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Former librarian Lillian Wilson celebrates 110th birthday

Living simply, with gratitude, leads to long life

Jill Schramm/MDN Lillian Wilson was honored with a cake and birthday decorations to celebrate her 110th birthday Sunday at Trinity Homes.

History has been one of Lillian Wilson’s passions.

She’s not only loved it but she’s lived it. Wilson celebrated her 110th birthday Sunday at Trinity Homes in traditional fashion – with cake, balloons and family and friends gathered around.

Wilson is believed to be the second oldest nursing home resident in North Dakota. A resident at Trinity Homes since 2008, Wilson has been active in resident activities, church circles and other groups, according to Trinity Health.

“The one thing I really admire with her is her patience. I have seen how patient she is and just grateful. She has no negative words to say,” said Trinity Homes charge nurse Geri Albea. “I always ask her, ‘What’s your secret to a long life?’ and she would just smile. She just lived a simple life. She’s contented.”

Wilson’s niece, Ruth Puttre of Bismarck, said longevity might have something to do with the lifestyle of her aunt’s generation. Life was simpler and people walked more, she said.

Jill Schramm/MDN Geri Albea, charge nurse at Trinity Homes, chats with Lillian Wilson after presenting her with a birthday sash and crown Sunday.

“She never had a car. She never drove. She walked everywhere or took the train or the bus,” Puttre said.

Born in 1909 on a farm north of Minot, near Ruthville, Wilson was the oldest of three children born to Adam and Anna Wilson. She and her two brothers, now deceased at ages 96 and 94, all attended college, which was an achievement in those days.

The family moved to Aneta after Adam Wilson died during the 1918 flu epidemic. They moved back to Minot in 1925, and Lillian enrolled as a sophomore at Minot High School. After graduation, she enrolled in summer school and eventually obtained her teaching certificate. She taught in rural schools in North Dakota for five years. In 1936, she earned a degree in history and social science from Minot State University.

In 1947, she enrolled in a library science program at a Denver university, earning a master’s degree. She worked as librarian for 11 years at Minot High School and nine years at MSU. She also worked in a library at Valley City State University during her 42 years in education.

“She was a quiet person who fit perfectly into the silence of the library. But she, in her low-volume voice, spoke volumes to us students,” said Malcomb “Mac” Gimse, a Minot High graduate who shared memories in an email.

“When I was in Miss Wilson’s library, she’d ask me how she could help me. I was there frequently so I had to come up with a question. In that way she encouraged me (rather she gently pushed me) to study, which became habitual even beyond my classes,” he said. “I’m convinced her nudging led me to a college scholarship. I’ve never quit reading voraciously. It’s a good discipline that has Lillian as a root.”

Becoming a teacher himself, Gimse taught at St. Olaf’s College in Northfield, Minn., and also abroad.

Another former student Audrey Lilly of Minot, taught 22 years at Ramstad Middle School in Minot. She said when library duties became part of her education role, she decided to take library courses at MSU. By then, her high school librarian, Wilson, was librarian and an instructor at MSU. Embarrassed about her limited enthusiasm for the library in high school, Lilly hoped to go unrecognized in Wilson’s class. She thought she’d been successful until final test day, when Wilson burst that bubble. Wilson mentioned to Lilly how unexpected it was to see someone who spent her high school library time reading magazines now studying to become a librarian.

Lilly went on to get a master’s degree in library science, and she and Wilson remained acquainted as members of Business and Professional Women, which had a Minot chapter.

Former Minot High student Jacky Smith of Minot said she was so shy around her classmates that her teacher would give her and a friend passes to spend study hall in the library rather than in the classroom. There, she came to appreciate Miss Wilson.

“She was a quiet lady, and she was kind and gentle,” she said.

Gary Knudtson, Donnybrook, admits he wasn’t the type of student who darkened the door of the Minot High library very often, but in recent years, he has stopped to visit Wilson annually. For someone so advanced in years, she remains mentally sharp, he said.

“It was an experience to visit with somebody like that,” he said.

Puttre said her aunt has had an avid interest in history, needlepoint, pottery and art.

“She’s always been very interested in North Dakota history. She’s always been a genealogist and enjoyed researching our family,” she said.

There’s been many stories told by Wilson about her mother, whose family homesteaded in Stutsman County, and the family’s roots in Ireland. Wilson saved many documents and items that she felt had historical value. Puttre said she’s come across her aunt’s former teaching contracts within her collection.

In her comments in “Plum Valley Women,” published in 1985 by the Minot Commission on the Status of Women, Wilson spoke about receiving $85 a month for her first year of teaching in a rural school. Her wages were reduced to $65 a month the second year because people could not pay their taxes during the Great Depression.

In high school, she worked at a store that paid 20 cents per hour at a time when ice cream cones were a nickel. Some of her money was spent on sporting events as she stated: “The beginning of the football season, I’d pick out the two games I thought I wanted to see. I could afford tickets for two. Same way when the basketball season came, I’d pick out the games I thought I really wanted to see and then I’d get to those games.”

To this day, Albea noted, Wilson can recite all the words to the Minot High school song.

As an adult, Wilson owned many special treasures, Puttre said. Pieces from her North Dakota pottery collection now are on display in Minot’s Carnegie Center. Puttre, who owns some of the pieces, said Wilson attached notes to items, indicating who made them and where they came from.

Wilson also enjoyed Minot’s Taube Museum of Art, and her home included her art acquisitions and her own handcrafts.

“She was always making Christmas ornaments. Half my Christmas tree was ornaments she made or came from the church bazaar because that was an important part of her retirement,” Puttre said.

After her retirement, Wilson worked as a volunteer at the Cameron Medical Library at Trinity for seven years and volunteered to set up the library at Vincent United Methodist Church, where she had been active for many years.

Wilson also traveled to Europe several times in her retirement.

She had to give up many of her interests in later years, entering assisted living after a bad bout with the flu at age 92. Because of weakened eyesight, she jokes she’s a librarian who can’t read. Her hearing also is greatly impaired, but age hasn’t diminished her sense of humor and wit.

She’s known at Trinity Homes for one-liners such as “I’m tired and retired” and “My forgetter keeps getting better.”

Asked about her birthday wish on Sunday, Wilson said she had none. She had few words for those who came to celebrate with her. But she offered two heartfelt ones – “Thank you.”

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