Ecumen Communities Prepare for Veteran’s Day Tributes

Veterans Day is a special time at Ecumen communities.  Many residents are veterans with rich and deeply moving stories about their military experience and how profoundly it influenced their lives.

On this blog we try to capture those stories as a way to thank our veterans and memorialize their service. 

Follow this link to one of our favorite blog posts about legendary Worthington Coach Ken Thompson, who was at Iwo Jima when the flag was hoisted on Mount Suribachi. 

We thank Ken, and all our veterans, for their service. We are honored to know them.  

Army Veteran Wanda Nordlie, a Resident of Ecumen of Litchfield, Cared for Prisoners Liberated From Nazi Concentration Camp

Ecumen of Litchfield resident Wanda Nordlie, 91, was an Army nurse in World War II who helped care for thousands of ill and malnourished prisoners liberated from a Nazi concentration camp in Ebensee, Austria.

“It was a long time ago, but you never forget stuff like that,” she says.

Juliana Thill tells Wanda’s deeply moving story of courage and commitment in the November issue of Zest Magazine, a publication of the Litchfield Independent Review and Hutchinson Leader.

Policy and a Pint - How Will We Take Care of Mom?

As baby boomers reach retirement and beyond, younger generations need to think about the kinds of care their aging parents will likely need. At the Citizens League and 89.3 The Current's next Policy and a Pint® program on Tuesday, Nov. 18, they will look at how changing demographics are shaping the way we think about aging in the 21st century.

Read more

Ecumen of Litchfield Resident Don Nordlie’s Eyewitness Account of the Battle of Iwo Jima Memorialized

Don and Wanda Nordlie, residents of Ecumen of Litchfield, were at the battle of Iwo Jima almost 70 years ago.  He was a Marine sergeant, and she was a nurse.

Two other Litchfield men, Roger Tipka, U. S. Army, and Stan Mortenson, U.S. Navy, also were there.

Don, Roger and Stan raised the flag during the National Anthem at a Minnesota Twins game a couple of weeks ago, no doubt remembering the famous Iwo Jima flag-raising that happened six days into what would be a bloody 36-day battle leaving almost 30,000 dead. 

Litchfield resident Tim Mergen has brought their story to life, turning their battlefield recollections into a presentation honoring their service.  Mergen points out that Iwo Jima is “pretty close to the size of Litchfield” and asks his audiences to “imagine going around Litchfield and laying 30,000 bodies across that town.”

How Mergen pieced the story together and continues to bring it home for local residents is the cover story in the September issue of Zest Magazine, a publication of the Litchfield Independent Review.


Ecumen Resident Ken Thompson’s Enduring Love Affair With Helen, Athletics and Worthington

The eyes sparkle and the smile widens as Ken Thompson’s thoughts drift back to the early 1940s.  World War II is heating up after the attack on Pearl Harbor — and he will soon be going to Iwo Jima — but right now Ken is a star basketball player at Hamline University at a time when the Pipers are a powerhouse national championship team. And he is in a dance class at Hamline, where he is paired with Helen Backe, by happenstance of height.

The basketball coach had this idea that the team could improve coordination by dancing, so he brought in a girls physical education class to dance with the players.  Ken (at 6-2) and Helen were matched as the two shortest in the class.

They clicked, moving to the big band music. “We could really go up and down the floor,” Ken recalls.  “But we had trouble going east and west.” 

Quickly they figured it out.  “By the sixth class, it was romance,” Ken recalls.  “She was a honey.”

Now Ken is 93, and Helen died almost four years ago.  At his assisted living apartment at Ecumen Meadows in Worthington, Minn., Ken enjoys reflecting on their 66 years together as they raised their family while he built a career as a legendary coach and athletic director at Worthington High School.  Throughout all those years, they continued to go dancing every week.  “It was just our special thing together,” Ken says.

This morning, before he starts telling his life story, Ken is doing what coaches do— replaying in his head last night’s basketball game that he watched between Worthington and Pipestone.  He still cares about high school sports even though he has been retired from Worthington High School for more than 30 years.  The measure of the man is that some of the athletes he coached still come to visit him at Ecumen Meadows.  (They are now in their 70s.)

Ken grew up in Saint Paul, Minn., “as poor as grass” and went to Johnson High School where he was all-city in basketball in 1938 and also was an outstanding baseball player who later played semi-pro baseball in the Northern League.

But his dream was to play basketball for the renowned Hamline University basketball coach Joe Hutton. That would have to wait three years until he saved enough money to afford college by working at grocery stores and at Northwest Airlines.  At age 21 in 1941, Ken became a freshman forward at Hamline and a star player for Coach Hutton.

 At that time, the university was a national basketball power that produced a number of NBA players, notably Hall of Famer Vern Mikkelsen, who later became a teammate of Ken’s.  “Since I had worked three years before I went to college, I was older than most players on the team,” Ken recalls.  “Vern called me ‘Dad.’”

That 1941-42 season, the team won a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) national championship. They were 23-1, losing only to the Harlem Globetrotters, who at that time played regular basketball.   (In 1999 Ken was inducted into the Hamline University Athletic Hall of Fame.)

While he was at Hamline, World War II was raging, and in 1943 he enrolled in the Navy Reserve and reported to Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., as part of his midshipman school training.  He was eligible to play basketball for the Gusties due to his military service and earned All-State honors that year.  In 1944 Ken went on active duty in the Navy and was stationed on the USS Missoula, which was carrying Marines to the Pacific islands.  In June of that year he took a brief leave to marry Helen.

Ken commanded landing crafts from the Missoula that took the Marines on shore at Iwo Jima.  He proudly remembers watching the dozen Marines hoist the flag from his ship on Mount Suribachi in what would become probably the most famous photo from World War II.

Shortly afterward, he helped land troops on Okinawa, where the Japanese kamikaze pilots were “flying so low I thought they were going to take the top of our heads off.”

The war ended while he was still aboard the Missoula, and he remembers sailing past the USS Missouri the day the final peace agreement was signed in a surrender ceremony on that ship—Sept. 2, 1945. That was a very good day, but on so many other days he saw “so many men lose their lives.”  Ken’s gaze drifts back those 70 years and clearly the memories are still painful.   He clouds over and changes the subject.

With the war done, Ken returned to Hamline and played two more seasons of basketball, qualifying for another national tournament but losing in the third round.   In one memorable game against DePaul University, Vern Mikkelsen fouled out, and Ken, at 6-2, was tapped to guard the 6-10 DePaul University star George Mikan, who, like Mikkelsen, went on to play in the NBA for the Minneapolis Lakers.

In 1947, Ken and Helen moved to Worthington. His first year there, he coached at the junior college, then moved to Worthington High School as head basketball coach in 1948.  In his first season as coach, he led the Trojans to their first District 8 championship since 1926.  The team would go on to win two more district titles in 1951 and 1952 during his 11-year stint as basketball coach. 

“I used to say that basketball was a class I taught, and the test was every Friday night.”

During this same period, he also coached baseball, football and golf and taught earth sciences at the high school and middle school.  He was a self-proclaimed “rock hound,” who spent several summers in programs that advanced his training as a geologist.

Ken says he was not a coach who yelled and screamed because “I didn’t have to.”  He remembers the kids who played for him, almost without exception, as being hardworking and dedicated.  In his whole time as a coach, he cut only one player.

In 1959, he became the athletic director at Worthington High School, a job he held for 24 years, while continuing to coach golf.  His 1957 golf team won a state championship, and in the 28 years he coached golf his teams won 22 district championships in a row and nine regionals.  As athletic director, in addition to supervising and mentoring the other coaches and handling the budgeting and administration of sports programs, he ran the district basketball tournaments.

In 1982, he retired after 36 years with District 518.  For a while after that, he managed the Prairie View Golf Course in Worthington.  Two heart bypass operations slowed him down, but up until last May when he moved into Ecumen Meadows, he lived in the family home in Worthington, which he still owns.

Over all these years, Ken and Helen raised two daughters, danced and played golf together, and made Ken’s sports career a family affair.  Helen would go to the basketball games with the kids and her ever-present scorebook in tow.  She intently scored all the games—“always by the book.”  Like Ken, she too would be named to the Worthington Trojans Hall of Fame for her dedication as a Trojan athletics booster.

Ken looks back on those days thankful for how blessed he was.  The job was great, the kids who played for him were wonderful, and his family was supportive. 

“I never walked into that school a day wishing I didn’t have to,” Ken says.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Her Father Jim Salute Veterans at Ecumen Greatest Generation Event

 “When veterans return home, we need to show them the dignity that they showed when they signed up,” U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar told an audience attending Ecumen’s Greatest Generation Veterans Day luncheon at the Minnesota History Center Monday.

“There was no waiting in line when they signed up,” the senator said, “And there should never be a waiting line for jobs in the United States of America when they come back.”

Veterans understand that “duty, honor and sacrifice don’t end when the war ends,” she said, “and every generation needs to be reminded of this.”

Sen. Klobuchar, known for her legislation advocating for veterans, spoke to a group of nearly 120 Ecumen supporters who gathered for a special tribute to Greatest Generation, the generation that fought in World War II.  About 30 members of the Greatest Generation were in the audience.

When veterans are on the battlefield together, Sen. Klobuchar said, they understand that they must put all their differences aside for the good of the nation.  “We all could learn from veterans,” she said.

“How do you thank someone who has risked their life for you?” she asked. “We can’t thank them enough and can never truly repay them.”  But through our actions every day, she said, we can show veterans the same commitment they showed us.

Sen. Klobuchar was introduced by her father, Jim Klobuchar, noted Minnesota journalist and blogger for Ecumen and Korean War veteran. He described growing up in an immigrant family on the Iron Range in the Great Depression when his parents worked 15 hours a day for low wages with the primary goal of making sure their children got a good education. “That is the story of how this country became great,” he said. “Now my daughter is a United States Senator.”

Ecumen President and CEO Kathryn Roberts paid tribute to the Greatest Generation “that took us from a bust economy to a boom economy…  from a world terrorized by dictators to a world safe for democracy…from a land of discrimination to a land of opportunity.”

“We can all learn something about honor from this generation,” she said.  “At Ecumen, we have gotten to know them well since most of our residents are members of the Greatest Generation.  We are honored to now serve them, who served us so unselfishly.”

A Veterans Day Message From Ecumen CEO Kathryn Roberts

Millions of American military veterans have honored us with their service.  Today, we set aside a special day to honor them and thank them for all they have done.

At Ecumen we care for many veterans and their loved ones, and we know firsthand the sacrifices they have made for all of us.   Our promise is to honor them every day, but on this day of tribute, please say a special “thank you.”  One way you can do that is to go to your Ecumen community’s Facebook page and share a thank-you or tribute.

Today at the Minnesota History Center, Ecumen will be hosting a program and luncheon to honor members of the “Greatest Generation.”  Ecumen blogger Jim Klobuchar and his daughter U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar will provide keynotes.  Highlights will be tweeted during the event, and we’ll post more information online afterward.

The Greatest Generation is one in which almost everyone played a part in service to our country, either on the battlefronts of World War II or in support of the war effort at home.  Then after the war, they focused on building the world’s strongest, most prosperous nation that we all benefit from today.

We can all learn something about honor and dignity from this Greatest Generation, who sacrificed so much to ensure that we who followed could be safe, free and successful.  At Ecumen, we have gotten to know them well, since most of our residents are members of the Greatest Generation.  We know what they are made of, and we are honored to now serve them, who served us so unselfishly.

Today, we thank all veterans everywhere for their service—an act of generosity that we can never repay.  And a special thanks to all our residents and employees who are veterans, and their loved ones who are in active duty.  We honor you today, and every day.  Thank you so very much for all you did and do for us.

A Fitting Tribute to the Late Kenneth Paulson, Wounded Veteran

Kenneth Paulson of Hutchinson, Minn. returned from World War II missing his right hand and with shrapnel still in his legs. But he got right to work, raising his family and running his farm.  Two months ago, a new flag and flagpole at Ecumen Oaks and Pines in Huchinson was dedicated in his honor, two years after his death.  The story that follows is reprinted from the Hutchinson Leader.

Kenneth Paulson, soldier

Honoring heroes


Family, friends and members of the Hutchinson Memorial Rifle Squad gathered Tuesday afternoon [Sept. 10, 2013] to dedicate a new flag and flagpole in honor of the late World War II veteran Kenneth Paulson. All veterans were recognized during the ceremony at Ecumen Oaks and Pines in Hutchinson.

“It was wonderful. Everything was wonderful. I can’t believe how well it went,” said Patricia Paulson, Kenneth’s wife. “I think Kenny would have been very proud. I know I am.”

“This is not only a fitting tribute to Kenneth from his family, but a wonderful gift to our entire Ecumen Oaks and Pines community,” said Kristal Ehrke, marketing manager. “It is a beautiful, patriotic symbol and we are so proud to fly the flag, which is visible to all who drive by and our residents living in both our buildings.”

“He was a proud vet,” said son Robert Paulson Sr.

Paulson served in the United States Army from Feb. 9, 1942 to Nov. 28, 1945.

Stationed in the South Pacific, he was part of the force that fought to take Mindanao, the second largest island in the Philippines, from the Japanese toward the end of the war in 1945.

About three months shy of Victory over Japan Day, Paulson was shot in the leg and went on to lose his right hand on May 11. He became a double Purple Heart recipient due to the wounds he received in combat.

“I was so glad he could talk about it,” she said.

Many vets suffer in silence keeping their war experiences to themselves.

“I remember my dad picking shrapnel out of his legs when I was 4 or 5,” Robert said.

Following his military service, Paulson returned to Minnesota. He and his future bride met at Bulldock’s Corner in Hutchinson. Patricia was there to see a girlfriend who worked there, when she looked over and saw this good-looking young man having a beer.

“It was love at first sight,” she said. “To me it was. He came to see me whenever he could. He was quite a guy. We did everything together.”

The couple married in 1948, making their living farming near Lake Marion.

Some might think losing a hand would put Paulson at a disadvantage, but Robert said not.

“I learned mechanics from my dad,” he said. “He could do anything. He was amazing. We did all our own repair work on the farm.”

Paulson’s hook came in handy because he could use it as a tool. Pat told the story of a salesman who stopped by the farm one day and was left open-mouthed when he saw Paulson shingling a roof and starting nails with his hook.

Robert remembers attending the first tractor pull at the McLeod County Fair. He was 14.

“Dad and I got picked to stand on the skid,” he said.

Robert eventually followed his dad into military service, choosing the Navy over the Army.

“My dad told me to go into the Navy. They had better food,” he said. “It made me.”

In 1977, the Paulsons headed to Florida where they lived until 2006.

“He loved it,” she said. “He could be outside. He was always busy.”

The couple returned to live in Hutchinson in 2006, when health problems and a desire to be closer to family brought them home.

“I’d forgotten what a beautiful town Hutchinson was,” she said.

Kenneth and Patricia shared 63 1/2 years of marriage, five children — Robert, Dianne, Barbara, Mark and Michael — nine grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.

Tuesday’s ceremony included a short story written by great-granddaughter Halee Kraft, and a solo of the national anthem by great-granddaughter Ashley Paulson. “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was performed by the Ecumen Oaks and Pines Bell Choir.

Kenneth Paulson died on Sept. 10, 2010. Tuesday’s flag dedication marked the two-year observance of his death.

“First I was going to plant a tree, but it could die,” Patricia said. “This will always be there.”

Honoring Two Greatest Generation Vets: 70 Years Later

 James and Virginia, both in their early 20s, were in the U.S. Army, two young Americans bonded by a common cause and fighting against a common enemy.

They were two of the 16 million who served in World War II. They did not know each other then. James was in heavy combat, and Virginia was not far behind the lines as an Army nurse, caring for wounded soldiers.

Their paths would cross one day, but not until 70 years later. They are now both living at Ecumen Pathstone Living in Mankato. James is 95. Virginia is 91.

They are proud of their service. But, like so many members of the Greatest Generation, they are also modest.

James changes the subject when he’s asked about his war experience.

And Virginia simply says, “This was a very important part of my life. I can’t say enough about how great all the GIs were.”

Virginia met an infantry officer in Europe who she would later marry back in the States. She continued in nursing, and he became a college president.

James and his wife have lived at Ecumen Pathstone Living for three years now.

Both Virginia and James appreciated that they were guests on Honor Flights in 2011. Virginia flew out from Kansas City and James from Rochester, Minn., on the whirlwind one-day flight to Washington, D.C. to visit the World War II War Memorial.

While on the flight, they received “mail call” which included letters from children (classrooms wrote letters), also some family, as well as a card from staff at Pathstone Living. When they landed, they were escorted to the WWII memorial by police cars. Then they were greeted by supporters who held posters and cheered when they returned.

On Veterans Day, Ecumen communities will be honoring veterans like Virginia and James and all our veterans who have served. We cannot honor them enough.