Author Mary Evanson Bleckwehl shares her school-age memories as she returns to her elementary alma mater and native Waterville area
by Kelli Boylen
Mary Evanson Bleckwehl was excited about coming back to the halls of Waterville Elementary, the place where she first learned to read. “Ever since my book came out a year ago, I’ve been thinking about this day,” says the former teacher and children’s author.
Bleckwehl didn’t just talk to the students at Waterville Elementary and St. Patrick School Waukon about her book, “Henry! You’re Late Again!” and her journey as an author, she also enthusiastically promotes literacy, her love of stories and using imagination to write.
Bleckwehl is one of eight children who grew up on her family’s dairy farm on Elon Road west of Waukon. Her parents are Helen and the late Melbourne Evanson, and her siblings are Shirley, Phyllis, Sandy, Jim, Dave, Nancy and Steve.
“I loved reading, loved school, and never wanted to miss a day,” she says about her elementary school days.
Looking back at her childhood on the farm, Bleckwehl says, “My parents were hard workers and taught us strong work ethics. As for teaching and writing, I see everything as a ‘story’ including the struggles and joys of farming. I wish I could re-wind the clock and sit under the pine trees on a hot summer day eating 4:00 “lunch” with my family and record the conversations and get them all down in a book. The chapters would never end...”
Although she has been in the area many times to visit family, she had not been back inside Waterville school since she graduated from sixth grade in the late 1960s. “In 2011 it is a rare time to see something that hasn’t changed much over time - and that’s Waterville School,” she says about her December 15 visit to her alma mater. “My kindergarten room is still the kindergarten room. My fourth grade room is now the office, but that’s about it! The students’ last names all were familiar ones and I could just feel the excitement when I came in. I am proud to be from Waterville.”
She continues, “I wanted to share this with students who attend school there now and make sure they understand that they can become anything they want if they work hard. Perhaps someday they will return and share their accomplishments with the next generation of students. One of them might be the one who cures cancer or becomes the president or returns to teach in Waterville.”
“I am so excited to be able to share with the students there the idea that when they dream big and make good choices that they can be whatever they dream about,” she said in a phone interview on her way to Allamakee County.
She has many fond memories of Waterville, where she first started to read, write and play an instrument. “It is a place of many firsts for me,” she recalls.
“My first grade teacher, Miss Cook, taught me how to read and what a gift it was! I have loved reading and books of all kinds my entire life. I remember begging for fifty cents from my mother so I could order a book from the Arrow Book Club when my teacher passed out the order forms. I still have some of them! And I remember my sister taking me to the public library (in Waukon) and getting me my first library card,” she wrote on her website.
“Learning to read and write is a gift that I get to open again and again, every day,” she says.
She says she loved school so much that she used to have nightmares about not getting up in time to make the bus. She remembers how she and her best friend, Vicki Anderson, tried ceaselessly to find out Miss Cook’s first name, and that as a six-year-old that was something she really wanted to know. She recalls learning how to knit on the school bus as well as playing cards a lot, especially euchre, on those daily rides.
She remembers her kindergarten teacher, who taught art on alternate days, creating a “paper dress” out of old newspapers for children who played in puddles and got wet during recess to wear until their clothes dried. She laughs, “That was enough for me. I stayed out of puddles for fear of paper dresses.”
Bleckwehl also recalls taking “Indian Signs” that she had helped write to the Waukon newspaper to be published when she was in high school. “Mrs. Robey was our journalism teacher at WHS and she made reporting for our school newspaper fun and important,” she says. Bleckwehl later wrote for her college newspaper as well.
She attended Waldorf College for two years and then went on to to Wartburg. She recalls in sixth grade at Waterville that her lively class sometimes was a challenge for their teacher, Mrs. Monserud. “I remember thinking then that I didn’t want to be a teacher.”
Then during her junior year of college Bleckwehl had to pick a major. She starting thinking about what type of job would allow her to live anywhere she wanted and met her personal values, and she realized teaching would be a good fit. “Education has made all the difference to me in the way of opportunities and I wanted to return that gift to others ,” she says.
Her first job in Manchester was indeed teaching sixth grade. She has also taught fifth, fourth and first grades. After that first year in Manchester, Bleckwehl went on to the college level, and served as Director of Academic Support Services at a college out East and later at Wartburg. She moved to Northfield, MN 22 years ago, and began teaching elementary school again. She still is in schools every week as a visiting author and a substitute teacher.
Using her parenting, teaching and life experiences, she began working on children’s stories. The final result was “Henry! You’re Late Again!” Henry is an imaginative first grader who is in a predicament every morning as his family just can’t seem to get him to school on time. “That is part of the message I want to give to the students too,” she says. “That sometimes when things come up that you can’t control, they can seem like a bummer… but sometimes you can take advantage of unexpected glitches.”
As a teacher, she recalls many colorful stories from students about why they were late, and of course her own experiences raising three children.
All of the characters in the story are named after her great-nieces and great-nephews. The story is not based on them, but rather the characters are named in their honor. The exception is the antagonist in the story, the school secretary, Miss Timberlane.
Bleckwehl had many nieces and nephews, and now great-nieces and great-nephews, receive educations in this area, including Waterville, Waukon and Lansing. Together with her husband, she has raised a daughter and two sons, who are all now adults in their 20s.