A few weeks ago, Donna Anderson agreed to let me share her stories with you.
I’d first met Donna, who is now 99 years old, at one of my writing classes. During that class, she wrote entrancing tales about growing up outside Rochester in the 1920s, of being raised by a blind father, of Friday nights dancing at the Rainbow Pavilion.
I loved her stories so much that I all but begged to interview her. She made me wait a few years, but those first stories — about meeting her husband-to-be at the Rainbow Pavilion — finally appeared in Jen’s World just last month.
Donna wasn’t sure that what she had to say was interesting. But the feedback I’ve received about that first column says differently. Readers wrote saying how much they enjoyed Donna’s memories — and asked for more.
“I hope Post Bulletin will print more of Donna’s stories and make this series of memories ongoing,” wrote one reader.
So here, back by popular demand, is another installment of “Donna stories” — in her own words.
Dad was blind. He got kicked by a horse when he was 4 or 5. One eye was kicked out, and then he got an infection in the other one. He was totally blind, so he couldn’t go to school.
My granddad must’ve been an entrepreneur — he’d take racehorses to Florida on the train. He built a racetrack down there and raced horses. So my dad, this little blind boy, went to Florida with him every winter.
They obviously lived very close to a convent there, and the sisters are the only ones who gave him any lessons (when he was young).
When he was about 10 years old, he was old enough to board and room in Faribault (at what is now the Minnesota State Academy for the Blind). That’s where he graduated from high school.
I have a little booklet … from the 100th anniversary of the local church in Dover, where I was born and raised. They were having a big celebration, and all the members got a book. And here was a picture of my dad with a nice write up, and in the caption it said, “Dover’s blind genius.”
I just can’t say enough about him. He bought a house there, and built his own garage, and since the highway from Rochester to Winona went through Dover in those days, he sold gas and oil and fixed cars. He also fixed radios.
The thing of it was that he could do most anything. He was an electrician, a carpenter … it was almost frightening what he could do.
He played cards. He made hammocks. He used to play for dances — all string instruments, but mostly the violin for dances. Just before he passed away, he was learning the banjo. But most of all, he would run that garage. That was his livelihood.
He sold cars. I have a bill of sale on the wall that’s for a Buick car — I think it was 1922. (The buyers) had $926 left to pay, they had paid $100 dollars down on it. That’s my mother’s writing. I was three years old then. I remember as a little girl, on Sundays, we’d visit all these farmers who bought cars, to see if they liked them.
When I was young, there was a Buick car down in Winona. There was a rope all the way around it and they were having an open house, and they invited my dad. They opened the rope and he went in and he would feel the car. There was a man beside him with a nice little white cloth and he would wipe up my dad’s fingerprints.
He taught me how to drive when I was about 12 years old. My mother was always gone, always helping someone else, helping old people. That was her avocation. One time, he wanted to go out to this cousin’s, on the road to Eyota. He said, “Come on, Donna, I’ll teach you how to drive.”
I had all the confidence in the world in that man. I wasn’t one bit afraid. I got in the car and he told me what to do. Everything felt fine until we got out there — until I turned into that driveway. It looked awfully narrow to me!
When Mom came home, she said, “Where’s Harry? Where’s Donna?”
(Someone said), “We saw Harry and Donna driving out in the car.”
She knew where we were. So she asked him to take her out there. She wasn’t very happy. She said, “She got you out here, and she can get you back, too.” And we did.
(My dad) taught me how to check batteries, how to check this, check that. He took us kids to Eyota, and we dismantled an old depot out there, and we took back all the old wood, and he and my mother and us kids built a porch around our house. Those things sound like they’re unbelievable, but they’re true. I tell you, that man was unbelievable.