Soon-to-be centenarian continues to lead county’s Be Kind movement
By Jim Palmer
Margaret Pederson of Glenwood turns 100 on Oct. 1, she will be celebrating the centennial event at a community open house (Saturday, Oct. 2, from 1:30-3:30 p.m. at Lakeside Ballroom in Glenwood). At the party, she will join family and friends in looking back at a century filled with adventures, challenges and plenty of highs and lows.
Two of those lifetime highs have come in the last 10 years. One has been her decision to return to Pope County after 70 years away. Another was the opportunity to spearhead the Be Kind movement, a county-wide initiative that gained state-wide attention for its efforts of inspiring residents to “be kind” to all those they encounter.
“In this group, we don’t align ourselves with any political group or religious affair,” she said. “Everyone can be kind. The Be Kind movement is all about offering individual to individual kindness. We need to let other people know that they really matter.”
Be Kind is a grass roots group which started over a cup of coffee.
“One day four of us women had coffee over at Lakeside,” said Margaret, who was 97 years old at the time. “There had been some tragic school shootings, and the conversation turned to how awful things were becoming. We seemed to be in agreement that there was nothing we could do about it. Then there was silence. I decided to talk about Louisville, where I had lived before moving here. The mayor of Louisville led the city to become known as a ‘Compassionate City.’ There were meetings once a month to work toward that goal. I attended those meetings. I said, ‘Right now, I miss those meetings.’ More silence. Then one brave woman spoke up, ‘Why can’t we have that here?’ The whole atmosphere hanged with that one question. We looked at each other and said, ‘There has to be something we can do.’”
The women set up a second meeting and started to talk about ideas. In a few weeks they launched the Be Kind project at the Pope County Expo, which was attended by hundreds.
One of their early events was a group activity in partnership with Minnewaska Area Schools about how to reduce bullying. It related to the nationwide movement called Rachel’s Challenge. Rachel was a student at Columbine High School in Colorado who was killed in a school shooting in 1999. Rachel had a belief that one single act of kindness could lead to a chain reaction of kindness. She envisioned schools being “full of hope, free from harassment, violence, and self-harm, where teachers are free to teach and students are inspired to learn.” After her death, her words of hope started a challenge that has been taken up by other groups and individuals across the country. The message fit right into the mission of Margaret and the Be Kind group.
“Before Rachel died she wrote an essay about kindness and about making a chain of kindness. She said if she did something that was kind, someone else would see that and do something kind to someone else. And pretty soon we would have a chain of kindness,” said Margaret. “The idea of a chain appealed to us, and we decided to teach finger knitting to create a chain. I learned to fingerknit from one of my grandchildren. Everyone got into the act -- from children age 3 1/2 to 97 year old grandmothers, and the entire football team! It took off. And the chain grew close to a mile long.”
On a fall day in October 2019, more than 1,000 people gathered in the school gym and were encircled by the finger knitted chain. Margaret, as a cheerleader, spoke to the crowd and asked each one of them to take the pledge -- “Be Kind, Just Try It, I Will.”
“It was a great unifying event, and that is when people the community started to really take notice of the Be Kind group,” she said.
Since that event, Be Kind continues to be active in the community with a long list of kind projects and gestures. Just a few of those expressions of kindness include the distribution of kind notes and cards to businesses and individuals, treats to the mental health drop in center, May baskets to homes and businesses disrupted by street work, and even the distribution a pack of marigold seeds (a symbol of positive emotions and energy) to every home in the county. More than 250 volunteers were included in that effort.
“We are trying to keep the message to be kind in front of people’s mind all the time,” she said. “Our goal was that every resident of Pope County should either do acts of kindness or be a recipient of kindness. Either you do or you receive or you are going to be involved with kindness in some way. It is that simple. We like to be encouragers, encouraging people to do kindness.”
Margaret added that if anyone wanted to help out or learn more about Be Kind, the group meet the 2nd and the 4th Tuesday starting at 11:30 a.m. in the basement of Glenwood Lutheran Church.
To know how Margaret had the passion to start something like the Be Kind movement, one just needs to look at her upbringing.
Margaret was born on Oct. 1, 1921, in Dalton, Minn., but moved at a young age to rural South Dakota (near Canton and Sioux Falls) when her father, a pastor, took a three-point parish.
“We lived in a parsonage across the street from one church. Another was two miles east and another was three miles west,” she said.
Her mother was trained as a nurse but stayed home with Margaret and her three younger siblings.
“My father was a well received man in the area and people would come to him for help. Early on, I learned that we are all here for each other,” she said.
Margaret attended a private, residential high school with Lutheran roots located about 10 miles from her home.
“I would stay at school for the week and then go home on the weekends,” she said. “Some kids stayed there all the time. That was a very important period in my life.”
When the Depression hit in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the school was in jeopardy of closing.
“My father worked incessantly to keep the school open because he had gone to such an academy when he was young and wanted his children and parishioners to have a similar opportunity. I learned a lot about leadership from my father.”
There was a good opportunity for Margaret to learn about rural living while in South Dakota. The parsonage was located on a 10-acre plot. They had farm animals for food, a large garden and room to run.
“We were all poor during the Depression,” she said. “I never went without the essentials, but I do know that we always made use of everything we had and nothing went to waste. We live in an upsetting world today, and it was an upsetting world then. I learned some important things during that time in my life.”
After graduating from high school, Margaret wanted to go to college and her parents wanted her to go, but there was no money. Instead, she went with other Academy students to the Lutheran Bible Institute in Minneapolis, where tuition was $10 per quarter. During this time, she navigated life in the big city.
“I learned some important things during that time in my life,” she said.
A year later, there was enough money, along with work, for Margaret to attend Augustana College in Sioux Falls. But it wasn’t the college of her dreams.
“When I was 11 or 12 years old, my dad took me to a concert in Sioux Falls. The St. Olaf Choir was performing. My father was not a musician at all but I had been playing piano since I was six (and she still plays today). I heard the St. Olaf Choir that night and I thought, ‘I think I have been transported to heaven.’”
St. Olaf was her college of choice, but the pricetag was too steep. She attended Augustana for two years.
“Then the war came (WWII),” she said. “All of us who were old enough to take jobs were encouraged to find work, so we did. Again, we went to Minneapolis and found work.”
After working for a while in Minneapolis, she saw an opportunity and she jumped at it.
“I learned that there were job openings in Northfield, where St. Olaf is located. I was hired by the St. Olaf Treasurer’s Office, which resulted in an arrangement enabling me to become a St. Olaf student and to graduate with no school debt. My dream come true!”
Growing up, Margaret always thought that her future would involve life as a missionary to China.
“At my dad’s graduation from the Seminary my parents prepared to go as missionaries to China, but dad didn’t pass the physical because a heart condition (he lived to age 94) so they told God that they would dedicate their first born to China in their place,” said Margaret. “I was that first born. And I was excited about it. I would go half way around the world, travel in a steamer for three weeks, spend seven years in China, come home for a year and back again for seven years. Missionaries sent me snakeskin fiddles, bamboo flutes and silk scarves. This commitment colored my life through my junior year of college. Any boyfriend I had knew that my first commitment was to China, but one (Oliver) kept writing letters from the South Pacific during the war. Then China closed its doors to any Americans That released me from my commitment to China.”
Oliver got a leave after more than two years in the Pacific war zone, and found Margaret at St. Olaf. Twenty four hours later, the two were engaged. When Oliver was discharged from the Navy, they were married.
“We had a lot in common,” she said. “He was an exceptionally good tenor and I played the piano. We went to a lot of concerts together.”
After leaving the service, Oliver decided to study chiropractic because a fellow Navy man had successfully healed his injured back and he wanted to help others similarly. Because he had been away from academics so long, Oliver insisted that Margaret attend school with him in Indianapolis, which she did until she became pregnant after about a year in school. She went home to Minnesota to give birth to their first son, Jonathan. Oliver increasingly felt that he was to be a pastor but wanted to finish the chiropractic course, which he did. Then they settled in St. Peter, Minnesota, for one year so Oliver could get the required Greek requirement for Seminary study.
While Oliver was at the Seminary, Margaret had a job at Thrivent (then Lutheran Brotherhood) insurance, while Jonathan attended nursery school a block from their apartment.
Oliver’s first call was to Barsness Lutheran and Chippewa Falls Lutheran churches, both located south of Glenwood
“This time was probably the most pleasant part of my whole life,” Margaret said. “We followed an older pastor, and we came in with zip and enthusiasm. We had a ball! I just loved working with the energetic young people, which was well supported by parents.”
Although she didn’t have an official title at the churches (“besides pastor’s wife”), Margaret completely took over the youth programs and built them up “with the help of the parents.”
Margaret and Oliver served the two churches from 1952 to 1960. During that time, Margaret formed some strong connections with many of those children she mentored. She would reconnect with many of them years later (more on that at the end of the article).
With more children in the house (they had four), the couple realized they needed more income to provide an excellent education for their kids. The county had a social worker, and needed only one. Margaret would have to qualify as a teacher to make more pay, so she commuted twice a week to St. Cloud and later did student teaching at Glenwood to get the proper credentials. With that accomplished, Oliver accepted a call to Arlington, South Dakota. Margaret took part-time teaching jobs during their stay there.
The next move was to Minneapolis where Margaret spent two years getting an Masters of Social Work degree. She worked a social worker and Oliver was certified as a hospital chaplain. The two worked these jobs in the Twin Cities area for many years.
When Oliver’s health started failing, and they moved to Louisville, Kentucky. Margaret lived with her daughter, Phoebe, and Oliver lived in a senior living facility. After Oliver’s death Margaret took advantage of several college courses (free for seniors) in Louisville. She also spent enjoyable time each summer in the “Stone House” in Terrace, Minnesota (near Glenwood). Friends began a campaign to woo Margaret back to Minnesota, and it worked. She came to live at Parkview Court in Glenwood (assisted living) in her 90s. Many of these advocates were the young people that Margaret worked with in the 50s and early 60s at the two churches. These “kids” were now her senior peers.
“They became like a family with loving support, and continue as such,” said Margaret. “They are real jewels as friends.”
Margaret said she was always told that it was not a good idea for a pastor to return to a city after they served the parish because it may make it more difficult for the current pastor.
“I knew that so well... but it had been 70 years... so I thought it was OK,” she smiled.
When asked how she managed to remain healthy to the century mark she said, “I eat healthy food and I exercise. I walk every day and read every day. I also try to be helpful. But probably the greatest contributor is a thankful heart, a positive attitude, gratitude for blessings, and expecting the best to happen. We are the sum of our thoughts.”