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Meeting My Grandmother's 1921 Pupil  (Wing, North Dakota)

(Reprint from News: October 18, 2001)

October 17, 2001

 

The most amazing event of my seven-week visit to North Dakota occurred only a few days before I headed back home.  As I poked around the nearly-deserted town of Regan on that cold and gray afternoon, I met a fellow named Otto Uhde who was a little older than myself.  When I told Otto that I was a descendent of the long-gone Reinhard family, he suggested that I talk to a woman named Hester Bailey.  Otto glanced at his watch and said, "You know, it's almost 5 o'clock so I'm sure Hester's eating dinner over in Wing.  Why don't you follow me, because I'm going over there in a few minutes."  I told Otto that I wanted to stop by the cemetery first and said that I'd meet him in Wing. 

 

Twenty minutes later I pulled into the small town of Wing, about 10 miles east of Regan, and found the town's only restaurant, called the Chat & Chew Cafe.  Otto had arrived a minute earlier and we walked into the small, dark and smoky cafe.  Otto walked over to an elderly woman eating alone in the nearly-empty restaurant and introduced me to her.  "This fellow is related to the Reinhards who lived in Regan," said Otto, as I shook Hester's hand.  As I sat down next to her, Hester told me that she'd lived in this area her entire life, so I asked her if she remembered my grandmother, Helga Swang, who had passed away in 1964.

 

To my utter amazement, Hester told me that Helga was her very first teacher when Hester was in kindergarten eighty years earlier in 1921 when Hester was 6 years old.  Hester remembered Helga fondly and I eagerly listened to her stories about the Swangs and Reinhards.  I couldn't believe that I'd met someone who remembered these people who I'd been researching for the past few months.  As she sat in the tiny cafe finishing her dinner, Hester proudly told me that she still has the leather purse that Helga (or "Miss Swang," as she called her) gave her after she graduated from kindergarten.

 

After a while, I brought my laptop computer into the cafe and showed Hester several digital photos from Helga's old photo album including Helga's elementary school, which had burned down in 1925.  Hester remembered the school vividly and told me stories about the school and about several young children in the photographs, all of whom were now in their 80's and 90's, if they were still alive. 

 

Hester also remembered my mother when my mom was a little girl and told me stories about my great-grandmother Petrina Reinhard (Edward's mother), who died in 1927.  Before meeting Hester, I had known almost nothing about Petrina, so I was delighted to hear Hester's stories about her and my other relatives, many who I knew only in old photos.  As we continued to talk, Hester told me that she'd been married for many years but her husband died a while back.  These days, her entire life revolved around the sleepy town of Wing. 

 

After about two hours, I told Hester that I had to go.  It was obvious from her glowing smile that she enjoyed meeting her kindergarten teacher's grandson and talking about "the old days."  With a smile, I shook Hester's frail hand, thanked her for her time and promised to write to her when I got back to Washington, which I definitely intend to do. 

 

As I drove back to Bismarck that night, I realized that Hester Bailey is probably the only person alive in North Dakota who remembers my grandmother Helga.  Even more amazing, of course, was that Hester was one of Helga's students.  It was an unbelievable encounter and something I'll never forget.

 

   

Above left:  Wing, North Dakota (pop. 191) is near Regan.  As I discovered, my mother lived in Wing during the early 1930s before she moved with her family to Bismarck.   A local resident directed me to the Chat & Chew Cafe...

Above right:  ... where I met an 87-year old woman name Hester Bailey (left).  Hester, as I discovered, was a kindergarten student of my grandmother Helga's in 1921.  Hester still has a small leather coin purse that Helga gave her that year.  I spent two hours with Hester, who told me many stories about my grandparents and great-grandparents.  She's a really delightful woman.  That's her friend and cafe owner Alice on the right.

 

 

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