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Former Park Rapids resident marks 103

Martha at her 103rd birthday party. (Sue Webber / Sun Press & News)

BY Sue Webber


A birthday party in St. Michael on Feb. 22 could have been just an ordinary family get-together — with cake, ice cream, presents and laughter.

But it was more than that. It was a celebration of Martha Vaerst’s life, all 103 years of it.

Most remarkable of all, it was a continuing celebration of a woman who lives independently at The Legacy of St. Michael, still prepares two meals a day for herself, plays bingo, exercises, watches TV, displays a spirited sense of humor, and can keep up her end of a conversation on just about anything.

“I’m proud of the fact that I’ve gotten to be this old, and the fact that my mind has stayed pretty good,” Martha said.

She admits her eyesight is failing, but she has a reading machine she says she couldn’t get along without. Martha uses a walker to get around. She enjoys playing bingo every Friday, even if, as she says, someone has to nudge her if she occasionally fails to cover a number on her card after it’s been called. “I sit at a table where we all need a little help,” she said.

She enjoys some things on TV, especially talk shows and feisty hosts like Dr. Phil and Judge Judy.

“I loved doing handiwork, and I miss that,” Martha said. “I enjoyed playing the piano, too.”

She says her family keeps her well supplied with food for the two meals she prepares each day. Martha eats one meal each day in the dining room at Legacy of St. Michael.

Her two sons, now in their 70s, “give me a bad time about getting so old,” Martha said.

But Marvin, who lives in Bemidji, and Richard, a resident of Forest Lake, are just teasing her. They’re both inordinately proud of the legacy their mother has established for them, her seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

“Longevity runs in her family,” said Marvin, who phones his mom from Bemidji several times a week. “Her mind is all there,” he said. Two years ago, he and his wife, Sharon, gave his mom a wall-size reproduction of Martha in her baptismal gown, a photo taken six months after she was born in Portland, Ore., in 1912.

Martha talks to son Richard nightly, and sometimes, she said, the conversations go for 30 minutes or more. “She’s a gem,” Richard said. “We’re pretty fortunate.”

Martha lived in Park Rapids for 97 years, from 1914 until she moved to St. Michael in 2011.

“Park Rapids is home,” said Martha, who was an only child. “I was a spoiled brat,” she quipped.

She recalls a happy childhood, a time when, as she said, “We made our own games. We played mumblety-peg with jackknives. Kids would be sent home from school today if they had jackknives, or they’d go to jail. But in those days, a man always carried a pocketknife. My boys still do.”

She thinks parents today push their children too much. “They think their children have to be occupied all the time or they might get bored,” Martha said. “In my time, there was always a garden that needed to be taken care of.”

Following high school, she had one year of teachers’ training and then began teaching in rural schools. She later earned a diploma at Moorhead State College. Martha’s teaching career spanned 25 years. When she taught in country schools she taught all the grades, and then moved to fourth grade when she taught in the elementary schools in town. She believed that students learned more in rural schools because they were able to listen to the lessons the older pupils were getting.

“I had just a little time with each grade level in the country schools,” Martha said. “Each class was about 10 minutes.”

She met her husband, Leslie, in Akeley, while she was teaching there. “He was German, and I’m old British Isles; it was quite a combination,” Martha said. “We eloped and were married in Wadena. Being married would have made my teaching contract null and void.”

She was able to return to teaching after marriage, but, Martha said, “I never was given a contract until after school started in the fall, in case they could get a younger, unmarried person.”

Amazingly, she knows of three former pupils who are still alive. “I had them in my classroom more than 80 years ago,” Martha said. “I still hear from one who lives in the Twin Cities. To have pupils come back and see me meant a lot.”

Her husband was an outdoorsman; he liked jobs outside, she said.

She was widowed in 1979, after 41 years of marriage. Martha stayed on in Park Rapids until 2011. “I’m the oldest living graduate student from Park Rapids High School,” Martha said, adding that there were 34 students in her Class of 1930 there. “Now, there’s hardly anyone left in Park Rapids that I know.” She was active in the Episcopal Church and misses the ritual of those services, though she keeps her Book of Common Prayer handy.

She is content with her apartment in St. Michael, and is thankful for the on-site beauty shop. “Everyone here is so thoughtful,” Martha said. “They’re so nice to you. They do little things for you. Each apartment has its own washer and dryer. That’s so convenient.”

Martha has been asked for her secret of longevity, and can’t point to any one thing that has enabled her to live to 103. “I haven’t done anything special,” said Martha, whose father died at the age of 85, and whose mother was almost 90 when she died.

“As long as I can get around and do a little for myself, I want to keep going,” she said. “I feel real good and I’m very thankful that my mind is still sharp. I can look on the sunny side. I have a family that is very good to me. My granddaughter says she hopes she inherited my genes.”

In the meantime, Martha’s decided that it doesn’t hurt to use as much salt as she wants on her food. “I decided that salt has always been used to preserve things,” she quipped.