Former Killdeer school principal turns 111 … really

Iris Westman smiles as she tells stories of growing up in the upper midwest in Northwood, ND on Wednesday, August 24, 2016. (Joshua Komer/Grand Forks Herald)
Iris Westman smiles as she tells stories of growing up in the upper midwest in Northwood, ND on Wednesday, August 24, 2016. (Joshua Komer/Grand Forks Herald)

By Pamela Knudson

Fargo Forum

NORTHWOOD, N.D.—Iris Westman doesn’t really want people to make a big fuss over her. She’s a little bit tired of people asking how come she’s lived so long.

On Sunday, she’s turning 111. She is the oldest person living in North Dakota, a family member said.

Her life’s journey has many twists and turns since she was a young English teacher and principal at Killdeer School in the late ’20s.

Westman’s longevity, she said, is out of her hands.

“The Lord takes care of it,” she said, sitting in her cozy room at Northwood Deaconess Health Center. “And he knows what he’s doing, so I suppose we should accept.”

Darlene (Velenchenko) Jose, a 1960 Killdeer High School graduate who now lives in Fargo, read about Westman in the Fargo Forum newspaper. She was excited to see that Westman had ties to Killdeer.

Jose, who grew up on a farm north of Manning, dug out her reunion bookletfrom the Killdeer all-school Reunion in 1989. It listed the teachers from 1919 to 1989.

“I checked my reunion booklet, and there it was, her name listed,” Jose said “It’s exciting. She sounds like she would be somebody I would like to meet.”

She is a likeable person, friends say. Last year, at her birthday party, visitors included former Gov. Ed Schafer and his wife, Nancy.

“They visited and visited,” said LuAnn Stevens, activities director at the health center.

“Normally, she doesn’t like the attention, but she’s getting used to it,” Stevens said.

“She is the oldest person living in North Dakota,” said Jane Lukens, of Aneta, N.D., citing results of research by a family member. Lukens is Westman’s grandniece.

Lukens said one of her relatives determined that Westman “is either the 21st- or 23rd-oldest person in the country.”

The 2010 nationwide census showed 330 individuals who were 110 years old and older — 131 men and 199 women.

A combination of factors are contributing to longevity, said Dr. Don Jurivich, professor and chairman of geriatrics at the University of North Dakota.

Among them are better health practices, including vaccinations, he said, and improved nutrition and food preservation, and better treatment of chronic conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

But maybe just as important is a person’s attitude about life.

Researchers who study aging found that the 100-year-olds they interviewed “had the same temperament,” Jurivich said. “They were live-for-today, nonstress people. They were good-tempered, kind, very positive and forward-looking.”

Westman was born Aug. 28, 1905, to Nicholas Ole Westman and Mathilda Erickson Westman on a farm near Aneta, N.D. She was the third child, and only daughter, of four children.

Her mother, at 2 years old, came to the U.S. from Norway with her family, she said. Her father was born in the U.S. but “his people were from Telemark (Norway).”

“My parents insisted we go to school,” she remembered. “I attended grades 1 through 12 at Aneta. There’s no school there now.”

During World War I, her mother taught her to knit so she could help with the “Bundles for Britain” campaign, which provided garments to English women and children, she said. In war time, “ordinary citizens (over there) had to make do with a lot less.”

She also knitted socks and scarves for U.S. Navy and Army soldiers.

Westman can recall Warren G. Harding who served as president in the early ‘20s.

“He was not a good president,” she said, “but he was awfully good-looking.”

After graduating high school, she attended the University of North Dakota, where she earned a bachelor of science degree in education in 1928.

At UND, when she talked to other girls about their backgrounds, “I thought I had it pretty good. I didn’t do barn work, with horses or cows. I helped in the house,” she said.

For her first job out of college, she was hired as an English teacher and high school principal in Killdeer. According to Jose’s reunion booklet, Westman worked with two other teachers and Superintendent Edwin Hulsether.

She was in Killdeer for two years. She left after her second year and returned to Ameta because her father was ill.

During an interview with a reporter from The Forum, Westman said she had fond memories of Killdeer, particularly how the people were so proud of the cattle operations.

Subsequent teaching positions took her to Hillsboro, N.D., and Staples, Minn. She spent more than 20 years as an elementary school librarian in Worthington, Minn.

“I’ve seen a lot of things, and I’ve forgotten a lot of things,” she said. She’s been amazed by changes in “transportation, education and, well, practically everything.”

As an elder with plenty of life experience, Westman offered some words to live by.

“Behave yourself. Trust in God,” she said. “Work—whether mental or physical.”

She has noticed more people are living to 100 and beyond.

“I think there are going to be more of us,” she said. “Life is better. Food is better. Medicines are better. We’re better than ‘the good old days.’”

Bryan Gallegos, Dunn County Herald publisher, contributed to this report.

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