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A 113-year-old teaches how to change your circumstances

Iris Westman, now 113, spends time with Katie Pinke's daughters in 2009. Katie Pinke / Forum News Service1 / 2
Katie Pinke2 / 2

Last week, I had the opportunity to report about Iris Westman celebrating her 113th birthday and her deep connections in agriculture as well as her passion for education. The print story was published in Agweek and several Forum News Service publications and the AgweekTV story was carried across the region.

I didn't mention my personal connection to Iris but if you've followed this column or my blog, you might remember she is my great-great aunt, my late great-grandfather Odin Westman's sister. Iris was my childhood pen pal and has had a lasting impact on my life choices and ambition.

During the process of writing the story and recording the TV segment, I was reminded of the roles each of us have in the lives of children. I thanked Iris for her example and encouragement in our family. While she never married or had kids, Iris has kept in touch with generations of nieces, nephews and extended family members.

Iris shared in detail how her parents only had a few years of formal education; her mother went to school for three years and her father finished eighth grade. But both of her parents read a lot at home and encouraged Iris and her brothers to go to college.

Iris remembers these conversations as early as 1910 — conversations that helped set the foundation for my family. Iris graduated from college. Her brother Sidney graduated from college. My grandma Nola, Iris's niece, went to North Dakota State University, graduating in 1951. My grandma's sister and brothers all graduated from college, and one went on to professional school to become a lawyer. My grandparents' children, including my mom, all completed their bachelor's degrees in the 1970s and 1980s, some earning advanced degrees. My siblings and maternal first cousins are all enrolled in college or a professional school or are graduates. My oldest child, Hunter, is working toward his civil engineering degree at the University of North Dakota.

Why bother to mention the educational lineage of five generations of my maternal family? Because a mother with three years of education and a father with an eighth-grade education, gained most likely in a rural one-room school from Norwegian immigrant families, decided to create change in their family.

Iris's parents, my great-great grandparents, Mathilda and Nicholas Westman of Aneta, N.D., changed our family forever, without ever knowing it. They might have thought of their lives as simple or insignificant, but Iris told me in our recent interview that her father said she needed an education to get ahead.

While our family remains rooted in the land Iris's family once farmed, we have also spread across the U.S. thanks to educational endeavors and professional jobs. Education led my family to expand their horizons. Education led my family to grow and thrive on the same farm Iris was raised on.

I grow weary of those waiting for others to make it happen. My time with Iris reminded me we still live in the greatest country, where immigrant families with little education or training can raise their children to get ahead with education.

I don't believe everyone needs a four-year bachelor's degree or has to go on to get advanced or professional degrees. Living in rural America and working in agriculture, I see firsthand the need for trades, specialty training and two-year-degree program graduates alongside four-year-degree and professional roles.

Are you an example for a next generation? Yes, you are regardless of your age or role in life. You can positively encourage your child, a family, a neighbor or a kid in your community or church.

If you feel held back by your circumstances, be a vessel of change. Iris remembers her mom reading farm magazines and her dad taking out loans to help pay for her college tuition.

You might never see the full impact of the little changes you make to improve your circumstances. But if you live to be a healthy 113 years old, your great-great niece just might come and interview you and say thank you.

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