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Vera Lois Erickson rose from humble beginnings in tiny Nopeming, Minn., to become a professor in the University of Minnesota's Department of Educational Psychology. While there, she pioneered research on the moral development of young women, contributing to changes in the way women are valued in society.

Education was Erickson's way forward in the world, but she also saw it as a means to improve it, too. "She had such clarity of purpose," said her sister Connie Grumdahl of Minneapolis.

Erickson, 85, of Minnetonka, died peacefully on Sept. 25 after a long battle with Alzheimer's disease.

One of 19 children, Erickson left home at the age of 12 to support her family by caring for a local doctor's family. "She was grateful for an orange and a pair of socks at Christmas," said her daughter Kathleen Murphy, of Woodland.

Despite hardships, Erickson graduated as valedictorian of Proctor High School in 1955. She declined a full scholarship to Carleton College in Northfield to stay closer to home, and graduated cum laude from the University of Minnesota Duluth in 1959.

With three small children, Erickson moved in 1971 to the Twin Cities, where she earned a doctorate in educational psychology at the U. She later divorced her first husband.

Despite a tight budget, she found $210 to buy a guitar for her son, Dan Murphy — who with two other bandmates went on to form the Twin Cities rock group Soul Asylum.

"I was a kid and it meant a lot to me," said Murphy, of Minneapolis. "That was a lot of money for a single mom with three kids working on her Ph.D."

As a sophomore at Marshall-University High School in Minneapolis in 1973, Christina Hodne Rothstein participated in Erickson's five-year study on how she and her female classmates responded to a series of moral dilemmas. Previous research had focused only on boys.

The experience "sparked something in me," said Rothstein, who became a social worker. "It helped me think beyond myself."

Erickson traveled the world discussing her work. She won a National Research Award in 1976, and was a visiting scholar at Harvard University in 1980-81.

In the 1980s, Erickson and female colleagues sued the U for pay discrimination. They won a $3 million settlement for more than 1,000 women in 1989.

Increasingly interested in spirituality, Erickson was key in the establishment of what is now the Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality and Healing at the U. Having the support of a senior faculty member "added such legitimacy to the program," said director Mary Jo Kreitzer.

In the 1990s, the concept of different disciplines coming together to study spirituality, health and well-being "was considered somewhat radical at the time," Kreitzer said. "You have to care for the whole person; Lois knew that to be true."

Erickson retired from the U in 2005. Along with Grumdahl and Kathleen and Dan Murphy, Erickson is survived by a daughter, Maureen Murphy of North Oaks; sisters Bonnie Grandell of Minneapolis; Janice Gnotta of Minnetonka; Judy Johnson of Champlin; Jackie Biron and Nita Daun, both of Florida; Cyndee Erickson of Duluth; and Arlene Thygeson of Proctor; brothers Tom and David Erickson, both of Duluth; and four grandchildren. Services have been held.