One room, countless lessons: Advice from a one-room schoolhouse teacher

It was a place most of us saw on shows like “Little House on the Prairie,” but a Mondovi woman was a real-life “Miss Beadle.” 99-year-old Wilma Synstad was the woman at the chalkboard for kids who lived outside Nelson, Wisconsin during The Depression. “I was a good teacher,” she said with the confidence of a seasoned educator. “There wasn’t too much else to do. I was valedictorian of my class so it came naturally.”

Norwegian Valley School outside Nelson, Wis. Photo credit: Buffalo County Historical Society
Photo credit: Buffalo County Historical Society

She and I had a nice conversation in her room at American Lutheran Homes in Mondovi, where she will celebrate 100 years of life in October. I wanted to pick her brain about the teaching moments she experienced inside the four walls of her school. She said she loved being with the children, who ranged in age from six to 15. She had to manage lessons for more than a dozen students at different learning levels. “Well, it was what I did. I didn’t know any better,” she said.

She had to worry about their brains and their hands and feet. Back then; the teacher was also the maintenance crew in charge of heat. “We built our own fires, took care of our own fires, it was a challenge.” And the challenges of the depression era were great, but Wilma said her one-room schoolhouse was an escape for the kids. “We had to ignore it and teach them.” She kept them warm, listened to their worries, taught them what they needed to know and dreamed with them, too. “That they go on to bigger and better things,” she recalled.

When Wilma and I talked of today’s schools and the hustle and bustle, she said it “sounds exciting!” Her advice for teachers in 2015? That they put the children first and “treat them all equally, no teacher’s pets.” She went on to explain that the other children can feel it when there’s a preference. She said the students need to feel that their teacher cares for them. Wilma, we salute you and all the other teachers of today and yesterday. Thank you all for shaping the minds of millions.

Written by Grace Lutheran Communities staff writer


Grand Adventure: Saying yes to new things at age 99

Where do you see yourself at age 80?

Will you be living life to the fullest or letting it pass you by?

2015-06-17 11.12.18As I sat with 99-year-old Gertrude Hoch, I learned that adventures don’t stop after 8, 9 or even nearly 10 decades of life. Gertrude, who lives in the American Lutheran Homes community in Mondovi, is still seizing the day. “We play bingo, we have a bean bag team and a Wii bowling league,” she said. Gertrude will earn 100 candles on her birthday cake this fall, but she earned her adventure badge when she turned 80. “I went to visit my granddaughter in Phoenix. I had my first plane ride when I was 80 years old. They took me to the Grand Canyon. That was wonderful.” grand canyon gertrudeBut she didn’t stop at just being a casual tourist at the national park. “We each had a little tent. We camped out. I was 80 years old and we camped out. That’s an adventure,” Gertrude laughed. She said she was cold in the tent but woke up feeling fine. She marveled at what she observed, but it wasn’t just the majestic rocks that were memorable. “Seeing all the people at the Grand Canyon, all the different nationalities. It’s just amazing.” Having lived through the depression and now as a great-great-grandmother, Gertrude says she’s happiest when she is around her family and when she gets out to meet new people and chat with her friends in her long-term care community. “I take advantage of everything.” She says she doesn’t miss a chance to play cards and go on field trips. She hopes others will do the same, so they can keep a slice of adventure in their life, no matter how old they are. “Just go ahead and do it,” she says.

Written by Grace Lutheran Communities staff writer

Father and Son Remember

When I met Lester Winterberg, his sense of humor was immediately apparent when I asked his last name and he responded with, “Summerbottom.”

I joined Lester and his son Dwayne at Grace Adult Day Services–Altoona, the place where Lester spends his days while his family is at work. The tenderness in the father-son relationship was as apparent as Lester’s sense of humor.
Lester moved to Eau Claire two-and-a-half years ago when he could no longer stay alone at the homestead where he and his wife, Bessie, lived until her passing. Now, he lives with Dwayne’s family.

I asked Lester about his years serving in the 104th “Timberwolf” Division of the Infantry from 1944 to 1945, and he told his story of travels in Europe from France to Germany. As we talked, Lester and Dwayne artfully tag-teamed the storytelling.

Lester-DwayneWhenever Lester’s memory clouded, Dwayne picked up with his own recollection of the stories his dad had told over the years. We talked about Lester’s nearly losing his feet from trenchfoot and the letters he wrote home to Bessie.

“They met the week before he went into training and then he came back on leave and they actually got engaged,” Dwayne said. “The second time he came back they got married.”

“Have I still got her?” Lester looked to Dwayne.

“No she passed away three years ago.”

“Yeah, but I did have her up…” Lester searched for words.

“Yeah, 68 years.” Both smiled.

Lester talked about his time serving as first scout in the 104th Infantry Division. “When we got to where we was going we would have a role call. And you know I was lucky enough to have all my men there.” Lester choked up as he spoke.

He told of close calls with trip lines and enemy booby traps. “And I’m still here. You know why? I had a mom and dad praying for me. ” Once again, Lester’s voice was thick with emotion.

A lot has changed since Lester served in World War II. He progressed from turkey farmer to crop farmer, then to dairy farmer to beef farmer and in the later years to an operator of excavation equipment.

The relationship between Lester and Dwayne has also progressed over the years. Where once they had a 40-year tradition of an annual fishing trip to Canada, now they have new traditions. Lester spends days at Grace Adult Day Services going fishing, playing Bingo, going bowling, taking walks outside, and playing mind-stimulating games while Dwayne is at work.

When both return home at the end of the day, they bond over Wheel of Fortune and recorded episodes of other favorite shows.

“He loves Price is Right,” said Dwayne. He said he also loves fried chicken. “He’s a fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy guy.”

“You want some?” asked Lester.

I know he meant it. After 30 minutes with Lester and Dwayne, I saw legacy of generosity and kindness demonstrated in both father and son.

by staff writer for Grace Lutheran Foundation

It’s Never Too Late for a New Purpose

It’s Never Too Late for a New Purpose: Former teacher opens a new chapter in her life

By Hannah Cole

One of the most popular books at a tiny library in Eau Claire is flying off the shelves. The series is called “The Walk,” a story of a man who lost his family and business and decides to walk from Washington to Florida to try to find his purpose. The woman who runs the library is much like those who visit it—retired and on a new journey, a new chapter of life.DSC_0658_WEB

Karen Alexander is a residential librarian of sorts, overseeing the self-started library at Grace Willowbrook Assisted Living. In a small room that serves as the library, the former Eau Claire teacher has packed the shelves with over 400 books. She noticed that residents had a hard time reading the few fine-print paperback books that sat on the shelves before, so she replaced them with large-print books; they are easier for the residents to read and hold on to.

Her love for reading continued and a library began the day she moved into the community five years ago.

“I had been reading novels for about nine years before I moved in here and I brought a couple of paper bags full; before, there were five large-print books in the building,” Alexander said.

The in-house library saves residents a trip to the downtown public library. Books of various genres occupy the shelves, but the majority of them are fiction.

“When you get to this stage in life, people want something to enjoy,” Alexander laughed, “We’re not as interested in learning anymore as we used to be.”

DSC_0660_WEBThe library is frequented so often that Alexander created a check-out and check-in area to keep track of them all. Although there are no fines for overdue books at this library, Karen has been known to come knocking at residents’ doors for missing books.

Alexander will also deliver books to residents living on different floors and if someone new moves in, she picks a few out and makes a delivery.

“This wouldn’t have been without the support of the administration,” Alexander said. “It’s really impressed me how they allow us to go ahead with something like this, whether it’s gardening or whatever, and develop things on our own. It’s really positive for somebody who has a lot of time on their hands.“

Alexander added, “It’s never too late to start something new or to pick up a new hobby.”

Grace Willowbrook is a certified RAC (residential apartment complex) assisted living residence owned by Grace Lutheran Foundation in Eau Claire, Wis. Find out more at 

This article used with permission from Queen of the Castle Magazine (C)2015. Please request permission before reposting in full.