some of it. I look forward to reading more. As a child I remember being very intrigued with you, the big habit and all, but was always so very happy to see you. You were always so friendly and happy. I couldn't wait for the family picnic we had every year at the park next to grandpa and grandma's because you would always come and we'd always have lots of fun. I congratulate you on all your accomplishments in life (which are many) and now on this new book. If they are for sale, I would really like to purchase one. I can read it on the website but it would make a great family keepsake. Barbara

  14. The operating control center do many things .

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