If you read the last issue of Inspired Woman, you might remember we introduced this new article. Living Treasures puts the spotlight on the women in our community enjoying their golden years, and inspiring all of us through their examples of healthy living, words of wit and wisdom, or leadership, and actions.
You might also remember Betty Maher. She was one of the six women featured in the debut article. She inspired me so
deeply with her genuinely positive outlook on life. It turns out, Betty’s attitude goes much deeper than my initial impression. She’s been making an impact on the lives of people far and wide, young and old—for decades—with her keen sense of helping people care for their bodies and minds.
The day of this interview, Betty wasn’t feeling well, but when I told her how she had made such an impression on me, she smiled and said, “If you’re going to accomplish anything, you have to have a pretty good outlook.”
So it’s my pleasure to tell you more about this woman who was a pioneer of public and mental health services for people living in western North Dakota.
Betty Maher graduated from St. Alexius Hospital School of Nursing in 1945 and began working as a public health nurse in Fargo. She moved with her husband John to Bowman, where Betty worked in public health for Bowman and Slope counties for 25 years. During that time, Betty helped provide the services you typically find in public health—immunizations, dental care instruction for school kids, and nutrition basics. But she began to notice bigger issues that she believed demanded attention. She says there were serious mental health problems that weren’t being addressed.
“Bowman was a small town and had problems like any place else, and more of them. So I became quite concerned about the problems we ran into including suicide and different kinds of mental health problems, from the young to the old.
“I remember we had five suicides in a short time. I read a book by a man from San Diego. I called him and asked how I could get help having some good workshops and he said, ‘If you can raise $3000 I will come and bring a social worker with me and we’ll conduct a program in Bowman and one in Dickinson and spend some time with families who were suffering so much.’ That was kind of a beginning of being able to open doors.”
Myrt Armstrong was the longtime director of the Mental Health Association of North Dakota. Betty says she worked closely with Myrt to host ongoing mental health workshops for counties in western North Dakota. Myrt was often one of the speakers.
“We had a big rural area and nothing that was really established as this need or that need to be put into one category or the other so finding ways to have mental health programs seemed to go very well because many people were suffering and needed help.”
It seems Betty’s servant heart was consistently with her. Betty’s daughter, Shannon Schmit, recalls her mother coming home after a long day of work and heading straight to the basement, which housed the family business. There, Shannon says her mother would continue her work day helping her father with his. He was the publisher of The Finder.
In 1979, Betty and John moved to Mandan. They started The Finder there, and John took over as publisher of the Mandan News. Betty’s ability to see the needs of people and meet them continued to make her a natural leader. Betty became the Executive Director of the North Dakota Nursing Association. Sheserved for 10 years. She was instrumental in establishing the nation’s first statewide requirement for nurses to have a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree, before entering professional practice.
Prior to that, Betty played a key role in forming the Badlands Human Service Center in Dickinson and served on the board. For her work in public health, Betty was named the Outstanding Citizen of Bowman County, the Mental Health Association’s Woman of the Year, and North Dakota Nurse of the Year by the National March of Dimes Foundation.
Betty was instrumental in Heartview, a private, non-profit alcohol and drug treatment and education program. She also worked for the North Dakota Lung Association. Betty is a member of the North Dakota Nurses Association Hall of Fame, with which she travelled across the country to promote the nursing profession—lobbying for better pay. She even hosted seminars on assertiveness for nurses dealing with difficult physicians!
Shannon says despite all the accomplishments in her professional life, Betty has mentioned having doubts about her role as a mother to her four children.
“But you’ll never hear that from any of her kids. She was a big beacon for the entire state.”
North Dakota winter months can get long and gloomy. But not for Freda Leno. Freda says she has never been depressed. Not even when her husband was gravely ill, nor after the 12 major surgeries and multiple injuries in her lifetime.
Freda endured a broken back—twice. She’s had one kidney removed, a broken collarbone, a broken shoulder, and a shoulder replacement. Freda also survived breast and colon cancer.
All of this is remarkable. But there is more to tell you about Freda Leno. Much more.
She is the oldest resident living in a basic care facility in North Dakota. Freda just celebrated her 102nd birthday on January 15th, at the Good Samaritan Society in Bismarck.
You wouldn’t know it, though. Her age, I mean. To look at her and to listen to her, you might guess her age somewhere around 80. This lady is truly remarkable.
Every reporter asks the same question when interviewing a centenarian: “What’s your secret?” But Freda’s answer surprised me. She has two: sour cream and sewing.
The first, she explains, is the reason for her youthful glow and smooth, beautiful skin.
“I used to work in a field for my dad for four years. I would tie a red handkerchief all around my face because you don’t want to have a sunburn. In the evening I would wash my face and I would take some thick sour cream—and that was my face cream.”
And she would leave it on overnight.
“Real thick sour cream sinks right into your skin. My sister-in-law said, ‘You put pure penicillin on your face!’ But I didn’t know it then. That was all we had.”
While sour cream—and limited sunshine—kept Freda’s skin smooth, her other secret keeps her mind sharp. She has been sewing since she was nine years old.
“I’ve done a lot of sewing. That’s the best thing to hold your brain. I read that in a magazine recently.”
Freda continues, “Think about sewing. If you don’t have a pattern, all the thinking you have do, and the different seams.”
I asked her what she likes to sew.
“Ask me what I don’t sew,” she chuckled.
Freda and her husband Jake raised five children, so she tailored coats, suits, and dresses for all of them, from patterns she designed herself. She also stitched together many quilts and pillows, and even her daughter’s wedding dress. Freda says her eyesight keeps her from sewing daily, as she did in the past. But when she does, she still uses her 60-year old Viking sewing machine to create potholders, pillows, bibs, and decorations that are cherished gifts for people who receive them, including staff members of the Good Samaritan Society.
Activities Director Lori Roehrich says Freda is an inspiration to all of them. She says Freda insists on using a walker instead of a wheelchair. And she doesn’t just use it for walking.
Freda grins as she adds, “I can run with it just as easy as walk with it.”
Before I arrived on the day we visited, she had slipped off the black two-inch pumps she was wearing to run back to her room to get one of the pillows she had sewn.
Freda also does yoga once a week, and to the amazement of staff and other residents, can lift her leg straight up while standing. Did I mention—she’s 102?
Lori says Freda refuses to live in the nursing home. But after she lost her balance and fell, injuring herself, she was transferred from Basic Care to the facility’s nursing home while she recovered. Lori says Freda wondered at first why this would have happened to her, but then she made the best of it, and even found a purpose in it.
“The next day, I found her in the dining room helping feed another resident who couldn’t see. And Freda helped feed her until the day that lady died.”
Maybe it was her own nursing experience kicking in—Freda did tell me she worked for 15 years at the Sheyenne Manor, the nursing home in Valley City. But more likely, it would stand to reason that a woman who has never let life or loss get her down for more than 100 years would spend her days showing compassion, kindness, and love to another in her final days.