The biggest kid of all

Staying young? It’s the crowd you keep

By Mike Dougherty

A knock at the door started Joan Christensen on a career path of 50 years, and one that she says isn’t about to finish.

So today, as with most week days, Christensen finds herself in the usual routine of tending to young children, giving a hug and a cuddle to a toddler who pinched her finger in a toy, refereeing a squabble among two pre-school boys over who can build a house with blocks and making sure that the day’s lunch — scallop potatoes and green bean hotdish — is on schedule for the little ones to eat.


"You’re only as old as you feel," says Christensen as she notes her age — 70. "Being around kids all this time, it keeps you young. I’ll do this as long as my health is good, and it’s good."

But let’s get back to the knock at the door.

It was 1957 and the Christensens found themselves in Plaza, N.D., for Harold’s first teaching job. The couple had met in their hometown of Tyler, Minn., and eventually married. The knock on the door was from the superintendent of schools, who was inquiring if Joan could take care of a teacher’s new baby. They needed the teacher back at work, but also needed someone who could care for the infant.

"I said ‘sure’ and then pretty soon there was another one to watch," Joan said. "It didn’t stop."

Today, the total number of children she’s cared for in the past 50 years numbers in the hundreds.

Many of them came back to celebrate her years of care for kids at a surprise birthday party last month.

The surprise was planned and executed to perfection by her husband, who brims with smiles when he begins talking about "Joanie." She even ran into her brother at the entrance of the Willow Creek Golf Course, where the event was held. Startled, her brother said he was there "for a meeting."

And what a meeting. It was a collection of many families who’ve been part of their lives for many years. It included their four children and eight grandchildren. The highlight might have been when all gathered around Joan for a picture. It was a collection of people that spanned many ages.


Many of those people remember the home where she and Harold have lived for their 38 years in Rochester. It looks out on Quarry Hill Park and its tennis courts in northeast Rochester. Joan has trotted the young ones in her care over to the park many days. Harold tutors the kids in the finer points of tennis. He’s a retired physical education teacher, who still volunteers in his grandkids’ classrooms in Rochester, as well as serves as a very able assistant to Joan.

"She was multitasking before we’d ever heard of that word," Harold says. "She does so many things during the day and she does them all well."

Joan just shrugs as she sat on the floor with two toddler-age girls at her home.

"This is what I ended up doing in life and I can’t imagine doing anything else," she says.

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