A Life of Service

April 15, 2011 at 4:18 am Leave a comment

What’s the best thing about being a centenarian? To Viola Schweikert, who celebrates her 101st birthday this July, it’s “Looking back and realizing how supremely blessed I have been, blessed beyond anything I could ever have hoped for.” To observers, one of the best things about Viola Schweikert is that very attitude of unqualified appreciation amidst the trials of life on earth. 

As the first of four children born into a modest household, Viola’s personal pilgrimage began in 1910 in Glencoe, Minnesota, just 46 miles west of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul. Decades later, French filmmaker Louis Malle was moved to document living conditions in this small rural community in his 1985 film, God’s Country. 

“We were poor,” she says, recalling the tiny two-story home she grew up in: three bedrooms upstairs; on the lower level, a kitchen, a dining room, and a parlor that served as her grandmother’s bedroom. Heat from the wood-burning stove didn’t rise to the upper level, “So in the winter time, we children would run as fast as we could up the stairs to get under the covers.” Bed-sharing among the siblings was a practical necessity, and it had its benefits during the cold months. “Viola, you’re like a furnace,” little sister Loretta would exclaim. 

With her father rising at 4:30 a.m. to empty the parlor heater of ash and putting in long days as a painter and a paper-hanger, and her mother efficiently operating a non-mechanized household of seven, Viola’s personal work ethic was molded by her parents’ examples of uncomplaining hard work and a desire to usher their children toward a better standard of living. 

Poor or not, their simple lifestyle with a family cow providing milk must have seemed downright luxurious, compared to the experiences of their ancestors. “My father’s father was living in Germany when he heard about the Homestead Act,” which allowed anyone who had never taken up arms against the United States government to submit an application for a freehold title to up to 160 acres of undeveloped federal land west of the Mississippi. In order to complete the contract, the approved applicant then had to improve the land and file for a deed. 

Viola’s grandfather booked unpaid passage to the United States on a cargo ship, and worked at the New York Harbor docks until his transport was paid for. Steered by his brother to “some real good land” in Minnesota, he got off the train in Paynesville and hiked for four hours until he saw “nice, loamy soil” underfoot, declaring that he would settle and make his living on that spot. 

But free land was not a free ride.  Viola’s grandfather then labored for local farmers to earn cash to buy tools to erect the permanent structures required by his Homestead Act agreement. Meanwhile, the enterprising immigrant often sought shelter from harsh winter winds behind a snowbank as he developed his own claimed property. His children would later recount how they “slept in the loft of a log cabin chinked with moss,” and had to shake the snow from their covers on frigid February mornings. 

Viola retains a razor-sharp recollection of long-past events, and a sincere respect for the tribulations endured by her father’s generation. Based on a century of life experience and a unique historical perspective, she confirms with authority the often-heard observation that today’s young people have no conception of what hardship is.When my father was growing up, sugar was a luxury item. During the Christmas season, his mother would send him to the store with a quarter, and he would buy a small bag of it so she could make kuchen, a cinnamon coffee cake – a once a year treat which the family deeply appreciated.” 

In Viola’s own childhood home, her mother stretched the food budget by making potato dumplings. “They were very heavy, so I would try to get away with serving myself only a bite or two.” But homemakers proudly defended and protected their recipes in those days, and her mother resisted adopting a neighbor’s approach to feather-light dumplings made from the Calumet Baking Powder Cookbook. 

Stomach-ladening dumplings aside, country living was healthy living, with plenty of outdoor activities, a long walk to school in the fresh air, home-grown vegetables from the garden, and plenty of chores to help the children learn how to contribute and accept responsibility. 

As the oldest, Viola rose early to gather potatoes from the root cellar and prepare them for use at the noon meal. “They weren’t like you get from the store,” she remembers. “They were crusted with soil and my hands got too dirty to scrub clean. I was self-conscious about this, so I would try to hide them once I got to school, where all the other kids had nice, clean hands.” Still, school was one of her favorite places to be, especially reading class, and Viola ended up being the only one in her family to complete twelfth grade. 

“Most confirmation-age girls got sent out to work on neighboring farms from 6 a.m. until 9 p.m., and ended up marrying the farmers’ sons and being tied to the land,” she recalls, “so I was very fortunate.” She was also fortunate to be raised in a family that attended German evangelical Lutheran church services regularly, and she remembers giving thanks before each meal.

Viola’s vivid mental photo album retains a picture of a tall, stately pine tree placed at the front of the sanctuary each Christmas, decorated with the glow of many five inch candles. It illuminated the altar area so enchantingly that it captivated her childhood attention – and left her severely disappointed when the candles were too-soon doused by safety-conscious ushers wielding wet sponges attached to long poles. 

When she was 15, the town jeweler and his wife sought out Viola as a babysitter for their daughter. “My job was to feed [my charge], Holly, bathe her, put her to bed, and read her stories until she fell asleep.” Viola would then spend the night, and get up the next morning to make breakfast for the family and clean the house – a child-tender with a heavy load of household duties. Soon her reputation for diligence – learned from striving to satisfy a hard-to-please mother – led to a succession of domestic positions. 

As an older teenager, Viola took a job at the local drug store for $10.00 per week of nine-hour work days. Her predecessor, Leo, had lost favor with the boss when he broke eight glasses in one month. Conscientious Viola was soon making a full $12.00 a week, having completed three months of employment without smashing a single piece of fountain ware. From time to time her drugstore coworkers invited Viola to go out with them at the end of their shift, but she wasn’t interested. Her character-revealing response? “What I want in life, I am not going to find in a dance hall.” 

What she did want in life was an education. After she had helped her sister pay tuition for beauty school using money she earned as church organist, Viola enrolled at Stevens Seminary – a private, liberal arts college founded by a gentleman who believed that women should be as well-educated as men. 

The rest of what she wanted in life was gradually defined for her by a persistent young pre-seminary student named George who visited his sister, Viola’s neighbor, during his “last free summer” before going off to college in Springfield, Illinois. He was interested in Viola, but she thought she was too young for him. “Get lost,” she responded plainly when he wrote to her following his summer visit. “But he didn’t hear me,” she adds all these years later. 

When George graduated from seminary and was offered a prime call to serve a congregation in the resort area of Cass Lake, Minnesota, Viola wrote him a letter of congratulations. This encouraged the shunned suitor to begin writing again, letters and poems, and eventually the two reconnected and agreed to marry. Viola remembers fondly their early years at Cass Lake, and falling asleep to the sound of the loons conversing with each other across the lake. 

Later calls took them to congregations with meager resources, where, “People who had so little wanted to share the best they had with you.” That sometimes meant being invited to dinner and being served a meal of bread and potatoes. “Just that: bread and potatoes. You often wondered how these people kept body and soul together. They had [virtually] nothing, but they would share the little they did have, just to have social contact.” 

Viola recounts a specific meal at which the host family served ham, purchased at 50 cents a pound during an era when steak cost 20 cents a pound. The expense was dismissed lightly, and the ham served lovingly along with green beans from the hostess’ own garden and homemade biscuits – a gracious sacrifice made to provide a pleasant experience for the visiting pastor and his wife. 

As their married life continued, Loretta and George were blessed with four children. When their first daughter died in infancy, they went on to have two sons, Daniel and Timothy, and another daughter, Mary Louise. Family tragedy struck again years later when Marie Louise died at the age of 66 of a brain aneurism while hiking in Puerto Rico. “I know that the Lord does not let things happen to us that are not for our good, but we don’t expect to outlive our children.” 

Viola’s heart still aches when she thinks about those bereavements, but she finds peace in her understanding of a loving God. “The Almighty does not make mistakes,” she declares with full confidence, and she never dwells on the occasional surge of sadness. “Who knows what we were both spared,” she reflects philosophically when speaking of both losses. Then she tucks the lingering bit of sorrow back into her emotional attic. 

If anything, adversity adds balance to Viola’s view of earthly existence. “So much of life is what you make of it. If you think you are the only one who suffers, you’re badly mistaken.” Not surprisingly, Viola describes herself as a lifelong optimist. Even as a child, in tough circumstances, “I was always able to say, ‘tomorrow will be better.’” And she looks to the future when she will be reunited with lost loved ones in heaven: “The Almighty will bring us together, and He tells us we ‘will know and be known.’ That is my comfort.” 

Her favorite bible verse, Isaiah 40:31, “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint,” offers insight into Viola’s sustained enthusiasm for life, even as her years on earth stretch far beyond her standard life expectancy of 69 years. Also revealing is her conviction that, “The Almighty has reasons for our existence, and we owe something to the world, and should leave it a better place than we found it.” 

Can she offer any closing bits of wisdom to coddled generations struggling to find direction? “Help others. Live a life of service. Dr. John A Schindler wrote a book, How to Live 365 Days a Year, which advises the reader to find someone who has nothing, and give, give, give. If you do this, you will be happier than you have ever been.” Interestingly, Viola’s favorite author also delivered a 1949 radio broadcast, How to Live 100 Years, Happily, a title which seems to encapsulate her own approach to long life. 

And speaking of long life, what is the worst thing about living to be 100? “Seeing that you are better off than others, who suffer; others who don’t deserve to suffer, when you yourself are so blessed.” 

Viola’s hearing has faded dramatically, she requires an assisted living arrangement, and she spends a fair amount of her day napping. Her short-term memory often fails her and she can no longer attend the church services she so valued. Yet she looks around her and sees the suffering of others and is moved and humbled. 

Paying her debt to the world through her guileless example and her positive, unselfish attitude; improving her own “staked claim” on earth, and leaving it better than she found it. That is serving others in one of its noblest forms. 

Entry filed under: People of Faith and Courage. Tags: , , , , , , , .

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