Mankato woman has been doing good, speaking out since she was a young

At age 75, Diane Norland continues a lifetime tradition of speaking out and doing good. She is now serving her 12th year on the North Mankato City Council. At the time of this writing, she also was looking forward to having her husband, Larry, return to their home from a nursing home. He had moved out of needing hospice care for his battle with cancer and, through physical therapy at the nursing home, was regaining strength to join his wife at home.

Diane Norland of North Mankato has spent most of her life speaking out and doing good. Photo by Carlienne Frisch

Norland’s first noteworthy example of doing good was the two years she and her husband served in the Peace Corp in the 1960s. Norland, who grew up on a farm near Trimont, met her future husband while working the corn pack in Fairmont the summer of 1961. Two years later, they married and moved to Mankato. He dropped out of college to support her while she finished earning her teaching degree in English and social studies from what was then Mankato State College (now Minnesota State University, Mankato).

The Norlands then joined the Peace Corps and spent three months of training in Logan, Utah, for their Peace Corps assignment to Iran. They learned Persian, the language spoken in Iran, and learned about Iran’s history, culture, food, living conditions and agriculture.

When the Norlands arrived in Iran in May 1966, their farm backgrounds resulted in their being assigned to work in rural villages with home extension and agricultural extension programs. Norland explained, “Iran had Extension programs because, under the Shah, the country had copied the United States. In addition to teaching English, I had in-home meetings with village women, teaching about good nutrition, clean water, and things like brushing your teeth every day.”

The Norlands lived in the northeast corner of Iran, in Bojnard, which had no public transportation. A driver and vehicle were provided when they accompanied an Iranian extension agent to rural villages, but other trips were more challenging.

Norland recalled, “In town we walked, of course, although there were a few taxis. When we had to go to larger cities, like Tehran or Mashad, for meetings, we took a bus. It went through a high mountain range, and the drivers never slowed down. The ravines could be several thousand feet deep. We learned the Iranian saying ‘inshallah,’ which means ‘whatever will be, will be.’ On the bus, we prayed, and we got out our books to read–and pretty soon the ride was over. We had some adventures, that’s for sure.”

Diane (right) arrived in Iran in May 1966 as part of her service in the Peace Corps. Contributed photo

With their two-year assignment completed in 1968, the Norlands returned to Mankato, where she found a full-time job as an English and social studies teacher at West High School, and he completed his teaching degree. Four years later, she took a part-time teaching position in order to spend more time with their newborn son, Dan. When this option was phased out, she began a two-year stint as an at-home mom. Doing crafts and needlework to avoid boredom, she kept her eyes open for a future opportunity in some aspect of education. By the time Dan was in school full time, Norland had discovered another way to educate and serve the community.

“Blue Earth County was developing an aging services program,” Norland said, “and when I replaced the outgoing aging services director, I developed a volunteer driver service. I went to senior clubs in the area, spoke about the program, and recruited and trained volunteers. I then publicized the service in newspapers and by once again speaking to senior clubs. It seemed that every small town in the area had a senior club at that time.”

Norland wanted to strengthen her speaking and training skills, partly because she planned to become a personal and professional coaching consultant and trainer, which she since has done. So, in 1993, she earned a Masters degree in speech communication from Minnesota State University, Mankato. While adding professional accomplishments to her resume, at home she had coped with her husband’s dependence on alcohol until he successfully completed a chemical dependency program in 1975. Having a desire to help others like himself, he began work on his master’s degree in chemical dependency counseling. He heard about a job he thought would interest his wife, a position that would put to use not only her background in education and her interest in helping others, but also her familiarity with chemical dependency. In 1979, she applied for that job and was hired to fill a grant-funded position at Sioux Trails Mental Health Center in New Ulm.

Norland said, “It involved speaking in three counties–Brown, Nicollet and Blue Earth. I read and researched in books and professional journals, I attended conferences, and, of course, I had learned from my husband’s experience. I spoke in schools and churches about addiction and mental health issues, educating people about the prevention of substance abuse.” She pointed out,  “We have to get there way ahead of the problem.”

Norland continued to work for Sioux Trails until the position ended in 1994. She also continued with plans to become a coach, so that she could help people with concerns about their professional and personal life. After attending coaching classes in the Twin Cities, she became a certified personal and professional coach in 2000. To establish herself in this new effort, Norland offered a free coaching session to women in one of her networking groups, Women Executives in Business. One WEB member (this writer) quickly volunteered to be a “guinea pig” and met with Norland at her home for the coaching session.

Diane Norland
Photo by Carlienne Frisch

Norland listened as the volunteer client discussed her concerns–a jam-packed calendar and an occasional feeling of being overwhelmed by too many commitments, an occasional clearing of the calendar only to have it fill up with more commitments within a few weeks. Norland’s take on the situation was, “I think you live that way because you want to do so. You would not feel happy if you didn’t have a full schedule.” Nearly two decades later, that volunteer client still believes the advice was right on. Norland has since coached about 50 clients.   

Norland also has done fundraising for a variety of causes. She said, “Over many years, I raised nearly $700,000 as a grant writer and fundraiser for the House of Hope, which Larry managed for 27 years after he gained sobriety. I write a letter of request to foundations, individuals, families and businesses. I’ve always worked from a home office. I can put on my sweats, have breakfast and go into my office.” The exception to that, of course, is city council meetings.

Norland began serving on the North Mankato City Council in January 2007 and has been re-elected three times.

Norland has considered getting another master’s degree, probably in law or political science, but she has put those plans on hold because of her husband’s health. She recently gained a new perspective on the expense of nursing home care. “After our experience with Larry being in a nursing home, if I got a law degree, maybe my work would be more in estate planning and health care issues,” she said.