Kirmis sisters: Connected through kinship
By Nick Longworth
It can be said that in time it’s only natural for a family to drift apart.
Parents pursue careers, pulling them one way. Children will develop their own identities, molding their own lives and pushing them another.
Work, travel, food, religion and politics are all valid reasons for a family to lose touch, especially when given decades to do so.
But in Park Rapids there remains a group of sisters that refused to let any of the aforementioned reasons be one to lose touch.
The Kirmis family arrived in the United States in 1886 after emigrating from Sweden to Wisconsin. After homesteading to Ellendale, N.D. in 1925, the family started their life in the rural town of Medberry – a small farming community which is no longer registered as a town.
With four sisters and one brother, the Kirmis family was seemingly just like any other Midwestern family. Their father was a grain elevator operator. The community they grew up in was heavily farming based and included one post office and one general store.
With little distinguishable from them to the next family, the odds were strong that the family would eventually disperse into the realm of their own lives.
Although their brother Wayne remained in the Fargo-Moorhead area for the majority of his life (he is now 87) the four sisters – Kathy Medellin (84), Genell Poitras (83), Jo Hill (78) and Bickey Bender (75) – branched out from their rural North Dakota upbringing.
The four sisters all traveled around the United States and the world. They all created their own unique identities while pursuing different careers and families of their own.
They have all been married to their respective husbands for over 50 years – totaling over 200 years of marriage altogether. The husbands: Bill (Kathy), Bob (Jo), Frank (Bickey) and Ed (Genell) come from all over the United States as well.
“(Ed and I) lived in Seoul, South Korea for 30 years; we were missionaries for the United Methodist Church and when you are a missionary, you follow your profession,” said Genell Poitras.
Genell explained the very different - and often unusual - lives her and her sisters went on to live throughout the next five decades.
“In 1956 Kathy and her husband Bill met in Evreux, France while Kathy was teaching in a Military Dependent school; Bill was stationed there. Apparently when Bill saw Kathy for the first time he told his friends that Kathy was the woman he was going to marry; they did just that in France in July of 1957.”
“They’ve also lived in Greece and Japan. Bill retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1973 and they moved to Arizona after that. They lived there until 1995 when they began to travel around North America. Then they eventually moved to Park Rapids in 2002 and now live just off Cty. Rd. 4,” Poitras said.
“Jo lived most of her married life in Newark, Del. where her husband Bob was a professor at the University of Delaware while Jo worked as a speech therapist. They met in New Haven, Conn. and they were married there in 1962.”
“Bickey and Frank lived in the Fargo area for 30 years. Frank was a civil engineer with the North Dakota Department of Transportation and Bickey was an art teacher,” Poitras said.
“(Ed and I) left Korea in 1989 and moved to Freeport, Maine for 13 years to live near our only daughter, Cathy, and her family. We built houses by each other and we got to watch our two grandchildren grow, which was wonderful,” Poitras said.
It wasn’t always this way though. Something had to drive the Kirmis sisters back to this area. After living their own lives for so long the sisters slowly began to gravitate back toward the Midwest.
Their brother was the first to buy land on Stony Lake in 1970. His family was living in Fargo at the time and the spot would routinely be used as a vacation destination.
On Stony, his family spent weekends in their “cabin” - a Northern Pacific Railroad caboose that he moved on the property in 1975. Bickey and Frank Bender then bought the adjacent property on Stony Lake in 1975.
Kathy and Bill Medellin then moved to Park Rapids in 2002, after having traveled the country for the past seven years.
Jo and Bob Hill renovated a cabin into a fulltime home in 2005. They moved to St. Paul in 1997 after Bob’s retirement from the Physics department at the University of Delaware. They now split time between the cabin and their St. Paul home.
Finally, Genell and Ed Poitras were the last to arrive in 2011. They bought a home on Mud Lake, leaving the East Coast behind.
After decades apart, all four sisters were once again together. The road to Park Rapids was one of chance, but the desire the sisters had to keep in touch never was.
“We really have no ties to Park Rapids originally. All of the ties were through the family,” Poitras said.
Eventually all the cabins gave way to full-time homes. The vacations became everyday life. What drew them to the Park Rapids area ultimately was family, but the tight-knit community is what made them stay.
“We’ve all settled in here and we all love Park Rapids. It kind of acts as commercial and cultural center for a large number of people who live near all of the lakes around,” Poitras said.
“The people have made the community a very welcoming place. Everyone kind of congregates together and it makes for wonderful mix of people. It’s something we really didn’t know about before coming here.”
The Poitrases like the fact that many people in the area come from diverse backgrounds, geographically as well as professionally.
“Everyone has an enormous variety in their backgrounds. Doctors, ministers and people of all professions live here. All these different kinds of people with deep backgrounds that you wouldn’t expect to find in a community with just under 4,000 people. There is a lot going on and the arts community is very active also,” Poitras said.
Though their lives apart was long, family has remained the highest priority of all for the Kirmis sisters.
“Through the challenges our parents faced they learned respect for others, honesty and to live honorable lives. These attributes were instilled in us from an early age. Both of them practiced their Christian faith in their daily lives and the importance of loyalty to family was unquestioned,” Poitras said.
“Our mother often cautioned us not to have disagreements with each other as life was too short,” Poitras said.
Although not entirely discounting their humble upbringing, Ed Poitras thinks it might be something different.
“It must be the power of this group of sisters or something,” Ed Poitras said.
“We are all right here because the sisters brought this family together. One was living here and then one by one we all followed. It’s a pretty powerful and interesting group of people if you ask me.”