Table of Contents
Prologue: A FAITHFUL SERVANT
"I'm just an ordinary person;
I have no particular talents;
I'm not creative, nor am I an original
At best, I'm a good organizer.
Please don't make me out to be some great
Lillian Torkelson has been a true servant of God all of her life. Like the little boy Samuel, she has listened for the Lord's voice since her earliest childhood. The statement above is what she said to me as we discussed my writing her life's story. I promised her I would not present her as a great person. I don't have to. The realities of her life speak for themselves. She's not perfect. She experiences the same hurts and heartaches, the same regrets and remorse that we all do. The difference perhaps is in her total surrender to the will of God, allowing Him to use her, mistakes and all, to serve others. Her colleagues, her family and friends and her students rise up and call her blessed.
Over and over again you will hear her peers describe her total dedication to serving God. J.C. Bailey describes her passion for the Lord as the ability and determination to walk "straight" through the Bible, "handling it aright", not swerving aside to either legalism or hobbyism. He describes her as a unique character, "There is only one Miss T. She makes no pretense of being scholarly, but she is a natural born teacher. Whatever a person should be in any given situation, she is."
When asked about her influence on her students in particular, and the whole church in general, his immediate response was that the trip to Europe and the Holy Land she was given by those students was visible evidence of their recognition of her impact on their lives. You will read about the extraordinary way her colleagues and students have honoured her on a number of occasions in this book. Following is a portion of the text of the citation that was read when she was named Alumnus of the Year in 1975.
If the true measure of greatness has anything to do with perseverance, dedication, loyalty and devotion, then we honour today a truly great person.
Miss Lillian M. Torkelson has demonstrated a singleness of purpose and commitment to an ideal which raises her above the ordinary and places her on a level with the truly great persons of history. Although her activity has been, for the most part, confined to the southeastern corner of Saskatchewan, there are people around the world who rise up to call her blessed.
Perhaps Western Christian College would have become a reality without Miss Torkelson but it was from her desire to get a Christian education and her determination that other young people should also, that the first Bible school began in 1931.
Cecil and Lavine Bailey, who dreamed the original dream of a Christian school with her, told me of their deep respect and love for her:
She has given an ideal of steadfastness that is true to her own values, and of benefit to the whole church in Western Canada. She is sound in faith, but never dogmatic or legalistic. She is creative and imaginative herself, with a great gift for bringing out the creativity in others.
They know a Lillian few other people do and they're glad of it. With them she had no image to think about. She could just relax and let her hair down, laugh, dream, share her deepest feelings.
Dan Wieb, President Emeritus of Western Christian College, recalls his earliest associations with Lillian:
She was a lady who was self-assured, self-reliant, and very professional. I remember her willingness to accept the challenge of administration even though her heart was in the classroom. I remember her persuasive ability as she encouraged me to consider a move to Weyburn. I remember her co-operative spirit when personal feelings ran high and tension increased among her colleagues. Miss Torkelson, in my opinion, provided stability throughout her tenure with the college. This stability enabled others to do their work in a more efficient manner.
As the years passed, my respect for Miss T. grew stronger. Two adjectives which come to mind are consistent and faithful. In a forthright manner, she refused to be a part of gossip or rumour- spreading. She had, and has, the ability to face reality even in the face of disappointment.
Since our mutual retirement from WCC, we have enjoyed our relationship as brother and sister in Christ and as friends. We have shared our concerns for the future of the school and the church. As always, Lillian is an encourager; she speaks well of the efforts of others and lends her experience and expertise whenever and wherever it is needed. I pay tribute to a wonderful Christian lady!
Roger Peterson, retired principal, doesn't remember when he first met Lillian. He grew up on a farm in the Radville area and does remember the summer and winter Bible schools in the 30's. His days as first a student and then a teacher at RCC brought him into daily contact with her. He is convinced that much of what he has learned about teaching, as well as about life values came from her. He says:
She has been an excellent example, first as a Christian lady, and secondly as one totally dedicated to the cause of Christian education. I have found her to be a constant source of encouragement. Her deep insight into life and her understanding of human nature often helped turn my life in the right direction when the fork in the road appeared.
At times when I felt really down she was always able to help me see through the fog of the present moment to the light beyond, and to turn with renewed courage and faith in God, to meet the challenges of a new day. Over almost fifty years I have benefitted from her deep insights and Godly wisdom. She helped me choose a life companion and has been close at hand as we have tried to raise our family. To her I say - Thank you for being an inspiration to all of us.
FAMILY AND FRIENDS
Family is important to Lillian. The love between her and her sisters is strong and deep. She is proud of her family and keeps in very close contact with all of them. Similarly Eleanora and Clarice are proud of what Lillian has achieved and they take delight (as her mother Hulda had done) in the esteem in which she is held by so many. Both of them talked to me about her loving concern for them as well as for their children, the help she gave them to attend teachers college, the many gifts for the nieces and nephews, the financial, emotional and academic support she provided for several of them to attend Western Christian College, and untold other evidences of her commitment to her family. Her sister, Clarice Storle, says:
Words cannot express my feelings and thanks to my sister Lillian for all the ways she has touched my life and that of my family; all the times she was there to show how much she cared - as my high school teacher, mentor, companion, confidante and loving sister.
A nephew, Bob Torkelson, also feels strongly about his Aunt Lill. He says:
My aunt Lill has always been an important part of my life, but never so much as when she extended her hand to help me continue my education at Western. She did that again in 1967, when I started a course in Weyburn. Aunt Lill holds a special place in my heart and is very much a part of my roots.
Because Clarice's son Orin Storle, his wife Kathy and their children live in Weyburn, they get to see the most of her . Kathy says:
Aunt Lill is an important person to us. She has been a weekly visitor at our home for the past 14 years, without fail. She is included in all our celebrations and the children are very fond of her. Until just recently, Jesse (2) called her Grandma. She has always taken an interest in our children and they appreciate that. She takes them places, and never forgets a birthday! As for myself, she has been a wonderful companion over the years - someone to share my Sunday afternoon tea with. She will always be dear to us.
You will hear much about Lillian's lifelong friends, Clarice Hurlburt Mooney and Lavine Jelsing Bailey. They both spoke to me at length about the fineness of their friendships. Lavine talked about Lillian's giving and forgiving nature; Clarice about her loyalty and good nature; both mentioned her integrity and faithfulness.
Hazel Straker's introduction to Lillian was through Pearl Perry in the spring of 1930. When Lillian returned to Perryville again later that summer for Pearl's wedding to Wilfred Orr, Hazel remembers Lillian as a most interesting person, (as well as a beautiful bridesmaid!) She got to know Lillian better two years later when she attended summer Bible school in Radville and remembers well Lillian's skill as she taught the young ladies' class. Their paths crossed many times over the years and when the Strakers moved to Weyburn to work at WCC in 1959, they enjoyed almost daily visits.
But it has been primarily since their retirement that they have become so close. Hazel says:
Since we moved into town Lillian and I have phoned each other every other day to make sure we were all right. I appreciate that so much; she has proven to be such a great sister for me. . . . As long as Lillian lives close by I will feel I have a great sister in the Lord to give me security. I pray that God will richly bless and keep her.
Very early in her career Lillian taught at Model School in the Wawota area of Saskatchewan. She lived with the Walter Husband family and one of her students was their son, Bert Husband, now a retired doctor in the Los Angeles area.
Lillian Torkelson was not only an excellent student herself but she believed and emphasized that to achieve one's goals in life, both secular and spiritual, one must pursue education. . . In my late teens and early adulthood, I was extremely frustrated because I was unable to continue formal education. But, by a rather circuitous route I finally was able to achieve my secret longing and goal to become a physician and surgeon. I am sure that her influence helped me to persist and achieve.
Miss Torkelson studied the Bible and practiced the great Christian precepts. Her personal life was moral and exemplary. For instance, she put the kingdom of God first. (Matt. 6:33) She resigned as a provincial high school teacher; by so doing and teaching at the Christian high school, she received a much lower, or no salary, and sacrificed her pension plan. Thus she studied the scripture and lived her faith.
She spoke of her parents with greatest respect. Her brother, Elvin, and her two sisters, Eleanora and Clarice were all important to her. Hence she lived and demonstrated the great family values that are needed today. I clearly recognize that she had a profound influence on my life. I would like to thank her for it.
Ruth Nelson Grasley remembers those Model School days as well. She, like Bert, was one of the correspondence school students Lillian was tutoring and grading their exams. She says:
I remember Lillian as a teacher who exercised discipline without resorting to the strap and soon won the respect of her students. The name of our school was Model, but we weren't exactly model students, some of us having been strapped numerous times previously, with little improvement in our behaviour. She influenced all who knew her to be better students and better people.
Another Wawota student, Gerald McPherson, remembers Lillian with great affection. He recently told Doris Husband:
She was the best teacher I ever had. I usually had to work at harvesting for a time after school started in the fall, so I was always behind. I heard we had a new teacher, a Miss Torkelson; I was scared stiff of her. I slipped into the classroom and headed for a back seat. Miss Torkelson, however, wanted me at the front! She was different from any other teacher, really caring. She understood me and helped me get caught up. I liked her so well I'd often help her with the heavy work after school.
Kathryn Durst Groshong was just into her teens and into the senior room when Lillian began teaching at Lyndale School in Oungre, Saskatchewan. Kathryn recalls:
The arrival of the first lady principal was a momentous occasion for the small hamlet and I remember my first impressions. Here was a small, trim person (who seemed much taller because she walked with regal bearing), always giving an air of authority, competence and good sense. However, this was coupled with a friendly smile, a twinkle in her eyes and a cheerful voice, which made you want to know her as a friend and not just as a teacher.
From the moment school started in the fall, and she walked into the senior room with approximately twenty-three students in Grades Eight to Twelve, she was in command. However, though she was strict, she was not overbearing. You felt she was doing her best to give you a good education, develop your potential as a person and help you realize the importance of education as a lifelong experience.
She talks about Miss Torkelson's ability to turn a history or a literature lesson into a flight to another world, about her gift of being a keen, thoughtful, sympathetic listener, and about her community mindedness. She believes that Lillian had a great effect in shaping her life.
Some of the attitudes she instilled seem as clear today as when she taught me over fifty years ago, and have served to guide me through my own youth, my teaching days, and now, in 1995, almost fifty years of marriage. My brothers, my sister and I all agree that she was the best teacher we ever had. She is a true teacher in every sense of the word and I thank her for the valuable lessons she has taught me. She is our wonderful friend.
Leo Seibel remembers a cold rainy afternoon in late September, 1946, when he was greeted at the door by Lillian Torkelson. It was the opening day of Radville Christian College. He says:
This was the time in my life when I knew everything. In the next five years that idea diminished. I learned instead, that it was by hard work, hardship and sacrifice, dominated by Christianity that success came. Some who sat in her classroom didn't hear her, but hundreds more of us recognized the realities of life with her help. She has been my teacher, my mentor and my friend. May God bless her.
Louis Pauls was a gospel preacher for forty years before his recent retirement. He and his wife Nellie were early students at Radville Christian College. In 1949, they left jobs in Toronto to study Bible at Radville. Both of them worked as well as studied. Nellie operated the kitchen for a time and Louis fired the furnaces. Miss Torkelson had strict rules about access to the girls dorm, so he enjoys telling that he was the only male allowed to enter ... to tend the furnace, that is!
He recalls taking special English classes under her. He believes she was instrumental in developing his ability to both preach and write, and he still treasures a textbook he used in her class. He says:
Both Nellie and I feel we owe Lillian a debt of gratitude for her life and influence during those early years at Radville. Surely her reward will be great in the world to come with our maker.
Much of what you hear in praise of Lillian concerns her teaching. But there was much more to who she was than that. Although she seldom displays her emotions, you will see that she feels very deeply about people. A woman who was a student of hers in Radville shared the following with me:
I contracted bronchitis while I was living in the dorm at RCC. I was sent to the local doctor, who then sexually molested me. My naivete caused me to be unaware of his intent until he told me what he wanted! At that stage I managed to stop him but I felt condemned in my own eyes. How could I let him go that far? I had had complete faith in him, so when he said he needed to examine me all over, I submitted. But I felt as guilty as I would have had I encouraged him. Back then, from what I'd been taught, if anyone made a pass at a girl she must have acted or dressed in an unbecoming manner and, therefore, must share the blame.
Even though I was innocent, I have never experienced such remorse as I did then. I felt guilty for letting him touch me; I should have realized what he was doing; things like this only happened to bad girls; no one would believe that I hadn't encouraged him. I decided I shouldn't tell anyone. But I could not sleep at night. I was very depressed and thoughts of suicide intruded.
She suffered through this alone for several months, until she started to worry about other girls in the dorm who might also need to be seen by that doctor. She finally decided she would have to tell someone, but who? She couldn't tell any of the girls because surely they would be horrified and would condemn her. Somehow the only person she could bring herself to tell was Miss Torkelson.
And what did Miss T. do when this young lady said she needed to talk to her? She took her for one of her well-known walks! And she listened! No third degree, just acceptance. No condemnation, just understanding. No big investigation, just a quiet announcement that in future all girls would be accompanied by a member of the staff or faculty when they visited the doctor. The woman continues:
I have looked back on that talk (or should I say walk, for very little was said) hundreds of times over the years when I have started to condemn myself and have taken strength from Miss T.'s lack of condemnation. . . . . It was many, many years before I could bring myself to talk to a professional and begin healing. Miss T. possibly only rendered a bandaid solution, but that bandaid kept me together, sometimes precariously, for a large portion of my life. Without it, I believe I would not have survived. Miss T. saved my life!Weyburn Days
Marilyn Brazle Muller, Dean of Student Life at Western Christian College, considers herself very fortunate to have had Miss Torkelson as one of her major teacher when she and her family first arrived in Canada and at WCC. She says:
It was through her that math began to make sense and trigonometry became almost fun. The world of French was opened to me even though she considered herself far from adequate in pronunciation. But it was the world of history about which I became most enthralled.
It was Miss Torkelson that first introduced me to Canadian history. Her love for the subject made it come alive - telling us stories of real people, giving us heroes and heroines, feeding our imaginations and creating a hunger for more. I will always be greatly indebted to her for giving me such a powerful love for the country of my second citizenship.
It is also partly due to Miss T. that I have come to realize that, in my present work, while it is not essential to be liked by the students, it is essential to be what they need!
Colleen Buchanan Nelson arrived at Western in the fall of 1965, a very reluctant student. For the first eleven years of her school career, she had not been in the habit of doing her homework. With Miss Torkelson's encouragement that changed rather quickly! By the third reporting period she was in third place in her Grade Twelve class.
Another thing she had never done was make a public speech:
Public speaking terrified me and I was more stubborn than any of my teachers; when it came to speech time, I refused to go in front of the class and had managed to avoid that death threatening task - until I dealt with Miss T. that is!
There was a duty and honour that went along with third place standing, reading the class Last Will and Testament at the graduation ceremonies. When she realized that she panicked:
I informed Miss T. that I couldn't - but she, with one finger pointed at me, informed me, "Yes, you can!" and instructed me to come to her office several times to read the paper to her - out loud! This was at least as scary as a graduation crowd. But you don't say no to Miss Torkelson.
The big night came and I stood on the stage, shaking and trying to make the words come out. I got one line out and knew I wasn't going to get through it all - when suddenly the tightener on the microphone let go, the mike slipped slowly down to my waist. I froze but then followed the mike down in what appeared to be a stiff bow. The audience laughed; the ice was broken; I relaxed and finished the reading. I - WE - had done it! Thanks Miss T. You had the faith in me I needed. I'll always remember.
Pat Start was one of the last of Lillian's high school students. She had heard about Miss T. long before she got to Western because three of her brothers had been to Western before her. They talked about her with great respect and gratitude; she soon came to realize why. She says:
Miss T. expected the best of her students. It was not considered a wise move to be late for class, come unprepared, or even think about goofing off. It did not take long for a new student to realize that she was there because she cared; each individual student was special.
I had struggled all the way through school with mathematics. As a result I arrived at Western with all my fears and mental blocks about that subject. Shortly after school started, Miss T. announced that she would stay after school for an hour Monday to Thursday, for anyone wishing extra help. She did not embarrass anyone by naming names (we knew who we were) nor did she make it mandatory.
Miss Torkelson may have looked on that as just another part of her teaching duties, but it made all the difference in the world to me. For the first time in my life I was doing more than just passing math - I was understanding it. When I graduated from Grade Twelve that year, my math mark was one of my highest. Thank you, Miss T. You helped me believe in myself!
David Lidbury, retired school administrator, who fits all of the categories we've described - friend, colleague and student - reflects on all of these relationships:
One could reflect on the familiar stance she took at the front of the room, literary club at her house, being campused at least twice a year (being on the river ice too early in the fall and too late in the spring), her consistency in dealing with her students, and above and beyond the call of duty, the dedication she displayed in the way she did her job.
I choose rather to suggest one characteristic she demonstrated in her relationship with me. This characteristic was evident when she was my teacher, when I taught at Western and she was my principal and when she was a teacher and I was her principal. In my multifaceted relationship with Miss T. I always felt I was believed in. I believe she demonstrated unconditional love and as a result empowered me to accomplish things I might not otherwise have accomplished.
Whenever I attend a workshop and someone says, "I want you to think about the teacher that most influenced you in your high school years" my thoughts invariably turn to the old school buildings on the banks of the Souris River and to the dear lady that made those buildings a school. You have been my mentor Lillian Torkelson and for that I thank you.
I can only surmise about the influence Miss Torkelson has had on the church in general but I suspect it is immeasurable. I am confident that there are those ministering or serving the church in various capacities that are doing so because she believed in them and helped them to believe in themselves. I suspect that had she lived in another time and place you might be able to read something like this, "Greet Lillian, my dear friend, who has worked very hard for the Lord."
Where does such a person come from? What has made her who she is? Surely there have been many forces involved in the development of Lillian's character and personality.
Published in The Old Paths Archive