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Reading, gardening and music

93-year old Ellen Katzke keeps both her body and mind active

By Kevin Mertens - Staff Writer | Jan 10, 2021

Ellen Katzke relaxes in her kitchen while sharing stories dating back to the Great Depression and the dustbowl years. She says the soil would drift just like snow.

Ellen Katzke may not have seen it all or done it all during her life on this earth, but she has certainly made the most of her 93 years.

Katzke, whose birthday was during the first week of January, was born in 1928, in South Dakota, south of the town of Mitchell near the towns of Menno and Freeman. She now lives just outside of Delavan.

“Right in time for the dust-bowl years and the Great Depression,” she says. “My mom said it was a “soft” day the day I was born. There was some snow on the ground but it was sunny.”

Ellen says she never saw grass until she was seven years old.

“I was in first grade and I remember my mom lighting a candle at two o’clock in the afternoon,” she recalls. “That is how dark it was from the blowing dirt. Instead of snow drifts we had dirt drifts.”

She says her parents lost their farm, which she describes as a pretty good size acreage, due to the dust bowl and the Depression.

“President Roosevelt established a Resettlement Program and we moved to Red Lake County in Minnesota and settled on 80 acres,” Ellen says. “We had two horses, some cows and calves.”

She still remembers the move.

“Dad loaded what machinery we had left, on a railroad car, to ship it up north,” Ellen comments. “We moved to a place about four miles west of the town of Plummer. My dad knew one person in Red Lake County.”

The person her father was acquainted with was Charlie Malwitz, who was the great-grandfather of Chad Malwitz, who has chiropractor offices in Wells and Blue Earth.

“It is a small world,” Katzke says smiling.

She explains her parents came to the United States from Lithuania, when they were adults.

“They could understand German and dad learned English,” Ellen explains. “When my parents first arrived in America they were in Chicago. If you were going to get a Social Security Card, you needed to know some English.”

Although her mom never learned to read or write English, Ellen says she was a smart woman who learned to drive.

“It was very important for my parents to fit in,” she shares. “They wanted to be known as Americans.”

Ellen graduated from the Plummer School system.

“My parents said, ‘Good luck'” she says. “I went to Lake City to visit a friend.”

Then it was on to Rochester to find a job.

“I do not know if you have heard of the Mary Brigh Building at St. Mary’s Hospital,” Ellen comments. “But I actually met Mary Brigh and she hired me to work as a secretary in the dieticians department.”

Finding employment was not the only change to come into her life in Rochester.

“My friend wanted me to go to a choir banquet with her at Trinity Lutheran because there was a guy she liked who was going to be attending the banquet,” Ellen explains. “Well, I ended up marrying the guy and I do not think my friend cared for me much after that.”

Henry Prigge was the name of the man whose affections she was able to stir.

“He came from a family of pastors, although he was not one,” Ellen says. “He served in the South Pacific as a tank gunner.”

The couple raised two children, Craig and Holly, before Henry died suddenly in 1973. They lived in Windom where Ellen was an employee for Toro.

“I was a widow for 11 years before I married Gus,” Ellen comments.

Gus was Gus Katzke and they had known each other in prior years when they were both employees at Toro. Like Ellen, Gus had lost his spouse through death.

Gus had moved on from Toro and was working at Tafco in Blue Earth when he and Ellen would meet again.

“I was sitting on a bench at a park near Heron Lake and Gus, who was visiting his daughter, came out to the same park where I was,” Ellen explains. “I do not believe in coincidences. Nothing is accidental. I think it was meant to happen.”

Not that she made it easy on her potential suitor.

“He cautiously asked if I was involved,” she says. “I told him I do not have time to be involved.”

But, he did not give up.

“Well, could I call you?” was his next line.

She said he could, and he did. After a short courtship, Gus told Ellen he was getting tired of driving back and forth between Blue Earth and Windom and asked her to marry him. She said yes.

The couple enjoyed traveling. One of their trips was to Tasmania.

“When Gus proposed I had to promise to be willing to go to Tasmania with him,” Ellen explains. “His first wife did not want to make that trip and he really wanted to go.”

Ellen says she and Gus traveled a lot, both abroad and domestically.

“He liked it when I drove so he could look around,” she says.

In addition to traveling, Ellen was very involved with community theaters and has performed in and/or directed plays in Windom, Blue Earth, Delavan and Winnebago.

Gus died in 2011 but Ellen remained active in living her life.

“I have always been a church organist wherever I lived,” she says. “There was always a need.”

She retired as an organist from a church in Blue Earth three years ago but was soon back at the keyboard for Faith Lutheran Church in Delavan.

“It is a much shorter drive for me than going to Blue Earth,” Ellen comments.

Yes, she still drives, but only when the weather is nice.

One of the places she visits is the Blue Earth Community Library.

“I love to read for enjoyment,” she comments. “I love detective novels and family adventure stories. I try and read books by Minnesota authors but I do not enjoy science fiction.”

She also loves to garden and cans some tomatos and salsa.

“I enjoy giving my produce away,” Ellen says.

She does not have a computer and she has her reasons for that decision.

“As a senior citizen I am more apt to be outsmarted by the crooks,” Ellen says. “So it is easier to go without a computer.”

She states it is because of her neighbors she is able to still live out on the farm.

“Mark Wheeler treats me like his mother. The Wallaces look out for me and bring me my mail when it is icy. Laef Ioerger helps me whenever I am in need,” she comments.

Ellen, who spent 20 years in a creative writing group, believes it is important to do things which force you to use your mind.

“You have to use it or you will lose it,” she says. “I believe you need to keep your mind active and working.”

Her other advice for staying healthy and living a long life sounds like something most children have heard from their parents.

“Eat right, eat your fruits and vegetables,” Ellen says. “That is something we can all work on doing.”