Long Prairie woman was state’s first female licensed Master Plumber
By Nancy Leasman
Everything has a first time, but not everyone manages a “first.” Lilah Gripne of Long Prairie has a “first.” In 1974, Lilah became the first female licensed Master Plumber in the state of Minnesota. Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Jim Klobuchar featured Lilah’s achievement in his column titled, “M’lady is a plumber.” That was another big moment in the life of a small town girl.
Lilah was born in Todd County’s Moran Township. She moved with her parents and sister to Long Prairie when she was in second grade. She graduated from the Long Prairie High School in 1963, then majored in business at St. Cloud State University. Her first job was at a Twin Cities law firm. Five years later, she was back in Long Prairie serving as a case worker for Social Services. She married Jim Gripne in 1968 and became a mom to son, Jim Jr., in 1969. As a young mother she gave up her career in Social Services. “But I didn’t want to sit at home,” she remembered.
It wasn’t in her nature to not be among people so she took on a new challenge and wrote for the local newspaper. That job involved calling neighbors, friends, and sometimes strangers to shed a little light on the local happenings in what was called “The Society Column.” She also wrote up wedding features and obituaries. And she helped out at her dad’s plumbing shop.
In 1974, both her dad and her husband encouraged her to take the Master Plumbing exam. They knew it was a difficult test but believed she was up to the challenge since she already knew her way around the plumbing shop and had been doing some plumbing. If she passed the test, she could own the plumbing business.
The current Minnesota exam includes over 20 pages of knowledge areas from installation practices to corrosion, erosion, and mechanical damage; backflow prevention devices, assemblies, and methods to expansion tanks, combination pressure, and temperature relief valves. Though plumbing has evolved over the last 50 years, much of it remains the same.
Lilah was no stranger to tests after her years at St. Cloud State and passing the required state civil service exam for her job with social services.
“We could take the code book into the exam site,” she said of the plumbing exam. But as the Department of Labor and Industries License Examination Guide states, “Knowledge gained through practical experience is generally not adequate to enable an applicant to pass a licensing examination. It is the responsibility of an applicant to adequately prepare themselves, either through formal training or informal, self-help training.”
Lilah was nervous when she drove to the Twin Cities in September of 1974 for the exam that was only offered twice a year. “There was a lot of math and questions about angles and lengths. You had to lay out a design; know about city and residential work; know how to work with copper and cast iron.” The test was a thorough exploration of plumbing knowledge but didn’t include the hands-on testing like her dad experienced in 1962. “Dad had to complete a lead joint. That was pass/fail and you had to do it.”
She remembered overhearing a man’s comment as she presented herself for the test. “That woman will never pass.” As it turned out, she passed, but he didn’t.
After earning her license she and Jim bought out her dad’s shop though it retained the business name, Motl Plumbing and Heating. She still had more to learn, and one of those things was that life was full of emergencies. She was usually the one to answer the call and dispatch her husband or dad to deal with the problems though at times she went on calls with her husband or handled leaky faucets, plugged drains and other situations herself. She monitored the plumbing inventory and ordered supplies. She also filled in when her parents just had to get away, something she’d been doing since high school. Lilah made sure to renew her license every year.
Lilah was also an asset to the business in that she became even more involved with the community. Her plumbing experience was applicable to her position on the city planning and zoning commission and on the board of adjustment for the county. She put in nearly 40 years with those groups, while also being a Boy Scout den mother and organizing scout day camps for many years.
In 2009, with several openings on the local city council, Lilah was asked to run as a write-in candidate to fill an unexpired term. She completed that 2-year term and has since served two four-year terms. She was also re-elected in the most recent November election. She is the liaison between planning and zoning and the city council and was the liaison to the fire department. She also agreed to work on the 2020 census, a job that has taken longer than anticipated and was complicated by both the pandemic and the election.
A people-person, Lilah demonstrates a life-long commitment to her community and passed that dedication on to her son who became a police officer and active member of the Alexandria community.
Lilah retired from the plumbing business 10 years ago but still likes seeing new products. She also keeps a plumbing torch and fittings and fixes most of her own plumbing issues. She’s quick to recommend plumbing as a satisfying career. While it wasn’t easy for her to become a licensed plumber, the requirements have become stiffer in the years since 1974.
As Star Tribune columnist Jim Klobuchar said, “M’lady is a plumber,” and Lilah has proven that a lady can be a plumber and keep other things in her community flowing smoothly, too.