LUMINOUS Shining a light on bright, brilliant women of the Perham area
A special publication of the Perham Focus
ALL THIS INSIDE: With love, kindness and generosity • She gives students a voice • Carrying on the vision • Shirley’s way: Volunteering for history
Contents Erin Bovendam: With love, kindness and generosity.................................................. Page 03 Kasey Wacker: She gives students a voice......................................................................Page 08 Betsy Roder: Carrying on the vision..................................................................................Page 14 Shirley Davidson: Shirley’s way: Volunteering for history..........................................Page 18 PUBLISHER Devlyn Brooks email@example.com
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Luminous is a special supplement to the Perham Focus, November 17, 2022.
WITH LOVE, KINDNESS AND GENEROSITY For Calvary Pastor Erin Bovendam, it’s all about the people BY NATHAN BOWE For Luminous
amily and spirituality are intertwined in the life of Erin Bovendam. Bovendam, 44, became lead pastor at Calvary Lutheran Church in Perham in autumn of 2020, after serving a congregation in central Pennsylvania for 14 years. Her husband, Chris Mathiason, is also a Lutheran pastor, serving parishes in Staples and Cushing, Minnesota. They have two children – Henry Mathiason is a ninth-grader at Perham High School and Ben Mathiason is a seventh-grader at Perham Middle School.
Pastor Erin Bovendam and her husband, Pastor Chris Mathiason. Contributed / Erin Bovendam
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Bovendam’s grandfather on her dad’s side “was a pastor in the reformed tradition,” she said, and her immediate family switched from Presbyterian to Lutheran when she was in middle school in Bemidji, where she also went to high school. As well as being spiritual, “my dad was also a band director,” she said. “My parents (Steve and Lyn Bovendam of Alexandria) are very musical.” Erin started her ministry in Perham at an especially challenging time, due to the pandemic, said Calvary Church Council President Carla Gauwitz. “We’re lucky to have her,” she said. “At the time we were not worshiping in person because of COVID.” That means Bovendam and the church council had to essentially handle her application and interview process remotely, deal with difficult COVID travel restrictions to get to Perham, find suitable family housing, and then contend with serving the congregation without being able to hold worship services in person. “For her to try to make connections with people without seeing faces I’m sure was a challenge,” Gauwitz said. “We just had to roll with it – and the ease with which she rolled with it was delightful.” The church was having to do things like holding services in the parking lot, with parishioners tuning in on their car radios to hear the sermon. “I remember her and our interim pastor bundled up and holding drive-by communion during the Christmas season,” Gauwitz said. “They used hand warmers and handed out worship materials to kids in the cars … There were a lot of innovative things they did to keep people involved.” As a youngster, Bovendam worked as a camp counselor at a Lutheran Bible camp, and spent two years as a youth director and shared ministry 4 | LUMINOUS 2022
I’m passionate about trying to make life better for people, and anything that helps with that, whether it’s an individual or the church community. — ERIN BOVENDAM
coordinator at Bethel Lutheran Church in Bemidji. But when it came to choosing a career, she decided to become an occupational therapist. She studied biology and earned a bachelor’s degree, “but when I finished college, that isn’t where I felt called,” she said. “I felt like the Holy Spirit (then) nudged me in the right direction.” So she listened, and ended up enrolling in Luther Seminary in St. Paul, where she earned a master of
divinity degree in 2006. That’s also where she met her husband Chris. “We did an internship for a year in Pennsylvania,” she said. And after graduation, they were asked to return to Pennsylvania to start their life in the ministry. She and Chris have always served at different churches, which may be the secret to a long and happy marriage. “We enjoy being married,” Bovendam said with a laugh, “but we like to do things very differently.”
Some of the volunteers at a Feed My Starving Children food packaging event in Perham in September. From left are Kitty Krueger, Erin Bovendam, Chris Mathiason, and Laura, Mike, Thomas and Julia Flatau. Contributed / Erin Bovendam
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Pastor Erin Bovendam outside Calvary Lutheran Church in Perham. Contributed / Erin Bovendam
Bovendam has been busy since arriving in Perham. “She’s on top of her game,” Gauwitz said. “She’s compassionate and she has great sermons ... she brings experience from her previous call, but doesn’t demand that it be done that way.” Bovendam says her favorite part of the job involves the people. “I’m passionate about trying to make life better for people, and anything that helps with that, whether it’s an individual or the church community,” she said. So maybe it’s not surprising that 6 | LUMINOUS 2022
she was one of those who stepped up to fill the void when Perham lost funding for its USDA summer feeding program for school-aged kids. The church had some money to work with, thanks to a special offering that had been made earlier to “do something good with,” she said. “We hadn’t figured out where to use it, and this seemed like a totally great ministry we could use it for.” The church council agreed to use the funds to help with meals in June, and Bovendam worked with a small planning group of concerned
community members including staff at Perham schools, the Bridge Community Food Pantry and the Boys and Girls Club to come up with a plan to continue providing summer meals at the school. From July to August, more than 30 different volunteers helped serve more than 2,500 meals to children, with donations coming from the community. “The school was so good to us, and the community was awesome with donations and volunteers to make it happen,” she said. “It gave me hope, and made me wonder what else we can do.”
She loves being a pastor, but it’s a busy calling, and she said it can be challenging to balance work and family life. “There is the pull of being a faithful mom and spouse and the pull of being a faithful pastor,” she said. To recharge, she likes to get out and enjoy the outdoors. “I love walking in the woods,” she said. “It’s one of my favorite things to do, the most life-giving.” One of her favorite prayers asks the Lord to “help us to be loving, kind, generous and forgiving to ourselves and others in this world,” Erin said. “I’m just trying to live that out.” In that spirit, she feels some of her most important work is just “being able to sit with people when they’re going through a really hard time. We can’t fix it, we can’t change things for them, but I let them know they’re not alone – we’re there for them, and Jesus is there for them, too.” ▲
Pastor Erin with her boys Ben, left, and Henry, center, in front of the Crazy Horse monument in South Dakota. Contributed / Erin Bovendam
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Kasey Wacker reads a book in her classroom at Perham High School, where she actually graduated herself. Elizabeth Vierkant / Luminous
SHE GIVES STUDENTS A VOICE Perham High School’s Kasey Wacker is driven by passion BY ELIZABETH VIERKANT For Luminous
eaching is often considered to be a vocation of passion, and this is certainly the case with well-known Perham High School English, communications and public speaking teacher Kasey Wacker. She never expected a career in education, but coaching the district’s speech time helped her find her passion. A 2005 Perham High School graduate herself, Wacker never used
8 | LUMINOUS 2022
to imagine her life as a teacher. “If you would have talked to me in high school, I would have never probably even been on anybody’s radar to be a teacher,” she recalled. “I wasn’t the most academic. The line of teaching just wasn’t on my radar.” Despite this, she got started on that educational path early in her life without even realizing it. When she was in seventh grade, she joined
the high school’s speech team, where she got to know her instructor, coach and future mentor: Dr. Sandra Wieser-Matthews. “It makes me smile,” WieserMatthews said, reflecting on Wacker’s growth from childhood. “Anything that I may have laid out there, she just took the best parts and just excelled and put her own self in them. Her leadership and care and
After working with kids and the speech program, I realized that (teaching) was something I was suited for. —KASEY WACKER
organization — she just goes so much further. She’s from a small community and lived on a farm, and she just took everything and didn’t stop and found her own way to make them even better.” From a young age, Wacker was always a talkative person. Her kindergarten teacher even called her a “social butterfly.” She just had an urge to speak and communicate, and on top of that, she has always adored acting. The speech team was a great fit for her, and she stayed in it all the
way until her high school graduation. Even at 18 years old, she still had no idea her future would be one of an educator, so she went to St. Cloud Technical College, where she studied business and sales management While she continued to live and work in St. Cloud for a few years, Perham eventually started calling her back. Even in the time since she graduated high school, her love for competitive speaking never faded. “When I came back in 2009, that’s when I just walked into the school,
Kasey Wacker holds up her award for Minnesota Speech Coaches Association Class A Speech Coach of the Year. Elizabeth Vierkant / Luminous
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went to go see Sandra WieserMatthews, and I was like, ‘Hey, do you need help with speech? I’m around. Do you need an assistant coach?’” Wacker recalled. Wieser-Matthews brought her on as an assistant coach, completely changing the trajectory of Wacker’s life. While Wacker was the assistant coach on the side of her career in business and sales, WieserMatthews told her that she should really consider teaching. And she did consider it — quite a bit, in fact, because she eventually decided that it was something she wanted to pursue. “After working with kids and the speech program, I realized that (teaching) was something I was suited for,” Wacker said. “So, I went to MSUM in 2010 and was slowly working towards my bachelor’s in communication, arts and literature.” Once she started pursuing it, her teaching career completely took off. Before she’d even graduated from college with her new degree, a teacher in Perham retired. Always pushing Wacker to pursue her passions, Wieser-Matthews inspired her to apply, just as she’d inspired Wacker many times before. Wacker wasn’t quite sure about the position at first; she hadn’t graduated yet. She didn’t have a degree, and she didn’t have a license. With Wieser-Matthews’ help, however, the two found a solution. Wacker was able to get a community expert license through the state of Minnesota, and this allowed her to start her career in education at Perham right away. This was far from easy for Wacker. She was both a student and a teacher at the same time, and she had a young son — Kash — at home. Her husband, Ryan, was supportive and helpful during this time, which Wacker appreciates immensely. Her days were completely booked, especially since she was continuing to help the speech team. One day she was learning something at school, the next day she 10 | LUMINOUS 2022
Kasey Wacker smiles with her family: husband, Ryan and children, Kash, right, and Noah, left. Contributed / Kasey Wacker
was applying it in her own classroom. Simultaneously being a student and a teacher strongly influenced the way she runs her classroom. “It made me appreciate my students so much more — to recognize what we ask them to accomplish in a day,” Wacker said. “What do we ask for them to accomplish in a week, and how realistic is that? It really did help me to recognize my own expectations. They have extracurriculars. They have jobs. I mean, I have a family at home too. I had a little boy at home at that time. So it was crucial for me to kind of learn from that in that moment.” The next year, a literature teaching position opened up in New York Mills. Still going through school and teaching with a community expert license, Wacker pursued it and got the position. She stayed in New York Mills for four years, continuing to coach their speech team. During this time, she had another baby — her daughter, Noah — and even earned her degree after simultaneously student-teaching for school and working full-time at New York Mills. This is when her mentor, Wieser-
Matthews, decided to retire, and she knew exactly who she wanted to replace her. “Her energy, her passion, her belief in the learner as the center focus, meeting them where they were at …” Wieser-Matthews said of Wacker. “She’s certainly got that edge and focus on learners. She knows how to maneuver in the system so learners are still at the focus. She just makes sure that happens … To me, that’s really important. I don’t know a lot of people her age who are able to do that with young people. I knew she was an outstanding speech coach. She’s an entrepreneur and just a perfect overall person.” Though Wieser-Matthews had a few other people in mind, she felt like Wacker was the best person to continue the success of her programs. Oftentimes, when an influential person leaves educational programs that are non-athletic, they tend to fall apart, she explained. With Wacker, she knew that not only would these programs stay afloat, they would also grow stronger. In fact, WieserMatthews said that Wacker has done just that.
Wacker is now the speech team’s head coach. She’s an English, communications and public speaking instructor — teaching classes such as video productions and even college-level English and public speaking for the Minnesota State Community and Technical College. On top of all this, she’s also one of the technology integrationists at the high school, meaning that she helps to train and guide fellow teachers with the use of technology. She even gets to direct the school’s Veterans Day program as a part of her video productions course. Wacker feels lucky to spend her days teaching students and working with kids. “It’s just the relationships that we create where I genuinely feel like they know me,” she explained. “It’s just authentic. When you’re working with young people, there’s an honesty that they can’t help but deliver, and I appreciate that … I think that makes for better communication. Sometimes I think
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my high school students are better communicators than they get credit for.” When she was a younger high school student, she sometimes felt as though she didn’t have a voice — that it didn’t matter. She’s made it her goal to communicate with her students, helping them learn while simultaneously feeling heard and seen. Wacker’s hard work and passion haven’t gone unnoticed by the people around her either. In 2020, she was recognized by the State of Minnesota for her work on the speech team when she received the Minnesota Speech Coaches Association Class A Speech Coach of the Year Award. In June 2022, she was nominated for, and recently won, the Minnesota State Spotlight Award in the category of Teaching Excellence, Superior Service. Perham-Dent Public School District Superintendent Mitch Anderson also sees Wacker’s work
and passion. “She is so well-rounded,” he said. “She’s well-known for her teaching abilities and has continued the tradition of (Wieser-Matthews) … She’s a go-getter. She’s willing to go above and beyond. Her confidence is something everyone picks up on right away, including her students. She’s not afraid to tackle any challenge. She’s great to have on the staff here at the high school.” Outside of her time at work, Wacker loves to spend time with her family on their 40-acre farm. They adore exploring nature together and going antiquing. Her passion for reading has passed down to her son, Kash, and her daughter, Noah, inherited her spirited nature. They’ve been at her side every step of the way. Though time has passed since her years as a student, she remains busy, but it’s worth it for Wacker. She loves what she does. “I (love) giving students an opportunity to help them recognize that their voice matters.” ▲
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CARRYING ON THE VISION
Betsy Roder brings Otter Tail County to the world BY ELIZABETH VIERKANT For Luminous
reater Minnesota and its rural communities tend to have a bit of a reputation for being slow and sleepy with not much to do, but for New York Mills and its surrounding towns of East Otter Tail County, this just isn’t the case. While many people work behind the scenes to ensure communities have access to resources, events and different cultures, one name stands out in particular: Betsy Roder. In 2015, she started her work as the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center’s executive director, and she’s been making a splash in the community ever since. “(Working at the cultural center) wasn’t part of my plan,” Roder reflected. “It was more, you know, serendipitous that I was just able to make that connection. I’ve always loved the cultural center.” A New York Mills local for the majority of her life, the center actually opened when she was in 14 | LUMINOUS 2022
Betsy Roder stands outside of the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center, where she’s been working for about the past seven years. Elizabeth Vierkant / Luminous
It was more, you know, serendipitous that I was just able to make that connection. I’ve always loved the cultural center. — BETSY RODER
junior high, so, growing up, she had many wonderful memories of going to music and film festivals there. Eventually, when she left town to attend college in Minneapolis at St. Thomas University, she even took a shirt repping the center, featuring the familiar tractor logo, a symbol for how the center “cultivates the
arts.” People would always walk up to her and ask what that shirt was all about, and she always happily spilled everything she knew — constantly gushing about her hometown. Even as she lived in Minneapolis for the next ten years — marrying her husband, Nick — something was always calling her back. The couple
had two kids in this time together, Finn and Bergen. Nick, especially, was drawn to the area of New York Mills despite being from Green Bay, Wisconsin, Roder even jokes that he, a lover of fishing and hunting, was pushing the family to move back to Roder’s hometown more than her. It seemed like a perfect fit, so Roder returned — this time with her husband and kids at her side. “You know, I grew up here, and it was a really great place,” Roder said, recalling what drew her and Nick back. “I just think the community is really supportive of the school and of kids and families. It’s a pretty closeknit community, and it still is that way. We’ve talked a lot about, you know, it takes a village, and I feel like we have a really great village. People care about each other and look out for each other.” Having worked at Target in merchandising and business for several years, finding a career at the
Betsy Roder smiles in a selfie alongside her family members: husband Nick and children Finn, Bergen, Trygg and Kaia. Contributed / Betsy Roder
cultural center was never something on her radar. The center itself was a “pro” on her pros and cons list when it came to returning, but she didn’t know just how important it would become to her in the next few years. “One of the reasons the cultural center was on top of my ‘pro’ list for moving back was that it provides so much access to so much, right?” she explained why its outreach work was
always important to her. “We’re in this small town. We don’t have a ton of access to different kinds of artists or people or diversity or different ideas — just different art forms but also different ways of looking at things.” Because of this, when a friend at her church asked Roder if she’d ever considered working at the center, she began to take the idea seriously. She contemplated life as a stay-athome mother, but that wasn’t the right route for her. The cultural center, however, always seemed like the coolest place in town to her, so she applied to work as the gift shop manager and the outreach coordinator in 2011. She got the job, and her life completely changed. During this time, she and Nick had two more kids: Trygg and Kaia. Roder spent her days at work in the gift shop and coordinating visiting artists to come and stay in the community. She had no idea that her life was
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going to change in an even bigger way when 2015 came around. The fall before that year, she was on maternity leave after the birth of her youngest child when she received a call from a cultural center board member, who asked if Roder could have lunch with her. “And she was like, ‘Well, the current executive director’s getting ready to retire, and the board thinks that we’d like you to take over that role,’” Roder recalled. At first, she was hesitant to take the position because her experience was in business, not art. “At the time, I was like, ‘I don’t know how to run an art center. I’m not even an artist. I’m an art appreciator, you know?’ But at the time, they were like, ‘Nope. We think you’re exactly what we need; you can use your business skills, and we really want you to do it.’” With a newborn at home, Roder had plenty to consider. In the end, however, she ended up taking the job in April 2015. Though it’s been challenging, she also emphasized that the work is fulfilling. She spends her days working in administrative leadership and dealing with financial responsibilities. The role of an executive director is an all-encompassing one, handling responsibilities from staffing to performing arts programs. She has brought performers from all across the country to New York Mills. “I just really feel good in this role,” she smiled. “It’s been a joy. I feel lucky to have been given the opportunity. It’s fantastic.” Roder shares a lot of responsibilities with Cheryl Bannes, the artistic director at the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center. Bannes’ duties include curating visual art shows, planning educational workshops and working on outreach to bring artists into the community. As someone who has worked at the center for five years, after moving 16 | LUMINOUS 2022
Betsy Roder smiles as she talks with a member of the cultural center. Elizabeth Vierkant / Luminous
to the area from Montanna, she and Roder have spent a lot of time together. “We co-direct, and it’s a really wonderful working partnership,” Bannes shared. “We each have our own strengths and encourage each other to work at our best. It’s an amazing partnership. I’ve never had anyone I worked with that is as positive in supporting the staff and their coworkers as she does,” When Roder first became the executive director, she really focused on the center’s vision statement, which is connecting people with the arts and rich cultural experiences. She looks at that idea, and she finds it to be beautiful. Her biggest goal became to connect with the local culture and local artists on top of all the outside experiences that are brought into the community. Because of this, she added more to the vision statement: They celebrate the local while also being a window to the world. “I just believe so strongly in community, and (the cultural center) is a place for people to come together and connect and feel like they belong,” Roder shared. “It’s a place for anybody, right? We’re open to everybody and anybody, and we just
kind of lead with this idea of come inside and tell us about yourself, and what do you have to offer the community? We feel there’s so much right there.” Since the center was originally founded about 32 years ago by John Davis, it has become nationally recognized for the work they do and the opportunities they create, Roder said. She shared that within the first five years the center was open, there was 40% job growth, and 17 new businesses opened in town. “We were one of the first rural art centers of its kind, really,” Roder said. “Even in the country, when you look at the 1990s, there just wasn’t a lot of rural art centers like this. So we were one of the first, and we get credit for that in various places.” In 2011, the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center was recognized nationally when the National Endowment for the Arts created a new project called Our Town that offered grants to communities for arts and economic development. Barack Obama, who was president at the time, made an appropriations request to congress for funding the project. In the request, he listed New
York Mills and the cultural center in the very first paragraph as an example of economic development through the arts. Since then, Roder said that they’ve even earned a reputation nationally for being a great place to come and perform. There are so many people who want to come to the community, she shared, that it’s difficult to fit everyone into the schedule. Roder had big shoes to fill when she became the executive director, but, according to its founder, John Davis, she’s done exactly that. “I think (Roder) is amazing,” he shared. “I mean, if you’re looking for someone to carry on the vision of a founder that really embodies that spirit, making an initial vision of what’s possible in a rural community and then building upon that vision and even strengthening it in terms of activating the local community … I’m just really impressed with her skill set and navigating.”
Betsy Roder points out historical photos of the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center’s building, which they’ve been in for 30 years. Elizabeth Vierkant / Luminous
Roder’s hard work doesn’t stop at the cultural center either. She’s a member of several boards, including the Community Development Board and the Otter Tail Lakes Country Association Board. In 2020, she even ran for county commissioner. Her goal is to put Otter Tail County on the map and develop the rural community that she loves.
Being involved is important to her — even when she’s already incredibly busy — because she believes building community relationships is crucial. “I feel really fortunate (that the center) aligns so well with my values and my passions,” Roder said. “I’m able to really embrace this idea of community and creativity… I feel like we have a really essential place here.” For more information about the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center, go to kulcher.org. They can also be reached at 218-385-3339. “Everything that’s involved with running a cultural center in a small community — it’s not often easy carrying on a vision for a program, but I think (Roder has) done an amazing job of taking an initial vision and just giving even more strength to it and depth as well,” Davis said. “I think really highly of her leadership skills and determination to continue important work.” ▲
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SHIRLEY’S WAY: VOLUNTEERING FOR HISTORY Shirley Davidson helps tell the stories of our veterans BY MICHAEL ACHTERLING For Luminous
he History Arts and Culture Association (HACA) for East Otter Tail County has a large responsibility. Not only is the nonprofit group in charge of managing the History Museum and Historical Society for East Otter Tail County, but they also run Perham’s Pioneer Village, including its event rentals, and the In Their Own Words Veterans Museum, a military storytelling adventure located in downtown Perham. With so many hands in different baskets of history, it takes a special kind of person to helm the preservation of these stories, sites and priceless items for Greater Minnesota. Since 2019, Shirley Davidson has volunteered as the executive director of HACA, but her time with the group goes back to 2015, and it all started following her retirement and a trip to Perham’s Pioneer Festival. “I was so upset that there was nothing there,” said Davidson. “There was a few tractors, they did a tractor pull, which is awesome, but there was no event. There was nothing out there for children and there was nothing out there for women.” She attended a HACA meeting that fall and took it upon herself to give the Pioneer Fest a much needed facelift. Since then, she’s tried to bring the community back to the festival with: 18 | LUMINOUS 2022
Shirley Davidson, executive director of the History Arts and Culture Association, smiles next to the entrance to the In Their Own Words Veterans Museum in Perham. Michael Achterling / Luminous
new vendors; restorations of the old buildings while adding historic homes and cabins to the property; and an expanded entertainment and event schedule. “The first year I did it, we had 1,800 people show up,” she said. “The tractor pull went over huge. The tractor guys out there, love it, and
want to keep going with it, which we also do.” On Nov. 26 and running through Christmas, Perham’s Pioneer Village will host a new event, the inaugural Lights in the Pines hosted by Perham’s Boy Scouts Troop 321, which will feature: walkthrough lighting displays, campfires, hot
cocoa and a 90-minute light show with music. But, Davidson’s story from hometown girl to historical protector wasn’t a straight line. She graduated from Perham High School in 1968 and, after a brief summer at the Minnesota School of Business for secretary training – which she did not like at all, she attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities and received a twoyear degree in interior design. Then, it was time for the wedding of one of her friends. It was there she noticed Dennis Davidson, someone she knew, since they used to have many of the same friends growing up. “We all knew each other, we were the northside kids,” said Shirley. “At the dance, he came up to me and said, ‘do you want to dance?’ And we’ve been together ever since and he didn’t dance, but he danced with me.” In 1973, she married Dennis and they will be celebrating their 50th
I’ll bet about 300 people brought stuff in, in the last seven years, that we’ve never had before. Really unique things ... — SHIRLEY DAVIDSON
Shirley Davidson shows an example of a donated photograph story at the In Their Own Words Veterans Museum in Perham. Michael Achterling / Luminous
wedding anniversary next year. One of the things Shirley said she believes has cemented their relationship for so many years is that they complete each other, like two puzzle pieces fitting perfectly together. “They fill in your cracks … he comes with his values, I come with mine and two kids came out of it,” she said with a laugh. Shirley Davidson then began a 30-year career working for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as a foreclosure
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Shirley Davidson makes bows for Veterans Day baskets at the In Their Own Words Veterans Museum in Perham. Michael Achterling / Luminous
specialist. As one of the only female directors working for the agency in the 1980s, Davidson quickly made strides in revamping uniform federal foreclosure contracts into more regional-based agreements. Common sense dictated, she said, that foreclosed homes in Texas and Minnesota needed to be treated differently due primarily to weather conditions. In fact, her management had become so highly respected at HUD, she said, that whenever there was a disagreement with how to accomplish a task, her supervisor had no problem declaring, “no, we do it Shirley’s way.” And, even after retiring in 2015, still gets phone calls from the agency asking for advice, or, as she says, begging her to come back, which she politely declines. In recent years, Davidson has also 20 | LUMINOUS 2022
helped HACA expand a true jewel of lakes area military history with the In Their Own Words Veterans Museum in Perham. The walkthrough of personal items, stories and interviews from former service members has become an immersive trip into the lives of Otter Tail County veterans in each era of American warfare. “I’ll bet about 300 people have brought stuff in, in the last seven years, that we’ve never had before,” said Davidson. “Really unique things, like a Nazi flag that nobody would ever have, we have one.” She said the museum had reservations about hanging the flag, but decided it was better to display it and tell the story of how that flag was captured. “And it tells a story,” said Davidson. Heidi Davidson, Shirley’s daughter, works as the director of HACA and
handles the day-to-day operations for the organization. She said her mom is the definition of going above and beyond. “To have all the (items) back there and to bring it all out and have all the family members come in … it’s just so cool to have someone come in and know who they are,” said Heidi Davidson. “People have been in here and they would say they’ve been in here years ago, and I said, ‘was it in the last six or seven years?’ and they were like, ‘oh, it was way before that,’ and I said, go walk through now,’ and they came out and they were just like, ‘whoever did this, they went aboveand-beyond,’ and I said that’s my mom dragging stuff out and putting it on a wall.” Heidi admitted she wasn’t “that into” history when she first started working at the ITOW, but, after seeing
the memorials and the lives that go along with them, the history becomes the faces of family members visiting lost loved ones, and protecting those memories are extremely important. Shirley Davidson also said HACA recently took ownership of the entire building in Perham that houses the museum through a generous Christmas donation by the building’s previous owner: Kenny Nelson. The ITOW Veterans Museum is now a nonprofit hub, she said, and leases out office space to nine other nonprofits including: VFW 4020 of Perham, the auxiliary, a PTSD group out of Fargo, a purple hearts organization, the Freemasons and Head Start program, among others. “We have nine nonprofits now that generated out of this grateful gift from Kenny … and nine nonprofits that can afford to be in Perham and it’s because of Kenny,” she said. Davidson added she writes grants to pay the heat and electric costs for the HACA’s buildings, but they also accept donations of all sizes, she said with a wink. Even if someone can’t donate money, Davidson said, donating time can be just as important. “Everybody in Perham, if they did one hour of volunteer work for anything, I don’t care if its the hospital, I don’t care if its going over and reading a book to a little kid, if everybody did one hour, nobody would
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Shirley Davidson had a long and successful career with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development before becoming executive director of the History Arts and Culture Association. Michael Achterling / Luminous
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need to get paid for anything because we could do it all volunteer,” she said. Many of the additions to the ITOW Museum, Davidson said, she does herself. “I love sheet rocking, I love mudding, I’m a good mudder,” she said, sitting in the ITOW kitchen that she was about to remodel. “I can see vision. I can see what this beautiful kitchen is going to look like in two weeks when I’m done.” Regardless of the building’s facilities, she admitted, the most important features of the ITOW Veterans Museum are the stories. Davidson said the museum has more than 300 video interviews with Otter Tail County veterans from every American conflict dating back to WWI and their collection continues to grow. “We still do interviews,” she said. “I just got asked to do an interview yesterday.” Davidson said if a veteran wants to record a video memoriam about their service time they can make an appointment with the museum for a sit-down interview. She also told a story about a local service member who died in recent years. The widow of the veteran knew he had recorded video at the museum, but had never seen the footage. So, Davidson arranged for the woman and immediate family to view the interview privately following the man’s funeral. “That whole family came over, there was like 27 kids and grandkids … and they watched their greatgrandpa and they never knew he did all of this stuff during the war and … he was talking about his family in there and what he gave up when he was going in the service and the grandkids couldn’t believe it,” said Davidson. “They didn’t know.” As Davidson began walking through the museum, she would point out each collection of items 22 | LUMINOUS 2022
Everybody in Perham, if they did one hour of volunteer work for anything, I don’t care if its the hospital, I don’t care if its going over and reading a book to a little kid, if everybody did one hour, nobody would need to get paid for anything because we could do it all volunteer. — SHIRLEY DAVIDSON
and the stories that go along with them. One of the things she made sure of was to have plenty of things to look at for kids who may not want to read long biographies, but instead look at all the uniform arm patches and insignias next to one another in a display. When asked why these veterans’
stories are important to document, honor and re-tell, Davidson said each item represents a snapshot of a life and time. “You can’t go back and remake them,” she said. “We can’t go back and redo. We can’t go back and make something that was discontinued. So, that discontinued project is here and we just need to help further it on.” ▲
Shirley Davidson handles a aircraft yoke that was involved in a plane crash, pinning the pilot who needed to saw the yoke to free himself, at the In Their Own Words Veterans Museum in Perham. Michael Achterling / Luminous
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