Even for someone who has learned to take life as it comes, Friday was a lot to take in for Donna Hinrichs as she celebrated her 100th birthday with family at the Heritage at College View Assisted Living Center in Hastings.
With an active fire drill siren blaring at family members as they filed in, the surprise party planned by her son, Rand, daughter-in-law Susan, and grandson, Cory, included a special visit from Hastings Mayor Corey Stutte, who dropped by to present Hinrichs with a proclamation declaring May 31 Donna Hinrichs Day in Hastings.
Other surprises included a hand-written birthday card from Gov. Pete Ricketts and a signed card from President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump.
A family gathering at College View on Sunday will be attended by those family members who were unable to join in Friday’s fun.
“Everything has just happened!” Hinrichs said as she reflected on the day’s many events Friday afternoon. I’m just sitting and letting the hours go by.”
Donna and her husband, Paul (who died at age 91 in 2009), lived and worked in Hastings for decades, working together at the Naval Ammunition Depot during World War II before raising two sons here. The pair taught Sunday School classes at First St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Hastings for many years. They were married for 68 years.
As a younger woman, she served as a rural school teacher who taught in a one-room school house for six years. She later worked in the cafeteria at Hastings College to help supplement tuition payments for her son, Fred, who died in 1997.
A self-taught baker, her specialties included chocolate covered peanut clusters and sour creme raisin pie.
Her teaching years were among her fondest memories, she said.
“I think I learned more than the kids did,” she said. “I was paid $40 per month: $10 went for room and board, $10 for gas to go home, $10 for my younger sister, Babe (Berneda), who was always breaking her glasses, and $10 for me.”
Her upbringing in Harvard wasn’t easy. The second of four children, she lost her father at age 37 and sister, Ardes, to scarlet fever shortly thereafter at age 12. She can still remember how good it felt getting her first pair of shoes that weren’t hand-me-downs from the local repair shop.
“Things were a little rough,” she said. “It was a different kind of childhood. I didn’t have a dad, and Mom had to work to keep us all together.”
Despite the hardships, she kept right on smiling in the classroom, drawing on her love of teaching to lift her spirits and the spirits of those around her. Her teaching years clearly left their mark on her students. A former student showed up for her 97th birthday party celebration at College View to thank her for making his educational experience a positive one.
“Teaching was something I always wanted to do,” she said. “I enjoyed it. I liked the kids.”
Hers is one of three milestone birthdays that will be celebrated by the family this year. Her son, Rand, turns 70, while grandson, Cory, celebrates his 50th birthday.
“I guess we're a symmetrical family,” Rand said with a smile.
Having grown up in an era where a wooden 1917 Victrola later gifted to Cory was the premier sound system of the day, she is grateful for some of the latest technology shared with her by family that has provided her much entertainment while at College View. Now legally blind, she still enjoys books through audio recordings and considers her talking wrist watch an invaluable asset.
Her favorite book topics?
“Anything but war,” she said. “I’ve had so many members of the family in the service (including Paul and Cory).”
The secrets to her longevity, she said, are not sweating the small stuff and avoiding alcohol.
“You just go with the flow,” she said. “You just know it’s got to be this way.”