Living history: Farm owner, educator marks 114th birthday
NORTHWOOD, N.D. — First, the news: Yes, Iris Westman of Northwood, N.D., turned 114 on Wednesday, Aug. 28.
Yes, Iris is the oldest person in North Dakota.
And yes, this proud North Dakotan ranks third among Americans in age. She may rank 12th in the world.
Think of what Iris has seen. She grew up on a farm at Aneta, N.D., in an area her family still calls home. She graduated from the University of North Dakota in 1928. She went on to a career in teaching and school library work in Worthington, Minn.
Retired in 1972, Iris moved "home" to Grand Forks in 1990, and eventually to the Deaconess Health Center Nursing Home in Northwood, where she lives today. Iris still visits with friends, despite difficulty seeing and hearing. She uses a walker to go to lunch every day. She attends Bible study and church programs. She is still quick with a quip or sideways rejoinder, but apologizes for not being quotable enough.
While Iris was retiring from teaching, I was still in high school in Brookings, S.D. I sang in a Lutheran church choir and went on for an agricultural journalism degree at South Dakota State University in 1979. My first job was at the Worthington Globe. I met Iris when we were singing in the First Lutheran Church choir in Worthington.
I met my wife, Barb, in Worthington. We married and moved to Fargo in 1983, where I was hired as farm reporter for the The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. I shifted to Agweek in 2000.
In 2013, I got a note from Jane Lukens of Aneta, N.D. An Agweek column I'd written referred to my old church in Worthington. Jane told me Iris — remarkably — was turning 108 and living in Northwood. Our old friendship was rekindled. (Coincidentally, Iris' grand-niece, Jane's daughter, Katie Pinke, became publisher and general manager of Agweek in 2016.)
This year, party organizers at the nursing home invited me to join an impromptu choir for Iris' 114th. We sang favorite hymns.The last song Iris' birthday chorus sang was "School Days," a ditty that was popular in the 1930s.
Bit of Shakespeare
When I asked about Iris' teaching career, her family referred me to Lawrence "Larry" Aasen of Westport, Conn. Aasen, 96, was one of her students at Hillsboro High School.
Yes, Iris had been his English teacher in 1939, 1940 and his senior year in 1941.
Aasen, now 96, grew up in a log house and spent much of his growing up on a farmstead five miles north of Hillsboro. He went on to a career in public affairs.
Larry recalls "Miss Westman" was a "wonderful" English teacher and one of the best-dressed ladies a young teenager had met in Traill County. Iris says she only strove to be "neat and clean," and that she didn't want to "wear the same dress for a month." "She was one of the few teachers at the time who would read Shakespeare to us farm kids," Aasen says.
Iris had taken two UND classes in Shakespeare — "tragedies and comedies" — and was fulfilling a state requirement. She thought maybe the "rare student" (Larry?) appreciated it.
Sodas and politics
Aasen remembers Iris directed the annual junior and senior plays. "She made us know our lines and she'd work with us," Larry recalled. "If I'd say so, I think the plays were very good." But there wasn't much in the way of competition.
Aasen sent along a program for "Funny Phinnie: A Farce in Three Acts." He remembered a student was supposed to play a 1920s "flapper," a "Roaring '20s party girl. Iris — normally dignified and professional — stepped up to demonstrate the role.
"She was incredible," Aasen says. He remembers Iris once gave him a nickel so he could join his friends for a soda at a local pool hall, where local farm hands would gather.
Aasen remembers that Iris was "interested in politics," but kept a professional, impartial stance.
In a post-party interview, Iris said she admired presidential candidate Warren Harding, elected in 1920, when Iris was 15. ("I may have been deceived," she says, alluding to Harding's scandal-ridden term.) Iris said her favorite president of her time was "Silent Cal" Coolidge, appointed after Harding's death and elected in 1924, when she was 19. Back then, the voting age was 21.
At the end of the day, Iris thanked me for coming and said she was "sorry" she couldn't be more profound. I told her she did just fine. I'd come back but I had to run back to Fargo for the year's first practice for the Olivet Lutheran Church choir.
She smiled, as though I'd given her a birthday present.