by Dennis Dalman
Not many people get two big birthday parties in one week, but 90-year-old Mary Lou Westra of Sartell did. It’s also a rarity for people to have a city proclaim a special day in honor of them, but it happened to Westra.
All were big happy surprises, but the second party, she said, was not just surprising; it was overwhelming. Her first party, on May 4, was expected. It took place at the St. Cloud Eagles Club with scores of relatives, friends and admirers – fellow bowlers and golfers (Westra has long loved to bowl and golf), school people, church people – and “oodles of birthday cards,” she added.
Westra is a lunchroom monitor at Sartell Middle School.
On May 9, the day after her actual birth date, she was – as she put it – “gabbing like I always do with the gals in the front office in the school.”
Finally, two school staff had to kind of lure her out of the office because birthday celebrants were waiting for her.
As she walked out of the office, she noticed right away the nearby cafeteria was filled with smiling faces of people who’d launched into singing “Happy birthday to you, Happy birthday to you, Happy birthday, dear Mary Lou, happy birthday to you!”
For a few seconds, Westra, who is seldom at a loss for words, was utterly speechless.
“I kept thinking, ‘Is this really happening?!’” Westra recalled later.
The students presented her with oodles of handmade birthday cards.
“I’ve got enough to fill two whole boxes,” she said later. “It will take me a month to go through all those cards, plus the cards from the other party.”
In the cafeteria, everyone enjoyed birthday cookies purchased by the Sartell Middle School Student Council for the party organized by the middle school academics extension coordinator Lori Dornburg. Sartell Mayor Ryan Fitzthum read a proclamation declaring the day “Mary Lou Westra Day” and presented her with a plaque.
“She’s important to student life at the school,” Fitzthum said.
The students presented lunchroom-monitor Westra with a golden whistle, which she obligingly blew. There were other gifts as well. After the hoopla, students gathered around Westra at a photo booth so they could have their photos taken with the celebrity.
“She’s the ‘mom’ of the school,” eighth-grader Emily Crandall said. “She loves to be with us.”
Autumn Blommer, also an eighth-grader, praised Westra.
“Everyone knows Mary Lou,” she said. “She gives off a warm presence. She’s very involved with the students.”
At the school party were two of Westra’s beloved great-grandchildren – Sartell Middle School fifth-grader Keegan Waldoch and pre-schooler Elsa Waldoch, the children of Brian and Holly Waldoch, who is Westra’s granddaughter. Also present was Monica Mills, Westra’s daughter who works in the Oak Ridge Elementary School’s library.
Long happy life
In her long life, Mary Lou Westra has attended so many weddings, baptisms, birthday parties and – sadly – all too many funerals.
She was born Mary Lou Maile in St. Cloud May 8, 1929. One of the most often-asked questions from students is this: “How many presidents were in your life.”
And the long list of names falls from Westra’s lips.
“Let’s see,” she says, “Starting in 1929, that would be Herbert Hoover. Then Calvin Coolidge, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump.”
“Wow! That’s a lot of presidents,” some wide-eyed students exclaim.
“Oh yes,” she sometimes says. “A lot of presidents, a lot of years.”
After graduating from Cathedral High School, she took a correspondence course in accounting from Northwestern University and when she married a World War II veteran named Mike Bloom she became his accountant.
The couple had seven children. After Bloom died, Mary Lou was in her mid-50s when she married her second husband, George Westra. From a former marriage, he had six children. When George died of a heart attack in Texas, Mary Lou gravitated back to the St. Cloud area and in 2000 she began working as a sub-paraprofessional in the Sartell-St. Stephen school district. Later, at the middle school principal’s request, she began working as a lunchroom monitor a couple hours a day.
“I have such good friendships with the kids,” she said. “They’re so adorable. I love being with them. It brings so much happiness. You could say at the age of 90 I’m still going to school.”
Westra keeps fit by golfing and bowling. She also loves to walk to and from the “old” Coborn’s store, which is in her neighborhood. As in her work for school children, her love of people is apparent during her Coborn’s visits.
“Oh, I know everybody –just about everybody – at that store,” she said. “I know the clerks, the other store employees and so many of the customers. It’s so much fun to talk with them.”
Besides her conversational skills, Westra is known by many for her keen – but gentle – teasing humor.
One time, Westra, trying to squelch a laugh, said this in mock-serious manner to Sartell-St. Stephen Superintendent Jeff Schwiebert.
“You know, Mr. Schwiebert, I’m your ace in the hole. You and the school district can never be sued for age discrimination. So don’t worry; you’re covered. But remember, you’re covered only as long as you keep me.”
Schwiebert laughed; so did Westra.
One of her favorite memories is when a young school boy said to her. “Goll, you’re almost 90?! My grandma looks older than you, and she’s only 70.”
Another favorite memory is Alexander the Great and The Boy. When she was a sub-para, she was in a history class watching a movie about Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.). She had seen the movie many times, and so, a bit bored, she began to drift off for a snooze. After the movie, the class began to discuss the importance of Alexander, and Westra commented about the facts of his life and times.
“How do YOU know?” a boy asked Westra. “You were sleeping through that movie.”
Then scratching his head, befuddled, he asked Westra: “Were you THERE?”
Author: Dennis Dalman
Dalman was born and raised in South St. Cloud, graduated from St. Cloud Tech High School, then graduated from St. Cloud State University with a degree in English (emphasis on American and British literature) and mass communications (emphasis on print journalism). He studied in London, England for a year (1980-81) where he concentrated on British literature, political science, the history of Great Britain and wrote a book-length study of the British writer V.S. Naipaul. Dalman has been a reporter and weekly columnist for more than 30 years and worked for 16 of those years for the Alexandria Echo Press.