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Celebrating a life well-lived

Lincoln Park Assisted Living resident Leona Saatoff will celebrate her 100th birthday this Friday, March 20, with an open house from 2 to 4 p.m. Though she was born in Iowa, she spent many of her formative years in Waubun, and also retired there in 1976, after a 45-year career teaching at schools in Hancock and Minneapolis, Minn. (Vicki Gerdes/Tribune)

This Friday, March 20, will be a very special day for the residents and staff at Lincoln Park Assisted Living in Detroit Lakes.

That's the day declared by Detroit Lakes Mayor Matt Brenk as Leona Saatoff Day, in recognition of the Lincoln Park resident's 100th birthday.

Leona Saatoff is the first resident of the assisted living facility to reach the century mark, according to Nancy Kinslow, public relations coordinator for St. Mary's Innovis Health (which operates the facility).

When asked what she was going to do to celebrate the milestone, Leona said, with a twinkle in her eye, "Nothing special...have birthday cake, I suppose."

"There isn't enough room on the cake for the candles anymore," she joked.

Leona's birthday will be celebrated with an open house this Friday from 2-4 p.m. at Lincoln Park Assisted Living, 208 Oak St., Detroit Lakes. The public is invited.

Leona was born in Iowa on March 20, 1909, to Caroline and Jalla Saatoff. She and her two siblings -- a younger brother, Rint and a younger sister, Elizabeth -- moved to Waubun in 1919.

Living on a farm in Popple Grove Township, Leona attended Popple Grove School until she started high school in Waubun. At that time, it was the "new" high school, complete with indoor bathrooms, one for the boys and one for the girls.

There were 25 students in Leona's freshman class at Waubun High School; however, when she graduated in 1926, there were only seven girls and no boys in her class.

"In those days, boys usually quit school at age 16 and worked on the farm," she explained.

After graduation, Leona decided to pursue a teaching career.

"My mother was a teacher, and that's what I looked forward to doing," she said. "There weren't many other opportunities for girls in those days."

Leona completed her training at Moorhead Teacher's College two years later, and went on to teach at Hancock, Minn., for three years. Her starting salary was $100 per month for the nine-month school year. Leona moved to Minneapolis to take a teaching position and received a $25 per month raise, but by the second year in Minneapolis she was down to earning $80 per month, due to the depression.

In 1935, Leona began teaching at Loring School. That was where she met Stella Sorum, a long time friend and fellow teacher who became her roommate for over 40 years. One of the benefits of the apartment was that they could share the costs. Renting a utility apartment at the Buckingham Hotel in Minneapolis, they paid $49.50 per month for a kitchen, dining room, living room and a Murphy bed.

Teaching was challenging in the Minneapolis system. One year during the depression, Leona had 47 first grade students to teach and there were no aides. Leona never had much trouble with discipline; she had a kindergarten-sized classroom, so she was able to separate some of the students and assign some to be her helpers, so she could give other kids more attention as they needed.

Despite those challenges, however, Leona had no regrets about her chosen profession. When asked to remember what was her favorite part of teaching, Leona said simply, "I loved it all. I spent 45 years at it."

In 1946 Leona co-authored a book, which was used in the Minneapolis School System. The book was titled Minneapolis Now and Long Ago, and told stories about pioneers and what their lives were like. This book was written to be read by students and included activities for teachers to do in their classroom. Third grade students did the illustration for the book. This book was used for many years in the school system.

In 1948, Leona and other teachers in Minneapolis went on strike for four weeks in mid-February.

"It was the hardest thing I have ever had to do," she said in a 2007 interview. They struck for a salary schedule. They had to give up some wages but the salary schedule was put in place and eventually all school districts in Minnesota had salary schedules and one period for class preparation.

In this same year, 1948, Leona went on to receive her degree in education from the University of Minnesota.

During the 1960s, Leona was part of the integration of the Hale and Field Schools in Minneapolis. Hale had been a school for white children only, and Field had been a school for black children. The new combined school ran a progressive program where kids were able to progress at their own rate. Leona taught in a group of teachers that combined kindergarten, first, second and third grades. There were two teachers to each grade, and they practiced teamwork. Leona's specialties were social studies, math and science.

Leona never married or had children of her own; she said she loved teaching too much to give it up for a husband and family.

Eventually, however, Leona retired and returned to Waubun in 1976 to be with her mother, Caroline Saatoff, who was in a nursing center in Twin Valley. Her mother was later moved to Mahnomen, where Leona visited her almost every day and volunteered at the nursing center.

Leona didn't sit around and relax after her retirement; she became part of a program where she read to the first and second grade students at the Waubun Elementary in the library. She also read to the kindergarteners in their classroom, and to the people at Hillview Home. She was also very active in her church, the Circle of Faith UCC Church in Waubun.

Leona was presented with the Golden Deeds Award by the Mahnomen Library Club in 2003, and was the Grand Marshal of the Waubun Centennial Parade in 2007.

Since moving to Lincoln Park in Detroit Lakes, Leona has made many friends and continues to enjoy her hobbies, including knitting and reading. She especially enjoys the writings of Minnesota author Jon Hassler.

"You're well taken care of here," she said of Lincoln Park.

Leona will be honored at the open house this Friday with the aforementioned mayoral proclamation. In addition, she will also be presented with a corsage from the Chamber of Commerce Ambassadors, and clowns from SJE Rhombus will be handing out balloons and candy around 3:15 p.m.

Editor's note: Portions of this story were taken from a 2007 interview for the St. Mary's senior newsletter.

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