With her children, Anne Vesenka shared music. With her friends, she shared recipes. And with the guests who stayed at her family-owned hostel in Harvard, she shared stories, tradition, and a sense of community.
“When you come to a hostel, you’re not thinking in terms of a hotel,” she told the Bangor Daily News in 1981. “You come because you enjoy other people’s company and traveling under your own steam. The spirit of the hostel is the spirit of cooperation.”
Along with her husband, Martin, Mrs. Vesenka purchased Friendly Crossways Massachusetts Retreat Center in 1963. Both had previously visited the hostel separately. Together, they maintained the center for decades as a wedding venue, backpacking rest stop, and family reunion location.
Mrs. Vesenka, who helped run the hostel for more than 30 years, died of complications from dementia April 21 in Life Care Center of Nashoba Valley in Littleton, where she had lived for six years. She was 87.
In 1971, Paul Cooke of Montreal was biking from Canada when he met Mrs. Vesenka while stopping for an evening at the hostel. Returning often to Friendly Crossways, he watched her four children grow up.
Cooke said Mrs. Vesenka was an “open book” in the best ways, talking with guests about everything that happened at the hostel and always striving to make them feel as though they were a part of her close-knit family.
“She would often embrace people who were staying there even if she didn’t know them very well and get them to do things with her,” Cooke said. “She had just that kind of personality that just made you feel you wanted to be with her.”
The hostel, he added, “was an extension of her character. It was part of who she was. She always reached out to people.”
In 1996, Mrs. Vesenka and Martin turned over the hostel to their daughter Mary Helan Vesenka Turner and moved to Plymouth, where Mrs. Vesenka took care of her husband until he died in 1999. Mary and her husband, Keith, who lived in Hawaii before taking over the hostel, continue to run Friendly Crossways.
“They told us that they were trying to sell the property for five years and they had an offer,” Mary said. “The only offer they had was from a developer, and we knew that he would tear the property down.”
Mary added that she and her husband “had been thinking for about five years that we would want to come to Friendly Crossways to take over, and when we realized that this was the time, that it was now or never, we made the family decision and moved here. I am just grateful that I can be part of the heritage and continue the legacy.”
Mrs. Vesenka, who was known as Anne throughout her life, was born Elizabeth Anne Alcock. She was the youngest of three children and the only daughter. As a young girl, she had freckles and long red hair, which she often wore in a single thick braid down her back, said her sister-in-law Jane Alcock of North Chatham.
“She was very family-oriented,” Alcock said. “Being an only girl for a long time, growing up with two brothers, she probably relished getting everyone together.”
Mrs. Vesenka grew up and went to schools on Cape Cod before training at what is now Boston Children’s Hospital. She received a nursing degree in 1949.
Just after finishing school, she traveled to Mexico and volunteered as a nurse for a group of Quakers who were building a school. While in Mexico she met Martin Vesenka, whom she married in 1952.
In the early years of their marriage they moved around the United States for his career as a school teacher. They also lived in Indonesia for two years after he landed a job through the US Agency for International Development. When Martin was assigned to Yemen, however, he and the family decided not to move there and instead returned to Massachusetts, where they began running Friendly Crossways. The Vesenkas bought the hostel a year later and Mrs. Vesenka devoted herself to its success.
“She was generous with her time and her energy and her intellect and her grace and her joy of living,” Mary said. “She just shared that with everyone.”
She added that her mother has served as president of the League of Women Voters of Harvard and participated in the Garden Club of Harvard and the Harvard Organization of Parents, Educators, and Students. She also was an active member of The First Church of Christ, Scientist in Boston.
But nothing, her family said, compared to the way Mrs. Vesenka’s face lit up when she was on stage. A community performer for more than 40 years, she loved music and passed that passion to her children and grandchildren.
Muriel Minot, who directed several shows in which Mrs. Vesenka and Mary performed, said she loved watching the bond between mother and daughter grow as they acted together on the stage.
“Anne was this bigger-than-life personality,” Minot said. “She walked into a room and you could turn off all the lightbulbs because she could light it up herself.”
Though Minot and her husband now live in Santa Monica, Calif., the families remained close, visiting each other and taking part in one another’s milestones. “Anne and I had an immediate unconditional love,” Minot said.
In addition to her daughter, Mrs. Vesenka leaves a son, James of Kennebunkport, Maine; two other daughters, Ruth Ann Lewis of Avon, Conn., and Hannah Rebecca Roeder of Pompano Beach, Fla.; nine grandchildren; and a great-grandson.
On Mother’s Day, Mrs. Vesenka’s family held a small service to bury her ashes on a hill overlooking Friendly Crossways, a place where Martin’s ashes also are buried. The family will hold a celebration of her life at Friendly Crossways on Nov. 22. Mary said her mother loved bringing everyone together at the hostel for Thanksgiving, and the family hopes to honor her memory by continuing the tradition.
“Mom and Dad used to throw these amazing Thanksgiving feasts. We would have 40 or 50 people,” Mary said. “It was a great gathering space.’’
She added that “it was so important for her to know we were taken care of. It was her form of love.”