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Lake Park residents make the grade

DUANE AND MARY ANN OLSON, summer residents of Lake Park, spend their winters volunteering at the Harlingen Literacy Center in Harlingen, Texas, where Duane teaches English, and Mary Ann teaches citizenship classes.

Though they are only winter residents of San Benito, Texas, Mary Ann and Duane Olson have managed to make an impact on the community through volunteering.

The Olsons, who live between Leaf and Big Cormorant lakes near Lake Park during the summer months, have spent the past seven winters as volunteer teachers at the Harlingen Literacy Center.

Duane teaches English, while Mary Ann teaches citizenship classes.

"I prepare students to pass the test to become U.S. citizens," said Mary Ann.

"And I teach them enough English so they can try (to take the test)," Duane added jokingly -- but was quick to note that the ultimate goal of most of his students is to become bilingual.

"It (being bilingual) really helps them to get a better job," Duane said.

Though neither of them are teachers by trade -- Mary Ann was a registered nurse before her retirement, while Duane served for 23½ years in the U.S. Air Force.

"I got my commission and finished as a major in 1982," he added.

Part of his job with the Air Force involved working as a Russian translator, so helping immigrants to learn English seemed like a natural fit to him.

He views his students as an extended family, and said he gets a great deal of pleasure from seeing them move on to bigger and better things once they graduate.

"One of my students became an assistant store manager at an outlet store, and another manages a nursing office in Dallas," he said proudly.

Duane, who also holds a degree in economics from the University of Minnesota, occasionally teaches GED math classes at the literacy center as well.

For her part, Mary Ann said she became interested in teaching citizenship classes through being a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, who believe "it's part of our patriotic duty to help people to become really good citizens."

Immigrants from south of the U.S. border are sometimes looked down upon, but Mary Ann said that the students she teaches are "very caring and interested people who want to make a better life for themselves and their families -- and they want to do it legally, by becoming citizens."

Though they both volunteer at the literacy center at least two days a week, it's not necessarily at the same time.

"I work on Tuesday and Thursday in the morning, and Ole (Duane's nickname) works Tuesday and Thursday in the evening," said Mary Ann.

"It's (having a different volunteer schedule) mainly because that's where the need is," Duane added.

When they're not volunteering, the Olsons can most often be found on the golf course, or in their garden.

"We live in a mobile home park in San Benito... it's a nice, convenient location for us," Duane said. "There are golf courses to the north and south of us, and kitty corner too... which is very convenient for a golfing person like myself.

"That's (golfing) my main hobby," he added.

"And gardening too," Mary Ann interjected. "He grows tomatoes like crazy down here."

"And back home too," Duane admitted. "I have three tomato seasons -- one in Minnesota, and two down here."

"His friends call him the 'Tomato King,'" Mary Ann laughed.

Duane also pursues his golf hobby quite avidly back in Minnesota, where he is a nearly lifelong member of the Detroit Country Club.

"I used to caddy there when I was a kid," he said. "I even won the caddy championship in 1953. I still have my membership there -- I have a lengthy connection to the DCC."

The Olsons also used to own and manage a campground on Leaf Lake -- in fact, the property is still visible from their current home, though they sold ownership to the campground's former manager, Richard Tracy, in the early 1990s.

"His son Scott now owns it (the campground),"Duane said. "We're still friends with the family."

Though they enjoy their winters in Texas, Mary Ann and Duane are very much looking forward to getting back to Minnesota -- they're due to depart San Benito on May 20.

"We still feel very much a part of the community there," Mary Ann said.

"We're looking forward to getting back, and putting our garden in," Duane added.

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