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Waller walks the same path: BSU grad to wear great-grandfather’s graduation attire

Harley Waller, 22, wears the robe her late great-grandfather wore when he graduated from Bemidji State University back in 1949. She plans to wear it in honor of him when she graduates from BSU on Friday. (Annalise Braught | Bemidji Pioneer)1 / 4
Mahlon Waller and students from his graduating class from the then Bemidji State Teachers College -- now Bemidji State University -- in 1949. This photo ran in that summers issue of the Northern Student. 2 / 4
Mahlon Waller, Harley's great-grandfather, in his cap and gown in 1949. 3 / 4
Mahlon Waller and his graduating class from the then Bemidji State Teachers College -- now Bemidji State University -- in 1949. 4 / 4

BEMIDJI—It'll be something of a homecoming when Harley Waller graduates Friday.

Mahlon Waller, Harley's late great-grandfather, graduated from Bemidji State Teachers College—now Bemidji State University—in 1949. Nearly 70 years later Harley, 22, plans to wear the same robes he did when she graduates from the same institution.

Harley Waller characterized Mahlon as a bright and encouraging man: a soft-spoken World War II veteran who said, over and over, that she'd go on to do good things with her life.

"He always had a smile on his face, even when times were tough," she recalled. "He just knew how to be there for other people."

But Harley said she didn't get to say goodbye to Mahlon—she was living in Florida when he passed away in March of 2013.

"I knew I wanted some piece of him with me," she said.

Mahlon Waller graduated from BSTC with a bachelor's degree in mathematics, biological science and social studies, plus a high school teaching certificate. A World War II veteran and a member of the Bemidji Varsity Christian Fellowship, he was one of 121 students who received a two- or four-year degree on June 6, 1949—the largest class in the then-college's history.

Mahlon taught high school math, and a little science, at Stillwater Area Public Schools from 1953-1980. After that, he moved to Dora Lake, Minn., where he taught Sunday school. Harley Waller said she and her family would visit Mahlon frequently.

Harley Waller is set to graduate with a psychology degree at Friday's commencement, which is the university's 100th. She plans to take that degree with her to St. Cloud State University and, the plan goes, earn a master's in school counseling.

She helps developmentally disabled adults for Lutheran Social Service in Bemidji, and hopes to find a similar job in the same company in St. Cloud. A friend of hers committed suicide shortly after Mahlon Waller passed away, Harley said, and that propelled her toward nursing and, ultimately, toward social service.

"I really like to help people," she said.

If you go:

What: Bemidji State University’s graduation. Former Minnesota State Supreme Court Justice and Minnesota Vikings great Alan Page will deliver the commencement address.

When: 2 p.m. Friday, May 10

Where: The Sanford Center

Joe Bowen

Joe Bowen covers education (mostly K-12) and American Indian affairs for the Bemidji Pioneer.

He's from Minneapolis, earned a degree from the College of St. Benedict - St. John's University in 2009, and worked at the Perham Focus near Detroit Lakes and Sun Newspapers in suburban Minneapolis before heading to the Pioneer.

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