While a group of Wadena teachers now live in many different communities, they’ve never forgotten Wadena as their founding community. Most of the group started teaching in the 1959-60 school year and taught for one to three years here.

Today, the group still gathers for lunch, time together and sharing stories—even if they go home and realize someone didn’t get to finish a story. The group includes: Avonel (Schmidt) Kjellberg, Diane (McLean) Hillman, Darlene (Stensgard) Sievertson, Miriam (Sanstead) Miller and Anna Mae (Rebuck) Vetter. Marilyn (Hermanson) Harrington, Dorothy Lein, Dolores (Anderson) Paradise and Diane (Eid) Olson have passed away but previously attended the gatherings. Their husbands have also come along, including: Gene Kjellberg (retired school administrator), Lyle Hillman (retired diagnostic radiologist), Gordy Sievertson (retired medical equipment technician), Ben Miller (retired bank president) and Jim Vetter (Air Force). The group is spread out in the New York Mills, Brainerd, Blackduck, Nevis and Moorhead areas.

At their annual lunch, this time at Boondocks, Vetter still told people to read the whiteboard, which noted the group’s meeting along with the daily lunch and pie specials. The gatherings first started about five years after the teachers and their husbands moved to places across the country. They started with meeting every five years, then three, two and now annually for about the past 10 years.

Each visit meant a gathering at one of their homes along with their children who enjoyed playing in the dirt, eating mud and making up games, or on one occasion losing a tooth. Of those at the lunch on Sept. 28, there are 16 kids between them. Their kids will be glad to keep these meetings going for their parents even when it might mean hosting one another at their nursing homes.

“This is where we all started,” Vetter said about bringing their gatherings to Wadena.

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For over 50 years, a group of Wadena teachers and their husbands have gathered for meals together. Pictured at the meal on Sept. 28, 2021 are: (front row) Diane (McLean) Hillman, left, Anna Mae (Rebuck) Vetter, Avonel (Schmidt) Kjellberg and Miriam (Sanstead) Miller. (Back row) Lyle Hillman, left, Darlene (Stensgard) Sievertson, Gordy Sievertson, Gene Kjellberg and Ben Miller. 
Rebecca Mitchell / Pioneer Journal
For over 50 years, a group of Wadena teachers and their husbands have gathered for meals together. Pictured at the meal on Sept. 28, 2021 are: (front row) Diane (McLean) Hillman, left, Anna Mae (Rebuck) Vetter, Avonel (Schmidt) Kjellberg and Miriam (Sanstead) Miller. (Back row) Lyle Hillman, left, Darlene (Stensgard) Sievertson, Gordy Sievertson, Gene Kjellberg and Ben Miller. Rebecca Mitchell / Pioneer Journal

The group originally connected through their teaching experiences—and by living together. Four in the group also attended Minnesota State University Moorhead together. Kjellberg, Vetter, Harrington, Paradise, Hillman, Miller and Mary (Sather) Brainerd lived in the Witt House. Sievertson and Olson lived in another home in town. Olson stayed in Wadena and taught for 36 years.

Although the Witt house is “gone and buried” for a number of years now, as Vetter said, they said their rent was about $35-40 a month, which still makes them laugh because of the old condition of the home. The group divided up roles like head cook, helper and cleaner that rotated every week.

The travelling salesmen often stopped by for a large sale, and the group members still have some of their cookware items today like knives and bowls which always seemed to come in lots of different colors. Sievertson noted she liked the downtown shopping and Kjellberg said Merickel was a big business. But the main attraction was the Cozy Theatre.

“Wadena was a lovely town,” Kjellberg said.

The group said their daily commute was walking, as cars weren’t popular to own then. Each wore nice clothes of dresses and high heels with the men wearing suits to school.

“We always were dressed up,” Sievertson said. “You weren’t a teacher if you didn’t wear high heels,” Hillman added.

While many of the teachers interviewed for their positions over the phone, Hillman said she originally had a contract in Warroad but after visiting Wadena, and liking it better, she decided to come here instead. Their annual salaries were about $3,500-4,000.

The group agreed the school had a good set of leaders, such as Superintendent Ted Tofte. With these leaders, Kjellberg said teachers in Wadena were well accepted and respected.

Kjellberg started her time at the school in the middle of the 1958-59 school year and began learning five classes of names throughout her first year. She taught English for two years.

In her first year, Tofte stopped by Kjellberg’s classroom to ask how things were going and she noted three students who had trouble learning their parts of speech. He sat there casually and offered comfort and kindness, as Kjellberg said. This shepherding from administration and teachers were a great support for Hillman and Sievertson, too. Hillman taught second grade for one year in Wadena and Sievertson taught first grade for three years.

While teaching physical education and health for three years, Miller found herself in a Harlem Globetrotters competition between teachers. She hurled the ball across the court and made the basket. “I can’t believe right now that I did that,” Miller said.

Vetter noted the pretty good behavior of students over the years, but when students would roll their pencils down the slanted desks during class they had to stay after school for 30 minutes—just rolling the pencil down their desk. She said students never did it again after that. Vetter taught ninth and tenth grade English and coached the speech team for two years.

While hoping to connect with people they had as students, Kjellberg shared a story of one student who said, “I remember you, you’re the one who sat on the desk!” The teachers laughed and noted how that wasn’t quite the lesson they wanted students to take away.

The group is glad to keep building more memories after over 50 years.