In the footsteps of “The Grandmothers”The combined Nettleton and Grant elementary schools are currently housed in the Nettleton building while the Grant building is being remodeled and expanded. Here in Onigamiising, for many the days and months leading up to the School Board’s decision were filled with anticipation and high hopes.
By: Linda LeGarde Grover, for the Duluth Budgeteer News
Last fall the ISD 709 school board named East High School’s new auditorium the Myers-Wilkins Auditorium, after two of Duluth’s long-serving educational leaders. At the same time, the School Board voted to name the new consolidated Grant and Nettleton elementary school the Myers-Wilkins Elementary School. The combined Nettleton and Grant elementary schools are currently housed in the Nettleton building while the Grant building is being remodeled and expanded.
Here in Onigamiising, for many the days and months leading up to the School Board’s decision were filled with anticipation and high hopes. One of those days, a perfect Duluth fall day, has stayed in my mind as a vivid memory.
It was one of those fall afternoons when the sky is a periwinkle blue so deep that it nearly glows, and turning leaves, still on branches, all but dance in a breeze that swirls and changes direction every few seconds. The seasons are one of the Creator’s gifts, and each one has its particular beauties. I don’t know which my favorite is, but gorgeous afternoons like that make me understand the people who say that autumn is theirs.
As I turned the car up Woodland Avenue, crowds of middle-school students just dismissed from school were walking down the sidewalk on their way home. They were as much a part of the beauties of autumn as the sky and the leaves, headed home at the end of a day of school. It was great to see all those kids walking together. Their steps light and their faces bright, they looked like they were enjoying each other’s company. And they were a diverse bunch: White, African-American, Indian, Asian kids chattered and laughed, brushing shoulders and dancing like the leaves as they walked.
Each of us walks in the footsteps of many heroes who broke trail before us. As I passed those lively schoolchildren, I thought of Ruth Myers and Marge Wilkins, Duluth matriarchs who walked together in their lives that were dedicated to the education, well-being, and human dignity of all people. Their common interests and their willingness to lead and serve brought them together in the 1960s, and for decades they worked collaboratively and effectively.
Marge and Ruth grew up in Duluth during the 1930s and 1940s and were pillars of the educational, social, and political strengths that this region built then, and has since then. Ruth became the first American Indian ever elected to public office in Duluth, and Marge was the first black woman to graduate from St. Mary’s School of Nursing and, later, Duluth’s first black anesthetist. These heroes served on boards and committees; they broke barriers in employment and education; they volunteered for a thousand small tasks that uplifted others and improved lives; they took a frontline stand when courageous leadership was needed. They fed hungry people, secured warm clothes and blankets for the cold. They guided, counseled, encouraged, corrected. Visited with the lonely, gave comfort to the needy, encouraged and empowered us all. When thanked, they were quick to credit the contributions of their own elders, and told us the best way to say “thank you” would be to pass the favor on, do something to help when we could. We would take their places one day, they said, assuring us that we could do it and that we would be ready.
Their generosity of goods and spirit seemed limitless; their circles of extended family and friends expanded every day. Marge and Ruth were known to many by the honorable joint title of “The Grandmothers.” They considered themselves sisters and addressed one another that way.
One cherished memory I have of Marge Wilkins and Ruth Myers is the two of them as elders walking together into a school board meeting. They walked side by side, acknowledging every person they knew with the same considerate nod and greeting, remembering to ask about a mother who had been ill, or a family’s new baby, or a teacher’s tenure award.
Ruth once told me that in the early years she and Marge had walked into school board meetings arm-in-arm, dressed bravely for the occasion in their good coats, hats and high heels. “Sometimes I thought I could hear our knees knocking,” she said. I never suspected, never imagined that they were anything but confident, capable, even formidable at times. What I know for sure is that they were always inspiring.
When Ruth Myers and Marge Wilkins passed from this life, they left the world a better place for having lived and walked upon it. From the spirit world that is so far away and yet at the same time enfolds us, perhaps they too watched the middle-school children that lovely afternoon. Perhaps their souls danced with the changing leaves as the children walked light and lively steps past to present, present to future, pleasing and honoring the Grandmothers.
Monthly columnist Linda LeGarde Grover is a professor of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth, an award-winning writer and a member of the Bois Forte Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. You can e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.