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She's one for the history books -- Leona Saatoff started teaching just before the Great Depression hit

When Leona Saatoff was chosen as the grand marshal of the Waubun Centennial Parade earlier this summer, it was a big surprise.

"Her kids just came and picked her up that day," says Judy Block, resident manager at Lincoln Park Assisted Living in Detroit Lakes, where Saatoff has been a resident for the past year.

When asked about the experience, Saatoff is clearly a little uncomfortable with the attention.

"I was just a hard working teacher," she says. "Nothing special."

And yet she has an entire section of the Waubun Centennial history book dedicated to her.

Born on March 30, 1909, in Iowa, Leona was the oldest of three children. Her parents were Caroline and Jalla Saatoff , and she had two younger siblings, brother Rint and sister Elizabeth.

In 1919, when she was just 9 years old, Leona and her family moved to Waubun. A month later, they moved to a farm in Popple Grove Township, where Leona attended classes at a rural school until starting high school in Waubun.

In 1921, the new Waubun High School was completed, and Leona started seventh grade there. With indoor bathrooms on the north side of the brick building, on the ground floor (which later became staff offices), "We (she and her classmates) thought it was pretty nice," Saatoff says.

There were just 25 students in her freshman class at Waubun. When they graduated, in 1926, there were seven girls and no boys.

"In those days, boys usually quit school at age 16 and worked on the farm," she explains in the history book.

Leona went on to attend Moorhead Teacher's College for two years, and began her career in education at Hancock, Minn. Her starting salary was $100 per month -- for the nine months that school was in session only.

After leaving Hancock, Leona moved to Minneapolis, where she would spend the next 45 years. She taught in the Minneapolis public school system from 1931-76, and her starting salary for her first year in Minneapolis was $125 per month.

During the first part of her second year at Minneapolis, her salary was cut to just $80 a month. Though it was during the Depression, her teacher's union successfully negotiated a contract the following January that ensured none of the teachers would ever again be paid less than $100 per month.

In 1935, Saatoff began teaching at Loring School, and met Stella Sorum, a fellow teacher. They decided to share an apartment -- an arrangement that lasted until Leona's retirement, in 1976.

Teaching in the Minneapolis school system was quite challenging -- particularly during the Depression, when at one point, her first grade class numbered 47 students.

"We got through it OK," she says modestly -- despite the fact that teachers at that time were not assisted by classroom aides. Some of the students served as her helpers, however.

Though she never married, nor had children of her own, Saatoff says she never really felt afraid of living on her own in Minneapolis.

"I was followed home one night," she says -- but she eluded her unwanted companion by ducking into the Foshay Tower, where she "ran like a deer." Luckily, she wasn't followed beyond that point.

"It was a drunk -- he got confused," she says impishly.

And then there was the time two 10-year-old boys tried to snatch her purse.

"I slung it around, and he (the boy who tried to grab it) fell down on his knees," she recalls. That was enough for the would-be thieves. They ran away.

In 1946, Saatoff helped to author a book, which was later used as a history text in the Minneapolis school system. Minneapolis Now & Long Ago told stories about the pioneers who settled in Minneapolis and what their lives were like.

"I wrote the book as part of a university class," she says. (Saatoff eventually earned a bachelor's degree in education from the University of Minnesota.)

In 1948, she and her fellow Minneapolis teachers went on strike, for four weeks in mid-February. "It was the hardest thing I've ever had to do," she says.

Their efforts resulted in the implementation of a salary schedule -- something that would eventually become the norm in school districts across the state.

In the 1960s, she was part of the integration of the Hale and Field schools -- which had previously been segregated according to whether the students were white (Hale) or black (Field) children. The new, combined school ran a progressive program, and Saatoff taught in a group of teachers who instructed a combined class of kindergarten, first, second and third grade students. There were two teachers per grade, and they practiced team teaching; Leona taught social studies, math and science.

In 1976, Saatoff retired and moved back to her childhood home, Waubun, because her mother was living in an area nursing home; she would visit her mother almost every day, until Caroline Saatoff passed away in 1982.

For seven years, Saatoff was part of a reading program at Waubun Elementary School, where she would read books to students in kindergarten, first and second grades; she also read to residents at the Hillview Home. She once won a Senior Spelling Bee in Mahnomen. She did work for the Minneapolis Star Tribune crossword puzzles on a daily basis, and remained an avid reader. (Minnesota author Jon Hassler is listed as a favorite.)

Though Saatoff 's world has been silent since she lost her ability to hear -- Block communicates questions and comments to her by writing them on a white board -- she still speaks clearly, and retains her sense of humor.

"I'm contented," Saatoff says.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454