Driftless Stories -

Phyllis (Johnson) Leseth

Interviewed by Benji Nichols

(Benji’s note: It is impossible in one page to summarize the incredible depth of knowledge and love that Phyllis Leseth has for Decorah and the surrounding area. In a short two-hour chat with her, it became apparent that Phyllis should really be the subject of a book, not a single page, but we’ll do our best to represent her amazing accomplishments here!)

“My Mother always said I was one of the first babies born at the old hospital,” says Phyllis Leseth from the heart of her historic home on Rural Avenue in Decorah. Speaking with her, it is apparent that this charming woman has more stories than one can imagine. At 92, Phyllis speaks eloquently about her experiences being among the first group of women to attend Luther College (class of ’39) – where she earned a degree in English and History – and of being one of the first females to work on the Luther Newspaper & News Bureau. Through a fascinating life of teaching, writing (including a stint at the CR Gazette!), volunteering, and raising a family – it’s the history that she has thrived on throughout the decades. It is also timely to note that Phyllis was a part of the very first organizing committee for Nordic Fest in Decorah in 1966. At that time project leaders from the local J.C.’s including Jerry Aulwes, Mike Dahly, Harry Olson, Darrell Pierce and Gary Svenson enlisted the help of Vesterheim Director Marion Nelson and Phyllis Leseth to help launch the first annual Nordic Fest – which has since brought over 1.5 million visitors to Decorah over 43 years.

What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you?
My Father was the youngest in a large family, and was a very self-made man. He had great respect for education and was the only one in his family to go to High School. He always had the feeling that you were only as good as your word. “Remember to always tell the truth, and if you ever promise to do something – do it.”

What did you want to be when you grew up?
Growing up on Washington Street in Decorah we had a great bunch of neighbors and friends, and the schools and teachers were wonderful. I was lucky enough to attend Luther as one of the first female students – and with my interests in writing and history I think teaching seemed natural. I did teach for a short time in Western Iowa before I was married, and then went on to write for the Gazette amongst other things. (Phyllis also spent a short time working at Quaker Oats in Cedar Rapids during The War.)

If you were stranded on a desert island, what three things would you want with you?
Oh I would want a stack of books as I read all the time, and a GOOD pair of shoes. And I suppose I do love a good cake – nothing better!

Tell us about…
Your wedding day:

Hubert and I were married at Decorah Lutheran Church – the old church. All of our high school gang was there and I had five of my good friends as bridesmaids. I remember my dad walking me down the isle and stopping to ask me, “Are you sure you want to go through with this?” He was joking of course – he had a wonderful sense of humor. Hubert worked for A&P in Decorah for many years and then went to the main offices in Des Moines and eventually we moved back to Decorah and he managed the office at Peter Johnson & Sons.

Your favorite memory:
I have so many wonderful memories of my life here in Decorah and beyond. I feel so blessed to have had such great parents  – they set very high standards for us. My mother was a graduate of the Northwestern School of Music and taught before she was married. She sang at many occasions around the area through her life. I give my parents a lot of credit for making education so important in our lives. I went to Luther as one of the first Women to do so, and during depression times, so it really is something else. My family, of course, has just been wonderful and both my daughters became teachers and are in Decorah. (Cam Ford, and Adrianne Coffeen.) I have also enjoyed volunteering at the Vesterheim Museum for many years – History is really my thing, and it has been for years –and it still is!

Black & White: Phyllis Leseth with Marion Nelson (past Vesterheim Museum Director) and the Leseth’s Rosemaled ’56 Chevy. Laura Hoeg painted the original design and updated the date annually.

Color: Phyllis Leseth at home, Spring, 2009

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