Happy Belated Birthday, Mary Lou Westra!
Of the many, many thousands of people I’ve interviewed and written about in my four decades of reporting, there are several standouts.
Though there have been so many favorites, three of them often spring to mind. One was singer Tammy Wynette, whom I interviewed sometime in the mid-1980s in her luxury RV between her two shows at Alexandria’s Runestone Arena. Even though she was visibly tired, she was warm, kind, interesting, interested, down-to-earth and downright funny. The verbal and knock-about jousts between Wynette and great singer George Jones, her then-husband, were often splashed in the supermarket tabloid gossip pages.
At one point during the interview, I asked Wynette:
“Tammy, do you still believe in the message of your famous song, ‘Stand By Your Man’? ’’
She smiled slyly and then said in that voice warm as Southern honey.
“Well, Dennis, just look around in here. You don’t see George Jones anywhere, do you?”
Another favorite was Arlyce Kakac, a dairy farm woman who lived alone in Douglas County and whose cows were beginning to die from a relentless drought one terrible summer, 1986. Sitting in her old, quaint farmhouse kitchen, Arlyce was gentle yet tough as nails as she talked about the withering heat, her many hard-scrabble years in farming, the difficulties in getting farm loans, and the cows and other farmyard animals she loved and loved working with. Seldom have I ever witnessed such enduring strength, courage and persistence despite an avalanche of worries, problems, pain and suffering. Arlyce was the living definition of true grit and all-encompassing human kindness personified.
Come to think of it, Mary Lou Westra has many of the same qualities that dazzled me when I met Wynette and Kakac.
Like those two women, Mary Lou is strikingly intelligent, insightful, keenly interested in and connected to the wider world, humble and a dyed-in-the-wool people lover.
The first time I interviewed Mary Lou was about two years ago in front of the “old” Coborn’s store in Sartell, one of her favorite daily places to visit because she so much loves to talk with people. Carolyn Bertsch, assignment editor at the Newsleader, had given me the story tip because she thought Mary Lou is such a loving sociable people-person that she’d make for a good feature story. And Carolyn was right. As soon as I met Mary Lou standing in front of Coborn’s, she gave off a charismatic aura. She practically radiated kindness, curiosity and good humor – a real joy of living. What a pleasure it was to play verbal tennis with her, trying to keep up with her sharp but gentle wit.
At one point five or six teenagers approached the store. And of course they knew Mary Lou and she knew them; Mary Lou knows everybody. The teens said hello and she asked them a little barrage of questions about how they’ve been doing. A bit bashfully, they answered. It was obvious from their behavior of the deep and abiding respect they held for that remarkable woman, who was then, if I recall correctly, 87 or 88.
When I heard Mary Lou was about to be honored in a surprise birthday party – her 90th – at Sartell Middle School, I leaped at the chance to do the story. I couldn’t be at the event, although Newsleader Editor Mike Knaak was kind enough to take photos at it. Next day, I interviewed Mary Lou, and she was just as much fun as she was two years ago in front of Coborn’s. She was warm, kind, curious, sharp as a tack, intelligent, insightful and, last but not least, oh so funny with her slightly mischievous humor. In a word, Mary Lou is unforgettable.
Mary Lou, I hope you have many, many more birthdays.