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Birthday celebration brings laughs

Leona Hanson turned 100 last week. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

By Sarah Smith

At least one of Leona Hanson’s former students was on hand when she celebrated her century mark last weekend.

“I became an English teacher because of her,” said LaPalma Anderson. “We adore her.”

The former English teacher and choir director greeted each of her guests by name Saturday as they filled the community room of the First English Lutheran Church is Dorset.

Leona didn’t miss a beat – or a name. She displayed a healthy sense of humor when she finagled to get the church to convert Ed Bolton, a retired teacher who came to celebrate her 100th birthday.

Bolton, a Methodist, was recruited at the last minute to sing in an impromptu choir that serenaded the guest of honor Saturday afternoon.

“Go ahead and convert him,” Leona said in a stage whisper heard throughout the room. “He’s got a good voice,” she explained to peals of laughter.

The Park Rapids salutatorian, class of ’31, headed from Park Rapids to Concordia College, where she received degrees in history and English in 1935.

She began what were to be frequent travels to Alaska in 1938.

She summered in 1942 at Oakland, Calif., after relocating her teaching career to Elk River.

There she worked at the Quartermaster Depot, Camp Hann, where a man named Harold Hanson was stationed. They married in 1942.

She said goodbye to Elk River as she and Harold went to Camp Davis, N.C., where he worked in a construction office. The couple returned to Lake Emma Township, in 1945, where Harold farmed. Leona’s Iowa parents relocated to Dorset.

Son John and daughter Patricia were born, then daughter Rebecca and son Roger followed. Harold was stationed in the European Theater during World War II.

She returned to the Nevis classroom in 1958, two years after she began as choir director in Dorset.

She was tough, Anderson said. “She made us sing a cappella,” Anderson recalled as if she was tortured.

But Leona’s methods paid off and she developed a first-rate choir that subsequent directors did not follow.

In 1966 Harold was hired to manage Magney State Park in Grand Marais, so the family relocated there.

They returned to Park Rapids in 1978 and she returned as choir director in Dorset, where she also belonged to a Ladies Aid group at the church.

She and Harold continued to venture up to Alaska and took a trip to Niagara. The couple celebrated their 50th anniversary in 1992. He died the following year.

She celebrated her 70th class reunion at Concordia in 2005.

By then she’d traveled numerous times to Alaska, Lake Havasu, Ariz., and other ports of call.

She retired as choir director in 2010. She was 96 at the time.

Her celebration Saturday was brightly colored in lime green, yellow and orange to match her cake.

She left her home of 35 years last year to relocate to Heritage Manor in Park Rapids.

She laughed her way through the festivities Saturday and was at the top of her game, speaking to all of her guests. Only two children, Roger and Patricia, survive.

Whoever said turning 100 was hard never met Leona, who everybody referred to as “Mrs. Hanson.”

She was having the time of her life.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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