“To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson
By Deb Trygstad, M.S.
When one meets Eunice (Stumpf) Thorson, 94, of Fargo, one is immediately struck by her quick wit and confidence. She has lived a life worth living and has inspired many along the way. She and her husband also helped a lot children in need through Compassionate International.
Eunice’s story begins a farm in Wisconsin, closer to the Minnesota town of Red Wing than she was to the nearest Wisconsin town of Ellsworth.
She describes her upbringing as a simple, happy time. She was born in 1926, the youngest child of three on a farm, at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. She called the farm diversified, whereas today we would use the term “sustainable farming” because everything on the farm was self sufficient and dependent upon everything else. The farm was run on horse power, so they grew wheat and oats for the horses. Corn was grown for the chickens and pigs. They raised everything that they ate. Eunice started milking when she was very young. There was a huge vegetable garden which was preserved for the winter. Since they had no electricity, they had to preserve everything, including meat, which was canned.
“We were taught that we should take care of ourselves,” said Eunice.
When she was six years old she started driving the horses to hay. She had to stand on the stanchion because she was too short. Her mother did not like this, but her father had confidence she could do it. Her father was very calm, and an excellent man with animals, she said. He even broke horses for the neighbor.
“My parents were happy. They loved each other,” she said. “They always prayed at the table and we went to church every Sunday. We never worked on Sunday (only milked the cows). It was a day of rest and for playing games.”
When she was 12, electricity came to the farm and lights went on all over.
“It was like the whole world was lit up,” she said. “There was a barn dance at the neighbors to celebrate.”
Eunice attended a one room rural school and graduated from the eighth grade. Then she had to take the bus to high school to Ellsworth.
She remembered a time when there was a terrible storm and the corn crop was just ready to be harvested. They watched from the window as their beautiful corn crop was disseminated.
“My Dad put his arm around my mother and told her that we will make it on something else,” Eunice remembered. “We will husk it by hand and figure it out. He took me out of high school for two weeks and we husked the corn by hand.”
Eunice graduated from high school at the end of WWII. Her brother, who had served in the war, was on a medical deferment and living in Denver. He was homesick and wishing for family, so after her graduation, he wrote to Eunice and asked her to come out. She took a train from Red Wing to Denver with $10 in her pocket. In Denver she met some friends who invited her to go to college with her at Washington State University in Pullman, Wash. She majored in Social Work. This is where Eunice met her future husband, Bill Thorson, at a weekend Bible Camp in Washington. Bill was from Minneapolis and was just getting out of the Army.
Shortly after meeting Bill however, Eunice’s college days were cut short. Her dad got sick and she had to go home in March to help out on the farm. Her relationship with Bill continued. When he came back to Minnesota to attend the University he visited Eunice. They dated for a year and a half before they got married. Because Bill now had a position at General Motors, they moved to Bismarck and then to Fargo.
Eunice and Bill were very much in love.
“It’s wonderful to fall in love but more important to stay in love,” she said.
The couple ended up with five children -- three girls and two boys. They lived in the Fargo/Moorhead area for most of their married life. Eunice later got into real estate sales after the kids grew up. They developed some wonderful hobbies over the years. Though never a sailor, Bill taught himself how to sail. They had a trailer in Bayfield, Wisconsin, that they visited to for 20 some years, and they sailed on Lake Superior.
One winter, Bill said it would be nice if they had a winter activity. So he learned to square dance for Eunice and she learned to sail for him. These activities and camping became very important parts of their life and their family. She remembered their camping trips in a tent throughout Canada. One year they went west to the Pacific ocean, another year they went east, all the way to Nova Scotia.
Eunice has always been involved with her faith and has been involved with a Lay Witness Mission. She remembered once when she lost her faith for months when her young son died.
“That was a time that I was sad and I got mad at God,” she said. “My husband was so kind and understanding but he said I had to go to church for the kids. One thing that helped me out a lot was a friend of mine came to me everyday and just helped me with my housework, talked to me and listened. That’s how I got through that hard time in my life.”
During that hard time, she also went to the minister and told him she did not like his sermons. She met with him many times and those visits changed her. She came to realize that forgiveness was a big thing.
Eunice and Bill later became involved in an organization called Compassion International (CI), which they learned about from their daughter who was in college. She had joined CI and sponsored a child.
Compassion International is a child-advocacy ministry pairing compassionate people with children living in extreme poverty to release the children from spiritual, economic, social, and physical poverty. The group takes a long-term approach to child development by investing in and for the life of each child. Through our holistic child development model, the group tries to blend physical, social, economic and spiritual care together to help children in poverty fully mature in every facet of life.
Eunice and Bill became actively involved in this organization, sponsoring many children. The most they had was two at a time.
“You are assigned a child,” she said. “You introduce yourself and write to the child and they write back. You enter into a relationship with that child. You can select the child or they can choose someone for you.”
The children are interviewed and selected to be in the program and there can be only one child per family, but the whole family benefits. The Thorsons even went to the headquarters in Colorado Springs to check out the organization and took a tour twice. They wanted to know what was happening to their money.
“Compassion was deep in our hearts when we got involved,” she said.
This helped her to be more compassionate to people who didn’t have what they had.
“People get so overwhelmed about what you can do to help in the world, but you can make a difference in one child,” she said.
One of the children they sponsored for 20 some years, was Madeline, at Haiti. They started sponsoring her when she was six or seven. They even visited her in Haiti on a trip provided by CI. They traveled in Haiti by truck and the roads were terrible, full of potholes. When they saw Madeline she had on a very nice dress that she stitched by hand because they had no sewing machine.
“She had to drive a day and a half by wagon just to get to the town we met her with in Haiti,” said Eunice. “When she was 21 we were asked to sponsor someone else. The children who are sponsored get food and education. Quite often they become leaders in their community due to their participation in CI. Many of them become sponsors of other children.”
Eunice remembered one family in a Haiti slum whose house was up on stilts above the water. Both mom and dad had AIDS. She asked what would happen to the children when they died. The parents said they would be on their own if they could not find friends to take care of them.
“We went to a school in Haiti where they just came out of the slum, but the children in the school were clean. The school was amazing, like a regular school that we know. It was hard for me when we visited there and this one little girl wanted me to sponsor her but we could not. She asked me three times and it broke my heart that we could not do it because we were not there to do that.”
Eunice and Bill also went to Brazil to a CI training trip for advocates. They went to different homes and different schools and explained how the children got an education and were helped by the program.
Priscilla Smith, a good friend of Eunice and Bill, talked about the Thorson’s compassionate work.
“In 2004 I worked as a volunteer coordinator at church, and that’s when I saw their passion for Compassion International. On Compassion Sunday, Eunice and Bill would set up the CI table covered with packets of children to be sponsored, tirelessly trying any angle that would connect people with a child...we took on three kids that year! I often wondered where they got the energy to lug those tables around, put up posters, record videos and coordinate this ministry way past retirement. They were responsible for changing the lives of around 350 children around the world!”
In 2009, Bill and Eunice gave up sailing, going to Bayfield and square dancing, all in the same year. Bill was slowing down. Eunice remembers he was kind of depressed that winter.
“We have done a lot of things in our life, so let’s make a ‘therapy book’ about this.” So, now approaching their 90’s, they gathered all their memories and pictures of their life together and put them all into a book with dates and stories.
“This book keeps you mentally healthy and we made one of those books for each one of our kids. This book was the story of our family. When you no longer can do all the things you want to do this book can be a place you can go. When you reach the phase of having to give up things, you can sort your memories and your life into one place. This can also help you remember the story of where you come from.”
It took them all winter to complete it. They gave the books as a gift to their kids and their 20 grandchildren and 28 great grandchildren. Shortly thereafter Bill passed away at the age of 90. They had been married for 66 years. When Eunice was 90 she made another book about her life for her family.
What Eunice said about life was, “Enjoy it. Even when I was a kid -- and we didn’t get out much -- we could go on picnics as it was all we could do, like going to Lake Pepin. But, we had to get the chores done first. I had a good life. We had hard times. We didn’t always have money, but we had love.”