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Prime Time: Bemidji Senior Citizens Center opens for business

Bill and Henrietta Britton were early Senior Center volunteers.

Once the celebrating was over, it was time to get down to business.

The new building needed fixing up and there were mortgage payments to be made. The members of the Senior Center would have to get their heads together and come up with some ideas on how to raise money to pay the bills.

Speaking of business, I always thought that if a new business was going to get up and running successfully there would certainly need to be someone with some good leadership skills at the helm. I could find no evidence of such a person. So what else is new? In all my reading and digging into the life and times of the seniors in the last 20 years there never was any mention of directors. It seems that business was taken care of by various committees and apparently they did a good job! Who knows how they got appointed?

But this was different. The seniors now had a real official place and it was open for business. Surely there had to be someone in charge. And surely there was someone still around who might know about this period of time. Lucky for me Bill Britton came to mind.

I made a date with him to pick his brain and hopefully jar his memory. It turns out I had a nice visit with him and his daughter at WindSong, where he has lived since 2009. Although Bill says, "This place is too fancy for me, and doesn't suit my personality", he agrees that it is the best place for him at this time of his life and he is close to Henrietta, his wife, Henrietta, who resides at Neilson Place.

As to Bill's recollection of 1981, there was no doubt in his mind! The very first director of the new senior center at 421 Beltrami Ave was indeed Ida Geittmann. And she worked for free. According to Bill, her reign lasted a couple of years, and then, as luck would have it, the Brittons appeared on the scene. Bill had retired from his chemistry teaching position at Bemidji State University in 1982, and now he and Henrietta were looking for a meaningful volunteer opportunity. One day, they just happened into the senior center and bingo! The rest is history. It was 1985 and the center lucked out again. More volunteer directors! Over the years the Brittons made major contributions to the operation of the Beltrami County Senior Center in Bemidji. In 1985, Bill became the director of the center and Henrietta did the bookkeeping. They are credited with streamlining the operations of the center. The Brittons not only made their mark on the senior center but in many ways on the whole community. Nov. 10, 2002, was declared Bill and Henrietta Britton Day. They were honored at a celebration held at the senior center for their more than 20 years of volunteer service to the community. Of all the programs that the Brittons were involved in, Bill is most proud of starting the AARP Driver's Safety Program and Tax Assistance programs in 1985.

Incidentally, Bill is quite a magician and continues to do a few magic tricks now and then. He also sings in the Methodist Church Choir and works on crossword puzzles with his friends every morning at Hardees.

So back to business. How did the center pay its bills? Throughout the'80s the seniors had monthly pancake breakfasts All you can eat for $2. Each year 60 volunteers did Christmas Gift Wrapping at the Paul Bunyan Mall and downtown to earn about $14,000 a year. Every month, they made and sold donuts, for Donut Day. They had a booth at the Beltrami County Fair where they sold food and frequently had spaghetti dinners for $5 a plate. And then last but not least, there were annual membership dues which were $1.

In addition to the fundraising activities, there were other kinds of activities offered as well. Several groups which met on a weekly basis included a humanities group, weight support club (Joy Through Movement), bingo, pool club, craft club, bridge, whist, 500, cribbage and there was also a knitting club. There were foot clinics and periodic medical presentations by local doctors called "Docs and Donuts."

In 1988, there was one big improvement made. Between senior fundraising efforts and a generous donation of $3,600 from the VFW, the center was able to get a much needed floor installed.

According to Bill Britton, in 1987, Jean Thorne was hired for the director position. At last a new official leader. Wrong! According to Jean, she was hired by the Headwaters Regional Development Commission to be a part-time activities coordinator. Bill understood that he and Jean would be co-directors. Jean explained her role like this. "It was pretty quiet around there. The place needed a lift. The board wanted me to come up with some ideas and ways to shake things up, and get people to come to the center and put some life into it."

Jean recalls those days."There was always a core group of seniors, the Fenskes, Holands and Masons and others. They wanted more participation. They wanted to reach out to people who didn't necessarily come to the center."

I guess they all wanted the center to be bigger and better.

These seniors were responsible for starting a transportation program, nutrition program, arthritis self-help and lots of other programs. Jean said, "I just let the volunteers go to it. All I did was help them do what they needed to do."

Jean became a fulltime director in 1991. Her title was administrator. "I saw the volunteers as my friends. I loved my work and it was fun for me so see their dreams come true."

So, are you wondering what happened to that little fledgling group? In 1981, they were still serving pie and ice cream for 75 cents, but by 1982, pie socials were too much work for the likes of this small group. After that it was all downhill.

Minutes of a May 1981 Board Meeting read like this: "Mr. Edwards asked about a donation to the new senior center. It was suggested that the group make a small donation of $200. There was no decision reached."

Minutes of a July 1981 Board Meeting read: "Membership fees were discussed as postage has gone up and $1 doesn't cover mailing costs. No decision was reached."

Minutes of August 1982 meeting read: "Mr. Edwards says we are not getting enough attendance here and suggested that we all try to interest more people in coming to our functions."

August 1982, I guess they felt they had dug their heels in as long as they could because the minutes read: "There was discussion about discontinuing our senior group due to lack of interest and loss of members through illness and death. There was discussion about what should be done with our money, and it was suggested that members think about it. Several suggestions were made. $300 Timberbay, $300 Youth for Christ, $300 to Nymore and a $1,000 to the Tenants Council, balance to downtown senior center. Decisions will be made at the September meeting."

Sadly enough the September 1982 entry read like this: "Since this is our last meeting, the board voted the present officers to take care of pertinent business in dissolving the club. Motion made and seconded that we dissolve our senior citizens club. Passed. Stub Heines asked for the amplifier and since he purchased it, the motion was made and seconded that Stub get the amplifier. Passed. All other donations were approved. Any balance left over to be given to the new senior center downtown. All old books and records to be stored at Joe Elstad's house. Final adjournment at 11:05 a.m." By J. Elstad, president, Ellen Elstad, Secretary.

So there you have it. Makes me feel kind of sad seeing these folks give up. No more song fests, pot lucks, bazaars, dancing or eating. They actually turned out to be good sports. I guess they felt like the saying goes, "If you can't beat 'em join'em."

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