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105-year-old Duluth woman 'a community treasure'

Her guests had arrived and the cake was delivered. The birthday party Thursday afternoon was ready to get under way inside the tidy, lace-filled apartment. Only one problem: A couple of self-invited yahoos weren't in any hurry to bug out.

Her guests had arrived and the cake was delivered. The birthday party Thursday afternoon was ready to get under way inside the tidy, lace-filled apartment. Only one problem: A couple of self-invited yahoos weren't in any hurry to bug out.

Sorry about that, Gladys.

But it's not often I get to sit down with one of Duluth's longest-living residents, someone whose grandfather fought in the Civil War, who was alive when a ferry boat was needed to deliver Park Point residents across the bridgeless Duluth ship canal, and who remembers the days before radios, televisions, cars and computers -- even when paved roads were uncommon.

Gladys Landre turned 105 this week, and the questions I wanted to ask her proved far too numerous. Even as friends and relatives gathered, I tried. I kept inquiring and jotting down notes, and News Tribune photographer Derek Montgomery kept snapping pictures.

I guess we felt much the way Gladys said she did when the subject, predictably, turned to the secrets to her longevity. "I'm lucky to be here. I'm thankful," she said. "I've always had plenty of hard work to do."

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That hard work started on a 160-acre farm her parents cleared and built with help from the federal government's Homestead Act. That was in 1906, three years after Gladys was born in Crookston, Minn. Her family's plot was in Kittson County, which is as far west and north as a Minnesotan can get without leaving the Gopher State.

"We built a little house and raised livestock," Gladys said, recalling her mother, Augusta, and her father, Dennis Rice. He had moved to Minnesota from Maryland where his own father had fought for the Union Army.

Gladys was the oldest of six children and one of two girls. "I had to be in the house most of the time. The housework had to be done," she said. "My dad kept a pretty big dairy [with] 10 or 11 cows, so I had to milk cows much of the time as well."

All the children had chores, of course. Gardens needed tending, as did the crops grown for the livestock. Plus, Gladys' father built roads in the summer and cut and sold wood in the winter. He needed the help at home.

Sometimes hard work wasn't enough. Shelves grew bare, especially during long northern winters and during springs, like this year's, that were late in arriving.

"It wasn't easy living out there," said Gladys' daughter, Lois Mann of Silver Bay.

And it often didn't get easier. The year Gladys turned 14 her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, an almost certain death sentence in 1918. She traveled to Cincinnati for treatment and surgery, leaving Gladys home to "take care of the other kids."

Her mother returned to find all her children in bed with a flu that killed 50 million people worldwide, a fifth of the Earth's population. Her children survived, however, and so did Augusta. Her cancer, miraculously, went into remission and never returned.

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"She wasn't able to do much work after that, but she lived and we had our mother," recalled Gladys, who beat breast cancer herself later in life.

Despite the difficulties, Gladys and her siblings had fun. They played ball and hide-and-seek and enjoyed racing each other to the barn -- often barefoot, even in the wintertime. And they sang and danced to music Gladys taught herself to play on a pump organ she bought after selling her cow.

In about 1923, Kittson County was in desperate need of a schoolteacher. Gladys was sent to the Normal School in Duluth to get an "emergency teaching certificate," something she could earn in three months.

Her first day in Duluth changed her life. Her brother already was here, working at the Northeast Experiment Station on Jean Duluth Road, one of six facilities in the state studying animals, plants and fruits in different soils and climates. He didn't have a car and couldn't pick up Gladys from the train station. But his boss, Herman Landre, did. Upon returning, Landre boasted he had met the girl he would marry.

His prediction came true the following school year after Gladys returned home to teach. She taught only one year before moving to Duluth with her husband and living 30 years at the experiment station. She took care of the chickens, was active in 4-H Club and with other community groups, and ran the experiment station's glee club and Depression-era programs that offered practical training and constructive activities such as canning and gardening. She and Herman raised a boy and a girl.

When the experiment station closed in 1967, Herman went to work in carpentry and the family moved to a little house on Lakewood Road. Herman died in 1997, a week shy of turning 100. Gladys moved to Pines III, an assisted living facility near the University of Minnesota Duluth, in 2002.

She is the facility's oldest-ever resident. But you'd never know it. Other than the few beauty lines that crease her face and the cane she sometimes leans on when walking, there are few clues. She's a regular at bingo, arts and crafts and other activities -- including a twice-a-week exercise regimen. She still bakes sugar cookies. And other than taking her meals in the dining room at Pines III, she cares for herself.

"She is an amazing lady. She humbles us," said Kathy Anderson, the housing manager at Pines III. "She's probably the first one to greet people when they move in, and she's the one who makes everyone else feel so welcome."

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"She's a community treasure," Gladys' daughter told me.

I agreed and wanted to ask what Duluth was like when all the stores were downtown, how it felt to cross the canal aboard the Duluth Aerial Ferry Bridge or to climb the hillside via the Incline Railway. But the last of Gladys' guests had arrived, and the hostess was getting anxious. My questions would have to wait. Maybe until Gladys' 110th birthday.

Chuck Frederick is the News Tribune's deputy editorial page editor. He can be reached at 723-5316 or cfrederick@ duluthnews.com.

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