Tillie Dybing has been through a lot in her life. The 107-year-old Detroit Lakes resident, who grew up in North Dakota, has experienced everything from a world war to the Great Depression; a global pandemic known as the Spanish flu; a flood that forced her from her Minot home not just once, but five times; a battle with uterine cancer at age 95; and now, COVID-19.
"I didn't even know I had it," says Tillie, recalling the November day she was moved from her regular room at Emmanuel to the nursing home's transitional care unit, where she was kept in near-total isolation for two weeks before she was able to move back to her regular room — just in time to celebrate the holidays.
"I was tired," she said of her bout with the pandemic. "I could have slept day and night, but other than that, I didn't really feel anything else."
Tillie was one of the early recipients of the COVID-19 vaccine when it arrived at the nursing home this past week.
"Shots don't bother me much," she said of the experience. "My arthritis hurts more than that did."
Growing up in North Dakota
Though she has been a resident of Detroit Lakes for about a decade now, Tillie spent most of her life in her native North Dakota.
She was born in a sod house in Manfred in east-central North Dakota. When she was just 5 years old, both of her parents came down with the Spanish flu.
“My folks were both in bed, and I was running up and down the middle (of the bed)," she recalled in a Tuesday interview. "My dad looked at me and said, 'Can't you run some place else?'"
Tillie herself never succumbed to the flu. "I survived that, and cancer," she said, referring to a bout with uterine cancer when she was 95.
The severe drought that turned parts of North Dakota into a dust bowl in the 1930s came to her parents’ farm as well, so they moved into Harvey when Tillie was 7.
For many years, Tillie was an only child (her parents lost three children in infancy), before her brother came along when Tillie was 16. He died about 15 years ago.
Tillie graduated from high school in Harvey in 1932. She had plans to become a nurse, but the college she wanted to attend wasn’t taking any new students that fall, so she put it off for a year.
“And then, I got married,” she said in a 2017 interview for Women 360 magazine.
Tillie and her husband George Dybing were married on Nov. 29, 1934, in Harvey, and lived there until moving to Minot in 1941.
Because her husband’s construction job in Minot, N.D., was seasonal, she got a job at Bowles Juniors, a children’s clothing store; at Buttrey’s clothing store; and then at Bader’s Department Store, where she worked for 27 years.
“I was in ready-to-wear,” Tillie said, where she sold dresses, car coats and other such merchandise.
Along the way, Tillie and George raised two children — son Myron, who lives in Detroit Lakes with his wife, Pam; and daughter Susan, who lives in Minneapolis with her husband Marv Berke, though they winter in Arizona.
She has four grandchildren and numerous great grandchildren and great-great grandchildren.
In Minot, Tillie was also very active in her church, teaching Sunday school and singing in the choir, and she also volunteered quite a lot at Trinity Hospital, working in the gift shop, assisting with crafts, “wherever I was needed,” Tillie said.
Her husband also had some land outside Harvey, where she and the kids would spend every August helping to bring in the harvest.
“There was no electricity, no running water,” she said. They used kerosene lamps for lighting and used the well to cool items. “We never had a refrigerator or deep freeze — if we wanted Jello, we had to put it in the well to harden.”
“I drove the combine,” she said. “It wasn’t like like tractors are now. It was open.
“When you went to supper, you didn’t know if you had white teeth or black teeth (from soil and dust),” Tillie said with a laugh. “It was quite the life, but the kids and I enjoyed it.”
Of course, that might have had something to do with the fact that it was temporary, she said with a smile.
In the old days on the farm, store-bought pain relievers were hard to come by. “If you had a headache, you had to rub Watkins liniment on your head and tie a ribbon around it,” she said.
She learned to drive a Model A car when she was 14 or 15. “It had three pedals, high, low or backing up — no stick shift,” she said. “If it didn’t start, you had to jack up the rear wheels and crank the front.”
In those days, people made the best of the challenging winters. “It was cold, but we didn’t mind,” Tillie said. “We had sleighs. We’d hitch up the horses, go to the neighbors, and play whist.”
When she was a child, her monthly allowance was 25 cents — which may not seem like much now, but she could buy a sucker for a penny and a candy bar for 2 cents, Tillie said. The cost of a movie ticket jumped from 7 cents in 1923 to 25 cents in 1924. She’d have to ask her dad for extra money to see a matinee on the weekends after that.
As a child, she used to hate having to milk the family’s seven dairy cows. “The tails would swish in your face,” she said. “You had to keep your nails shorts, because if they pinched, she’d kick.”
While living in Minot, Tillie and her husband had to deal with flooding five times.
“One year, we had 13 inches of water on the main floor,” she said.
Moving to Detroit Lakes
In 2011, a widowed Tillie finally decided she’d had enough of the constant threat of floods.
“I thought, ‘It’s time to get out,’” she said. “My kids said I should move here (to Detroit Lakes).”
Tillie’s children helped her relocate. She first moved in with her son and daughter-in-law in Detroit Lakes, and shortly thereafter, to Union Central, before finding her way to Ecumen in 2015.
"They have good people, and good food," she says.
Since moving back to her regular room at Emmanuel in December, Tillie says, she is able to get out and about more; when she was in the TCU, Tillie recalled, she tried to poke her head out one day, until one of the nurses saw her and said, "'Tillie! Get back in your room!' So I did."
These days, she only needs to don her mask when making the rounds at Emmanuel. "I have no problem with that," she says. "Why not do it? That’s the least you can do, to keep yourself and others safe."