In 1950, Lorraine Palmer Rybak Mesken came to Minneapolis in search of her family.
Lorraine was 22 years old and living in a California farming town outside San Francisco when, on the advice of her husband, Joseph, she attended an American Legion meeting. She came home to find her husband had disappeared — taking their 3-year-old son, Joey, and the contents of their bank account with him.
"For six weeks, [Lorraine] tried vainly to locate her husband and son," read a story in the Minneapolis Tribune, published in October 1950, after she tracked Joseph to his mom's house in Minneapolis. By the time Lorraine hired a lawyer and served him with a court order, they'd disappeared again.
Lorraine wouldn't see Joey for two decades. But she found a new home in Minneapolis, where she remarried and started a new family. Losing her first son for years would be just one of the hardships that would shape the nearly century-long life of Lorraine — all of which she handled with a "true grit," said her third-born son, R.T. Rybak, who served three terms as mayor of Minneapolis until 2014.
"My mom was amazingly resilient," said R.T., speaking publicly for the first time about the trauma that brought his family to Minneapolis. "She came to Minnesota because of a crime, and she wound up becoming one of the best salespeople for the place. … I learned from the master."
Lorraine, a longtime Minneapolis resident, small-business owner and college counselor for Breck School, died May 2 from natural causes at age 95. Her friends and family remember her sense of humor, nurturing and adventurous spirit and astounding ability to find life's silver linings.
"I only remember her smiling and being optimistic," said her grandson, Charlie Rybak.
Born in San Francisco in 1928, Lorraine grew up in San Bruno, a rural town in the Bay Area adjacent to what would become the San Francisco International Airport. Her father worked as a carpenter and mom raised the kids. During the Great Depression, the family grew their own food on a small farm surrounded by lupin and poppy fields.
The region transformed after the Japanese military bombed Pearl Harbor, and so did Lorraine's life. Panic struck the Bay Area, and her father was sent up to guard the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, which provides water to the region, with a rifle. Soon her friends from school were placed in Japanese internment camps. Soldiers flocked to the area's military bases as the United States entered the second World War.
She married one of those soldiers: Joseph Jakala, a Minnesota National Guardsman.
Years later, when she came looking for Joseph and their son, she struck up a friendship with Ray Rybak, a fellow resident of the Continental Hotel. Ray recognized her in the elevator from the Tribune article and offered to help. They eventually married and had three children: Michael, R.T. and Georgeann. In 1960, Lorraine and Ray opened Rybak Drug store in Minneapolis.
Tragedy befell Lorraine once again. They'd just reopened the store at a new location when Ray suffered a stroke, which would lead to his death.
Lorraine ran the drugstore herself. She fashioned a living room in the basement with couches and lamps where the kids came after school to do their homework. She was a victim of several armed robberies at the store. Two nights in a row, she was held at gunpoint.
"God, get me up off this floor and I'll close the store," she promised during the second one. And she did.
She took a job running the bookstore at Breck School, a Golden Valley prep school, so her kids could get scholarships. She worked at Breck for two decades, eventually ascending to Dean of Girls and college guidance counselor, a role in which she helped thousands of young women find paths to higher education. She made special cases of the ones who were bullied or whose parents didn't believe they were college material.
"She really gravitated toward people like that," said Charlie, who has met successful Breck alumni who still thank his grandmother for being their champion.
Lorraine had always dreamed of going to college herself. Working at the school allowed her to take summer courses. She earned a B.A. and master's degrees in education from the University of Minnesota.
She found Joey in 1972.
It had been 22 years since he disappeared. The FBI couldn't locate him and Lorraine thought he may be dead. Then one day he called out of the blue. He'd just returned from the Vietnam War. His father had told him she was dead, and only just before he shipped out did he learn it was a lie.
When they finally reunited, "I would say it was one of the happiest nights of our lives," recalled R.T., a high school student when he met the long-lost brother he never knew existed.
Joey, who was now Joe, convinced Lorraine to see his father, "and she found some way to forgive him," said R.T.
Perhaps because she spent the holidays alone before she met Ray, Lorraine was determined to make sure no one else had to. She hosted R.T.'s Star Tribune coworkers at the family's Easter celebration. Later, when R.T. was mayor of Minneapolis, she invited the family of Tyesha Edwards — an 11-year-old killed by a stray bullet — to Thanksgiving dinner. The Edwards family attended that year and several after.
Lorraine married for the third and final time to Chuck Mesken, whom she called "the love of my life." They religiously attended Vikings game together with season tickets. Chuck loved geography and Lorraine had a talent for writing, and together they traveled to every continent and Lorraine documented their adventures in her journal.
Chuck died in 1999, just after a trip to Antarctica. Lorraine did not slow down. Two years later, when her son ran for mayor of Minneapolis, she helped operate the campaign office and delivered speeches on his behalf.
She was 84 when Obama won re-election, and photos in the next day's news coverage showed her crowd-surfing at the local DFL election night party. When the Super Bowl came to Minneapolis in 2018, she rode the zipline over the Mississippi River at 90 years old.
In the last years of her life, Lorraine was prepared for death. She retained her wit and rosy outlook until the very end.
"People rightfully asked her whether she had a really tough life, but she said, 'No I had a wonderful life, because it all led up to where I am now,'" R.T recalled .
A celebration of her life is planned for 1 p.m. June 24 at St. John's Episcopal Church, 4201 Sheridan Av. S. in Minneapolis.