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Prime Time: Many senior groups were active in 1970s

If you had been a senior citizen living in Bemidji back in the '70s, you very likely would have been a member of one of the many senior groups who were meeting regularly during this time.

In 1979 there were 16 such groups meeting in various locations. With that many groups to choose from, wouldn't you think a senior could easily find one that would be to their liking?

A late 1970s news article titled, "Senior Citizens to organize" addresses this matter. It reads: "Mayor Doug Peterson presided Monday at a luncheon meeting for representatives of all the senior citizen groups in Bemidji at the Neuman Center of Bemidji State University. The meeting was called by Mike Port of the Bi-County Community Action Council and Father Paul Kabat, the purpose being to create an organization that will coordinate activities and concentrate the efforts of all local senior citizen groups. Some of the groups represented included the Nymore Twilight Club, Northland Senior Citizens, The Hub Center, AARP and several church groups! Major topics such as the need for state funding of non-commercial transportation, hot meals services and housing programs, were discussed."

The new organization, says Henry Vietor (Sr. Spokesman) will help us apply pressure in St. Paul. "Senior citizens can be a very powerful lobbying group and get results in the State Legislature if they work together" said Ida Geittmann, area services director at BSU. Bylaws for the organization were prepared and distributed for tentative approval. According to the article, the group is calling themselves the "Grey Panthers." There would be many meetings to follow.

Things were starting to happen. I found a news article with this headline "Progress toward Seniors' Center." It seems a steering committee for the development of a Bemidji Senior Citizen Center met to develop a proposal for the center. The article goes on to say that the committee is investigating various downtown sites but is also considering the option of constructing a new senior center building. There was input from the Area Vocational Technical Institute, the BSU Industrial Arts Department, Aid Association for Lutherans and others, all making suggestions and expressing their interest and willingness to help in this project. The committee drew up a proposal for the center to be presented to the Bemidji Area Concerned Citizens Council. A meeting date was set, and all persons interested in the center development were urged to attend.

So, the proposal for a senior center was presented as planned, and then it was up to the senior citizens' council to scrape up some money for such a project. With Ida Geittmann as their fearless leader, she and 12 other senior citizens approached the Beltrami County Board to ask for financial help. Ida was the spokesperson for the group. She suggested that the County levy a special tax that would generate $42,000 a year for the construction and operation of a senior citizens' center. Minutes of this board meeting read like this: "The board, after questioning the 'elite' nature of the group and suggesting that a less expensive building be leased rather than building a new one took the request under advisement."

Ida made a strong case for her request. "There are 2,700 senior citizens within a 20-mile radius of Bemidji who would likely use the center and there are over 5,600 or more persons 60 years and over in Beltrami County." She said, "We have a promise of $17,000 from the City but government commitment from the County is essential if we are to pursue possible foundation grants."

Lyle Caughey, who serves on the Board of Directors, piped up and said, "If we don't get the help we want from the County we're not going to stop!"

Wow - there's just no end to the energy that these concerned citizens could muster up for this good cause! So what if they didn't get the $42,000? They would figure out something else - they would go to Plan B.


Back at Northland Apartments, one of the senior meeting places, things weren't going so well. According to some 1980 meeting notes, there were several problems, one of them having to do with people who attended the monthly dances.

The charge was 50 cents for the event, but some people felt that if they didn't dance but just came to enjoy the music, they shouldn't have to pay. Well, that was settled in a hurry. The board, with Walt Edwards at the helm, made a decision: whether you dance to the music or just listen to the music, the entrance fee is the same - 50 cents.

Apparently, there was also a little problem with hospitality as someone suggested "we need to have someone welcome people when they come into our building."

There was also some discussion about card players and "tables changing partners. Some people always play together!" A comment was made "might make it more informal," and speaking of cards, the most serious and most persistent problem (Final documentation found in February 1981 minutes) was this: On pot luck days people started playing cards before the dishes were done. I wonder what kind of action the Board took on this issue. The notes continue with more headaches. "Next month on July 17, which is pot-luck day, elections for new board members will be held. There seems to be a big problem getting people to serve on the Board."

But to top off the problems of 1980, this one really takes the cake. The notes read, "There was discussion about the group who is supposedly buying the old Gill Building for a senior citizens center. The question was brought up as to whether our group would join in with them, and the answer was an emphatic "No, our group wanted no part of it."

And in 1980, "That Group" did buy the old Gill Building. With the help of Ida Geittmann, Lee Olive and others, Ada Holand's dream finally came true. Seniors would at last have a permanent place to meet, work and play.

In 1980, with the gift of $17,000 from the city of Bemidji and $56,000 from a grant from the Headwaters Regional Development Commission, the down payment was made on Gill's Shoe Store with a balance of $36,000 to be paid in 10 years. Beltrami County gave the Center $10,000 each year for three years for maintenance and up keep. Payments on the balance were to be made by holding fundraisers.

Grand opening

It must have been quite a celebration. Can you imagine the excitement after working on a project for 20 years and finally seeing it actually happen? There must have been some pretty happy seniors.

The celebration, appropriately titled "Age is the Rage," went on for two days, May 1 and 2. Actually, the festivities began on April 30 with the Paul Bunyan Mall and downtown businesses participating. This event officially began on May 1 with Helen and Noreen Gill doing the ribbon cutting. Mayor Doug Peterson gave the welcome address and Rep. John Ainley and Sen. Jerry Willet spoke. There was entertainment by the Sweet Adelines, a barbershop quartet and the Cass Lake Band. In the evening there was a dance at the Eagles Club, music by the Just Because Band. On May 2, there was an open house with the Bud Johnson and Andy Edstrom Band providing musical entertainment. What a grand time!

Chapter 5 coming up - So Now What?

Ann Daley and Pat Kroeplin are Paul Bunyan Senior Activity Center volunteers.