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One-room Minnesota schoolhouse student, now 96, and her teacher, 107, reunite

Students at Pine River's Whitefish School in the 1920s pose in front of their school bus, something former student Irene Olson said most people don't believe existed that long ago. Submitted photo1 / 3
Opal Johnson, now 107 years old, started teaching at the Whitefish School in Pine River when she was just 18 years old. Submitted photo2 / 3
Irene Olson (left) visits with 107-year-old Opal Johnson, who taught Olson at the Whitefish School in the late 1920s. Forum News Service3 / 3

PINE RIVER, Minn.—An unlikely class reunion took place at Pine River's Good Samaritan Nursing Home in northern Minnesota last month between a 96-year-old and a 107-year-old.

Pequot Lakes resident Irene Olson, 96, attended Whitefish School in Pine River in the late 1920s during her elementary school years. In February, she decided to pay a visit to her former teacher, Opal Johnson, 107.

"She's been such a sweetheart all her life," Olson said. "Every time I think about her I want to go and see her. So this time I thought I couldn't hold up any longer."

Though Johnson has suffered memory loss in recent years due to dementia and doesn't talk much, the women were able to reminisce about their days at the little one-room schoolhouse.

"She was just a super teacher. I just fell in love with her right away as soon as I saw her," Olson said, noting Johnson was dedicated to all her students, especially those with learning disabilities - such as Olson's younger sister - with whom she spent extra time.

In a journal written in 1982, Johnson detailed her time at Whitefish School, where she worked from fall 1928 until May 1930, beginning when she was just 18 years old.

"(I) walked a mile and a half to the one room school where I had all eight grades," Johnson wrote. "I worked all summers preparing lesson plans and worked until 10:30 on school nights for $100 a month."

Olson recalls how much patience Johnson must have had to be able to handle all eight grades in one room.

"There was a bench (in the front of the room)," Olson said. "So the first-grade kids got up first and sat on that bench, and they had their schooling. When they were done, the second grade went up, and then the third grade, and then they went right along."

Johnson wrote in her journal about having to deal with students who had illnesses such as typhoid fever and scarlet fever.

But neither disease nor the mile-and-a-half walk to and from school each day deterred Johnson from her calling.

After two years at Whitefish, she moved on to a little school in Mildred - a small community in Pine River Township - for four years. From there she earned her two-year elementary diploma from Moorhead State Teachers' College and then took a supervisory teaching position at a school in Averill - an unincorporated community just northeast of Moorhead. Johnson also taught in Moorhead and again in Pine River.

While in Averill, Johnson wrote that she developed a new way of teaching students with learning disabilities, where she used topics familiar to the students, such as agriculture or trucking, to help them learn. This method, she wrote, called "common learning," then spread across the United States and to other countries.

Johnson's son, Alan, said his mother has always excelled in the education field, as she skipped fifth grade while she was in school and ended up valedictorian of her class.

Though dementia has taken much of Johnson's memory, and she is hard of hearing as well, Alan said she is otherwise healthy with perfect vitals and 20/20 vision.

"Generally, she still can enjoy life," he said.

And perhaps the 107-year-old will add a state record to the enjoyment someday.

"The oldest living (person) in Minnesota is 115. So she's got a ways to go," Alan joked.

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