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Country school teacher looks back at full life

Pine River woman nearly 100

By Vivian (Makela) Sazama

Few people reach the age of 100. Fewer still reach the century mark with the physical and mental acuity possessed by Myrle (Cusey) DaBill of Pine River. Myrle will reach 100 years in a few months.

Myrle was born in 1922, the middle of three children. They lived near Backus in a log cabin built by her father in the winter.

Myrle DaBill holding the two volume book of poetry and illustrations that she and her husband Don had published. Photo by Vivian Sazama

Her father loved horses and they always had a team. One day when Myrle was about five or six they were on their way to town in their Model T when they came to a wiregrass hay meadow. In the middle of the wet meadow was a hay wagon stuck with the hay piled high and the farmer was whipping the horses, getting madder all the time. Myrle’s father got angry when he saw what was happening and stopped the car. He got out and walked over to the lunging team, talking as he went. He rubbed their heads and let them stop quivering, then gently spoke to them and led them out to the road.

“I was so proud of my dad,” Myrle said. “He loved horses and I loved him!”

When Myrle was 10 years old the family moved three miles south of Osage, Minn. She remembers her first “boyfriend” who lived a little further from the school than Myrle. He would come by and carry her lunchbox to school everyday.

“He was my best friend.” she smiled.

The Cusey family was mostly self-sufficient. They raised dairy cattle, chickens and had large gardens, which helped them during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

We had a dozen plum trees which mother canned into plum jam and sauce. Oh! Her plum pies were so delicious!” Myrle exclaimed.

But times were still tough.

“One winter we ran out of meat. We didn’t want to butcher any of our dairy cows so when we heard that the government was offering one sheep per family at Wolf Lake, dad hitched up the team and made the nearly 30 mile round trip. When he got back his face was so covered in frost we hardly recognized him! And to make matters worse he came back with a goat, not a sheep, and the goat was inedible!”

When Myrle turned 14 she and two other girls shared a room in Park Rapids in order to attend high school. There were no school buses at that time and many children stopped their education in eighth grade. The house where she roomed was right across the street from the high school. The superintendent, Mr. Mevig, gave the girls jobs at the school, dusting, etc.

“He also taught classes and was a good teacher.” Myrle said.

The following year the district received school buses and Myrle was able to return home.

While living at the rooming house in town Myrle would attend the Baptist Church which was just across the road and down one block.

Park Rapids Schools received their first school buses in 1936. Myrle Cusey (middle) is shown in this photo standing on the running board of the 12-passenger bus. Contributed photo

“I liked to go to the young people’s meeting on Sunday night after I got back to town from the weekend at home,” she said. “One night we had a young people’s speaker come. He spoke, then we sang, then he asked if anyone wanted to ask the Lord Jesus in their heart, to remain standing after the singing was done. I remained standing and after everyone left the speaker and Pastor Don Wagner explained the plan of salvation to me and prayed with me. On my way back to my boarding room I thought the sky had never looked so beautiful. I have thanked Him ever since!”

After her junior year Myrle’s family moved to a farm 17 miles from Pine River. “I went from PR to PR.” Myrle laughed. After graduating, Myrle attended Normal Training, which was a year-long rural teacher’s training program held in the high school basement.

“Our instructor was wonderful.” Myrle said. “She would take us to the surrounding country schools to observe, and if we became too fidgety or noisy she would let us know!”

Myrle’s first school after graduating was at the Oakland School, with 32-34 students, grades first through eighth.

“The former teacher was very good. She had the students right where they should be in their studies and it was easy and a lot of fun! The school was located down a trail and through the woods! Why it was built there I don’t know.” she laughed.

After a year, Myrle was asked to teach at the Crescent School.

“It was only seven miles from home, but in those days gas was in short supply, so I stayed with a family who had a teenage daughter. We were both writing to our sweethearts and were waiting to see who would walk through the door first.” Myrle laughed.

It ended up being Myrle’s sweetheart, Don DaBill, whom she had first seen from across a yard when she was six and he was eight. They had looked at each other and they never forgot it. Later, when she was 18 and he 20, they met again on a roller skating floor and thus began a lifelong love.

The Don and Myrle DaBill family of Pine River when the children were young. Not pictured: Richard, their youngest. Contributed photo

“Don was called to the Army, got German measles, nearly died, and then came home for his first furlough. We got married and returned to Chicago by my first train ride when I was 19 years old,” said Myrle. “His Army Headquarters was at the Chicago Beach Hotel and rooms to rent were hard to find, however Don found one that was close enough for me to walk to work at the big Woolworth store so I could be free to be with Don when he had time off.”

The young couple lived there for nearly a year when Don was transferred to a training camp south of Chicago and Myrle was in the town of Peoria nearby where she found a job as Supervisor of teenage girls at a group home.

“I had five girls and we had a great time going places and seeing things during the day,” she said.

After training camp Don was sent first to England, then to Germany. Being six foot, 4 inches, Don became a guard during the Neuremberg trials. Although he was not allowed to talk about what happened during the trials, he did share one observation. “He said one of Hitler’s top officials who had presided over a concentration camp, who had once been so arrogant and pompous in his Nazi uniform, came into the courtroom dressed in baggy pajamas, looking completely humiliated,” Myrle said.

After Don was sent overseas Myrle returned home on the train.

“Don’s parents came to the station to pick me up.” Myrle said. “I stayed there for a few days, then I went home.”

Myrle’s third school to teach was at her home school called the Ansel School, which had 31 children through all eight grades. “It was a half-mile north and a quarter mile west, against the wind,” she laughed. “One 40 below morning I had to walk to the schoolhouse with a quilt wrapped all around and over me, with just an opening in the front so I could see. When I got to the schoolhouse it was freezing and there was no paper in the wastebasket in order to build a fire in the furnace, so I had to use some of the school paper. The school bus had no heater and when the children arrived one little girl was so frozen so I wrapped her in my quilt and lifted her up onto the furnace ledge and held her there for an hour until the room warmed up!”

Myrle taught there for two years and stayed with her parents. “Some were “fun” days,” Myrle said, “and some were NOT!”

Don returned home and the couple moved a small house onto his parents’ farm, six miles from Pine River. Myrle was asked to teach at the Emily school near Emily, Minn., which had only seven students. “The last teacher had been there for two years and I was shocked at how far behind the students were, and some of them were very rambunctious!“ she said. “A sixth grade boy was throwing spit wads all over the room. I didn’t say anything, but at the end of the day I had him stay and pick up every one of those wads. He never did that again!”

One seventh grade boy was particularly difficult.

“One day I happened to look up and there he was, hanging out the window, which was at least six feet above the ground! I got up quietly and walked over to him and grabbed him by the ankles and shoved him out about six inches and pulled him back in again. He never did that again either!” she laughed.

After teaching Don and Myrle set up a dairy farm on his parent’s homestead.

“We built a barn and painted it white, and also built a silo.” Myrle said.

The couple recognized they couldn’t have children so began the process of adoption. “We had to go for an interview and have a home visit so they could evaluate us to see if we were fit for adoption.” Myrle said. One day they received a call for a baby girl, just a few months old, who was in an orphanage in Minneapolis.

“We went there and I couldn’t do anything but just look at this little baby in the crib,” Myrle said. “The caregiver told me I could touch her and so I did!” They named her Linda and she was the joy in their lives. They went on to adopt three more children, another girl, Karen, who was two. “She hung onto Don’s neck all the way home from the cities,” and later two boys. “Doug had a way of looking right at you that engaged your heart. He would sing a little song to himself, so I would always know where he was!” And Richard, the youngest, completed their family.

Don and Myrle DaBill in their retirement years. Contributed photo

During this time Don began driving the Bookmobile for the Kitchigami Regional Library to the surrounding counties. One day in 1968, Aldrich Niemala, a school board member of the Sunnybrook School, District 2438 in Wadena County, asked Don if he knew of any available teachers. Don told Myrle and though she had thought she was done teaching, she decided to take the position and was there for two years until all the country schools in the state were closed down. “There were only eight students left in Sunnybrook, but I really enjoyed my time there,” Myrle said. “I had the most help there than I ever had, with a teacher’s aide, Anna Habedank, who helped the students with what they were supposed to be practicing at home.”

Myrle taught art and music, which was a first at that school. “We really enjoyed the Christmas programs, though one year I couldn’t be there as my mother was ill and needed me to be with her, but Anna was there and did a great job!” she said.

All while growing up Myrle and her brothers had enjoyed drawing. Myrle began using watercolors and oils later on in life and became president of the Pine River Art Club for 20 years. “That was fun!” she said. Her favorite objects were scenery and the many beautiful flowers that she tended in her garden. For 10 years she taught art classes at the Community Ed and also did commission work. Don wrote poetry and together they published two softcover books titled We Like It Here and We Still Like It Here, with Myrle as the illustrator. Later on they combined the two volumes into one hardcover book.

Don passed away in 2009 and just a few years ago Myrle gave up her painting. “I just wasn’t able to see as well,” she said. One of her flower paintings is hung up in the hallway of the assisted living residence where she now lives, which is right beside the beautiful Pine River. “One of my lilies is planted right over there and I tend to them every summer,” she said, pointing outside of the sunroom where she stood. “I enjoy seeing the many birds, ducks, geese and swans.” She also makes a point to walk outdoors once or twice a day, “to get the exercise and fresh air!” she said.


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