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Family ties span generations of educators

At the turn of the 20th century, western North Dakota experienced unprecedented economic prosperity and growth. European settlers poured into the state. Politicians lobbied for a Normal School in Minot to produce teachers to educate the settlers' children. They hoped to produce devoted American citizens within a generation.

Johnna Westby, a special education professor at MSU, has family ties to that bygone era.

Her great-grandparents, Ole and Emma Eliason, emigrated from Norway in the early 1900s and homesteaded in the Kenmare area. The couple had five daughters, two sons and three stillborn children. All five daughters attended Minot Normal School. Four earned a certificate, with the fifth earning a degree in 1944.

"It was quite a big deal in their family for all their daughters to get formal training as a teacher," Westby said.

Irene Adelia Eliason, Westby's grandmother, earned a three-month certificate from Minot Normal School in 1925. In later years, she wove her college and teaching experiences into a gripping narrative that fascinated her young granddaughter.

Eliason taught in a country school, a self-sufficient world that welcomed students of all ages. The self-possessed young teacher took on responsibilities that today would require a full professional staff. One job was chief custodian.

"She had to get up early and get to the school, so she could put coal in the stove and stoke the fire," Westby said. "She'd get it nice and warm before the students came."

Eliason also assumed the role of registrar, deciding who could attend school.

"A younger child came to school with his older siblings. He just wasn't ready to come to school," Westby said, recalling her grandmother's account that the child cried continually and clung to his siblings.

"So at the end of the day, she wrote a note to the parents that he needed to stay home for another year."

After several years at the one-room school, Eliason left teaching, married and raised her own family. Inspired by her stories, her granddaughter followed her example and attended Minot State in the 1980s.

The family legacy continues as Westby's daughter, Sarah Westby, great-granddaughter of Irene Adelia Eliason, recently finished an education degree at Minot State.

While MSU has grown over the years, it hasn't ventured far from its original mission of preparing teachers. As Westby consults with instructors and administrators across the Upper Midwest, she hears a refrain about the school that echoes from another century.

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