Always an open house

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 13, 2006

Editor’s note: This is the debut of a weekly series called Prairie Profiles. Each Monday the Tribune features a profile on an interesting person living in our coverage area. We hope you enjoy reading about them.

By Joseph Marks, Tribune staff writer

As Dorothy Slette approaches her 90th birthday, she is surrounded by memories. Some memories stem from things she sees every day, like the home she has lived in since 1943 when her husband, Curtis, returned from service in the European theater of World War II. Other memories spring from what is no longer there, like the old Albert Lea High School building that stood across the street from her home until it was torn down earlier this year.

&8220;I went to high school here,&8221; she said, gesturing out her front window at the empty rubble where the school stood. &8220;I graduated from that fallen school in 1934.&8221;

Slette saw more than a half century of Albert Lea’s young people on their way to school or their way home and in many ways the memories of her home are permanently linked to memories of the school.

Graduates who attended Albert Lea High School with either of Slette’s two daughters, Dorothy and Sandy, are likely to make the same connection between her home and their high school experience. The girls opened the home up daily to friends who wanted to skip the school’s cafeteria and come over for lunch.

&8220;My sister started it,&8221; said daughter Pamela. &8220;People would come over for lunch and the house was always filled with Sandy’s friends for three years and when I was in high school the same thing happened. People I didn’t even know would come here for lunch and watch &8216;All my Children.’&8221;

Students brought bag lunches with them, Slette said, and sometimes they dropped by in the morning to leave their lunches in the refrigerator. Slette’s contribution was a seemingly endless supply of chocolate chip cookies passed around when lunch was over.

&8220;People would ask me, is it wise to have your doors open like that?&8221; she said. &8220;And honestly, we never thought about it. A girl said to me once, &8216;You don’t know me, Mrs. Slette, but I’ve had lunch at your house so many times.&8221;

Many of Slette’s most powerful memories are associated with her home and what is near it. But she has also spent a good deal of time outside her home. Soon after completing high school, Slette moved to Minneapolis. There she attended a beauty school at the intersection of Lake Street and Hennepin Avenue.

Curtis Slette was a good friend of her cousin’s boyfriend and the two started double dating in high school. The couple married when he was home on furlough in 1942 from his duty station of Camp Ripley in Pennsylvania. She visited him several times before he was shipped overseas.

During one visit, the two went with another couple on a weekend pass to New York City. They spent time at the New Yorker Hotel. Slette revisited the hotel on a recent trip to New York City when her daughter Pamela was living there. She was amazed at how little the place had changed.

&8220;It was just the same as it was then,&8221; Slette said. &8220;Big and kind of old with a beautiful chandelier. We sat and had coffee in the lobby there, and I said &8216;I thought I’d never see this place again.’&8221;

Slette worked occasionally as a beautician in Albert Lea before her daughters were born. After completing his service, Curtis returned to an industrial job at the Queen Stove factory. The company has since left town.

Curtis died in 1967 and Dorothy returned to work, this time in cafeterias for the school district. From there she moved to St. John’s Lutheran Home where she worked for 13 years in the kitchen and dining room until she retired in 1985. She continued to volunteer at St. John’s after retirement for 14 more years.

Slette spends part of her days in the Adult Day Care Center at St. John’s, where a lot of the faces continue to be familiar.

&8220;I know a lot of people out there,&8221; she said. &8220;A lot of people who were nurses when I was working are residents out there now.&8221;

Pamela Slette, who worked until recently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, moved home two years ago when her mother’s health began to fail. She came home, she said, because she thought it was important her mother be able to stay in her home as long as possible.

&8220;I think the house stimulates her memories,&8221; said Pamela. &8220;It keeps those memories alive.&8221;

Together, the two watched out the front window of their home every day this winter as the old high school was torn down over the past three months.

&8220;We used to pull the curtains aside,&8221; said Slette, &8220;and we could watch them work. It would rattle the house sometimes, and the cat got scared when the house rattled so from the construction.&8221;

Pamela Slette took pictures periodically of the construction, documenting the school’s disappearance. Some of the women’s fondest images are of the bleachers and entryway, which were both left standing long after most of the school had been demolished.

&8220;I am sad to see the old school go,&8221; Dorothy Slette said. &8220;It’s been there since I was a kid.&8221;

(Contact Joseph Marks at joseph.marks@albertleatribune.com or at 379-3435.)