Portrait of a lady ... in cowboy boots
Detroit Lakes native Eloise Irvine turns 100 on Friday, July 8
DETROIT LAKES — When asked to sit down and talk about her life story, Detroit Lakes native Eloise Irvine responds, "I really don't have much to say."
"Well we know that's not true," her son Peter says with a smile.
With a little coaxing, however, she begins to open up about her childhood years in Detroit Lakes, her adult years with husband Robert Irvine — whom she refers to as "Irv" — and raising their four children: Patrick, Peter, Daniel and Sally.
"I was spoiled from the start," she said with a smile. "My young life was wonderful."
Her first "chance to be famous," as she called it, occurred during her years at Detroit Lakes High School, when then-principal George Simson called her into the office — she thought she might be in trouble, or getting some bad news, Eloise recalled — to ask her if she would design an official logo for her class to use.
"What's that?" asked a young Eloise Jenson, unfamiliar with the term "logo" at that time.
When she learned that it was a symbol or other design adopted by an organization or business to identify its products, uniform, vehicles, etc., she agreed to create a sailboat-themed design — a symbol that has been used, in various incarnations, to identify Detroit Lakes Public Schools ever since.
Though she was an artist for most of her life — up until she could no longer see well enough to paint, or knit (another of her favorite hobbies) — Eloise was quite surprised when she was invited to participate in an art show at Fargo's new West Acres Mall in the 1970s, joining artists that she herself admired, like Charles Beck .
"I was painting like mad," she said, right up until the grand opening — and even so, she recalled, "I sold all of my paintings on Friday," though the show was supposed to last until Sunday.
Several of her paintings line the walls of her apartment at The Madison in Detroit Lakes, where she has lived for the past couple of years.
"They're not my best work," she said, though her son Peter noted that she tends to be a harsher critic of her own creations than her children are.
Some of the other paintings that decorate her walls are her children's work: A large graphic illustration by her son, Daniel — whom she lost to cancer in 2012, when he was 60 years old — takes a prominent spot.
Besides being a wife and mother, Eloise was also quite well-known for her knowledge of antiques.
"I loved old things," she explained, noting that one of her favorite things was going to auctions and estate sales, where she was frequently the only woman in attendance.
"Those guys were so good to me," she said, noting that the men in attendance at the auctions would often volunteer to bring her purchases back to her home for her.
One day, a friend of hers called her up and said that the two women whom she had lined up to run her flea market business had backed out, and would Eloise like the job?
So Eloise stepped up and ran the Shady Hollow Flea Market, along with her good friend, Bill Gunderson, "who knew a lot more about antiques than I did."
They did that for about five years, then sold it. "Now it's huge," she said, noting that the flea market's original focus on antiques has been expanded to include a wide range of products.
Her next business was a local antique shop, which she again ran with Bill Gunderson's assistance.
"We had that for three years," she said — until one day, her husband said, "You know, Eloise, you aren't making any money."
"We didn't lose money, but we weren't making any either," she admitted — so they sold that business too.
The attorney's wife
The daughter of a prominent local attorney, Henry Jenson, Eloise ended up marrying another, in 1943 — though her husband, Robert Irvine, wouldn't become a lawyer until a few years later.
Their wedding took place at her parents' home in Detroit Lakes — something that hadn't originally been planned, until the advent of a severe blizzard that kept several members of the wedding party from attending, along with most of the guests.
After the wedding, the newlywed Irvines headed to the train station to begin their honeymoon — and ran into a group of their relatives who had just arrived, belatedly, for the festivities.
During the early years of their marriage, the Irvines lived in North Carolina, where Irv worked as a flight instructor for pilots getting ready to go to war.
"He flew B-52s," Eloise said. Their first child, son Patrick, was born there. "We stayed there until the war was over," she added.
After his time in the service was over, the Irvines returned to Minnesota, where Irv attended law school at the University of Minnesota, on the G.I. Bill. Eloise ended up moving back home to Detroit Lakes and living with their parents while awaiting the birth of their second child, Peter.
As he was waiting for word on whether he had passed the bar exam to become a licensed attorney — a process that took several months — Irv ended up working at the housing bureau at the university.
"He was there every day, trying to find a place to live," Eloise said — so they offered him a job.
After passing the bar, he was eventually offered a place with his father-in-law's firm in Detroit Lakes, and so they moved back to Eloise's hometown in 1949.
"He loved it here, with all the lakes and trees," Eloise said, noting that his hometown in Iowa didn't have much to offer in that vein, being located in the middle of the prairie.
In the process of trying to establish a local practice, Irv decided to run for county attorney — and to his surprise, he won, all the hard work he had spent knocking on doors paying off with his first term in elected office.
"Everyone knew him," she said.
Irv also became quite prominent in local politics, as a member of the Democratic Party. His wife, however, had other political leanings.
"I was a Republican, and he was a Democrat," Eloise said — a fact that occasionally resulted in some interesting situations, such as the day when he brought a man home for dinner who was seeking the Democratic nomination for a local legislative office.
Eloise had just been to the local Republican Party headquarters, where she picked up some campaign posters for several candidates, and had them displayed prominently in the house.
"We made a big joke out of it — and it turned out Irv's guy won anyway," Eloise recalled with a laugh.
Then there was the time that U.S. Sen. Walter Mondale — whom Eloise referred to by his nickname, "Fritz" — came to speak at their son Daniel's graduation commencement ceremony, by special invitation.
"He flew all the way from Washington," Eloise recalled — only to find that Daniel wasn't there, as he had unexpectedly earned a berth at the state golf tournament that same weekend, and decided he couldn't pass up the opportunity to compete one last time for the Lakers.
"He was thrilled, so we couldn't keep him here," Eloise said of Daniel's reaction.
"He (Mondale) gave the speech anyway," Peter said.
When Mondale and his entourage were getting ready to fly home, they discovered the plane wasn't working, so they headed back to the Irvines' house and hung out there until it was ready to go.
"He wasn't upset," Eloise said of Mondale, whom she called "a good friend of Irv's."
Then there was the time that the Irvines went out to dinner with then-Senator Hubert Humphrey (the 38th vice president of the United States), and Humphrey signed the dinner menu with the words he had jokingly uttered earlier in the evening, "Eloise, someday you'll see the light."
These stories are just a handful of the many that the Irvines gathered during their years of involvement in local politics and community affairs, Eloise noted.
When Eloise's vision began to fail her, she was forced to give up many of her favorite hobbies, like painting, knitting and reading. Today, she relies on audio books — a lifesaver, she calls them — and a machine that helps her to read important documents that she can no longer see.
"She voluntarily gave up driving about the same time (as her painting)," said Peter Irvine, her second oldest child, who was a practicing attorney and later, Seventh District Court judge in Detroit Lakes for many years. "She made that decision herself ... a lot of older folks refuse to put the keys away, but my mother had common sense."
Eloise tries to put her lack of sight into perspective with humor, referring to the "silly things" she does, like putting mismatched shoes or boots (her favorites are a pair of pink cowboy boots, which she wore for the interview) on her feet.
She recalled one incident where she went to her favorite local hair salon — where she still gets her hair done once a week — and as soon as she walked in the door, she was greeted with chuckles.
"What's so funny?" she asked. "You are!" someone replied. "Your shoes are on the wrong feet!"
"These are the kind of things that happen when you're 99 and can't see," Eloise said ruefully, adding that her daughter has taken to sorting out her pairs of shoes and boots and fastening them together with clothes pins so she doesn't make those kinds of mistakes as frequently.
Other than the loss of her vision, however, Eloise remains in remarkably good health. "She doesn't take any pills, other than a couple of Aleve once in a while," said Peter, adding that her children really can't say the same.
Most of her family will be in attendance for her 100th birthday celebration on Friday, July 8 — which will actually be her third such celebration this year, Peter said, "though she keeps saying she doesn't want a party."