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Schoolmates reunite . . . on a different campus

In December 2011 Iola Stark and Christel Guiles, both of Alexandria, celebrated their 100th birthdays – a grand age for these two friends to have reached together. The only thing that may prove more interesting than their ages is how the two women met and years later renewed their friendship. Stark grew up, Iola Maanum, on a farm south of Hoffman. Guiles was raised in Belle River Township near Carlos as Christel Blank. Although the girls didn’t know each other growing up, their paths would first cross at the West Central School of Agriculture (WCSA) in Morris in 1929. The present University of Minnesota – Morris campus was home to this school from 1910 to 1963. At that time, there was no transportation for high school students in the country and Stark and Guiles both attended WCSA. The school provided a learning opportunity beyond the 8th grade for boys and girls. Students took regular high school subjects along with music appreciation and swimming. Girls were able to take additional courses such as sewing, cooking and home economics. Boys had their own set of specified courses. A unique aspect to the girls’ curriculum was the Home Management house. For eight weeks a group of girls lived together in a house learning and performing daily household responsibilities. A house mother lived with the students. To teach the girls caregiver skills, an orphan child also lived in the house. The school was designed to be a three-year program with an optional fourth year of specialized classes. Students lived in dorms and attended classes from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. The school’s academic year was scheduled around the Minnesota growing season with classes beginning after the harvest in October and dismissing in late March before planting. Guiles recalled it cost $21 per month to eat and live in the dorms. “When the weather was nice, our parents would come and get us and we spent time at home,” said Guiles. The two women recall one another while attending WCSA nearly 85 years ago. “We were in some classes together, but not too many,” shared Guiles. They graduated wearing dresses they made in sewing class. Stark graduated in 1932 while Guiles graduated one year later as she had taken some time off from school before enrolling in WCSA. Stark’s Life After graduation, Stark moved back home with her parents. She married Virgil Stark in 1934. The couple lived on a farm and began their family of two children, JaVane and Mervin. After 10 years of marriage, Virgil died of polio in 1944. Stark spent the next eight years in Kensington where she worked as a telephone operator. She then moved to Alexandria, but wasn’t able to find work as an operator. The mother of two had always wanted to be a nurse and she applied for a job at the hospital. She received a letter from the Alexandria Clinic that the doctors wanted to train some women to be assistants. She was hired by Dr. William Heegaard. She loved her work as a doctor’s assistant and worked for Heegaard for nearly 20 years. It was in 1980 when Stark moved to Bethel Manor in Alexandria. Guiles’ Life Guiles life after graduation went a different direction. “The administrator of the school would help boys and girls get jobs because they were scarce,” she explained. The young woman, fresh from the school that had taught her home management skills, began working for a couple in Minneapolis. She worked in their home doing housework and other home management tasks. She described how her employers would have guests one day a week and she would serve the meal. The salad would be on the table but she would serve the rest of the meal to each guest individually. She would serve the potatoes, then the gravy, followed by meat and lastly the vegetable. “I often think of that. What if it was a cool day? The first person’s food would get cold,” Guiles recalled. “But that’s the way I had to do it – the way we learned in school.” The concern she felt for the guests still lingered in her voice. Guiles worked in Minneapolis for a few years before returning to the Belle River area to care for her ailing mother. Guiles found work writing news items for the area, which she submitted to the Echo Press, Osakis Review and the Citizens’ News. She was married in 1939 to Vernes Kingston, who later died in 1955. At the age of 45, the mother of two children, Donald and Cheryl, moved to Alexandria. She married William Guiles in 1959 and the couple lived on the Century Farm in Holmes City. She moved to Bethel Manor in 1997. The Reunion Ten years ago while visiting, Stark and Guiles discovered that their December birthdays were only five days apart and they were the same age. As the conversation continued, they realized they had both been students at the WCSA in 1929. “Well, it was just so funny how it came about,” Stark said of the reunion. “We didn’t recognize each other. We didn’t even think of it.” In the last three years, the two friends haven’t gotten to visit as much because Stark moved to Bethany Home for health reasons. “I have brittle bones,” she shared. “My bones break first and then I fall.” To meet and speak with either of these women, one would not guess them to be the impressive age of 100. Stark smiled and proudly announced that she takes a One A Day vitamin every day. “I’ve enjoyed life and I enjoy people,” she said. And she certainly has a lot of people to enjoy as she is the grandmother of five, great grandmother of seven and great, great grandmother of three. Guiles has two grandchildren and three great grandchildren and when asked what the best part of being 100 is, she said: “That I am still on my own two feet and healthy and able to take care of myself.” The two women have enjoyed getting to know one another. They agreed that reminiscing about old times has been very rewarding. And when Stark had her 100th birthday party, she invited her long lost friend. “Well, I couldn’t leave her out,” she admitted as she looked at Guiles and softly smiled.

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