Alumni focus: The oldest North Dakotan, Iris Westman ’28 is still learning

Iris Westman, ’28, the oldest living North Dakotan,  shares about life, longevity and UND

Born in 1905, Iris Westman graduated from the University of North Dakota in 1928. Today, she is the oldest North Dakotan ever. Photo by Sam Melquist/UND Alumni Association and Foundation.

Her demeanor is calm and gentle. Her words, intentional and wise. One-hundred and fourteen-year-old Iris Westman spends much of her time sitting quietly in her cozy rocking chair in her room at Deaconess Health Center in Northwood, N.D. Listening to audio books is her favorite hobby. She says they aren’t the same as the “real books” she used to read, but her eyes have failed a bit over the years, so “these talking books are a blessing.”

Iris became a resident of the nursing home at the age of 106 after a bad fall resulted in a hip replacement surgery. Her doctor wasn’t convinced she would bounce back at such an accomplished age and asked her great-niece Jane Lukens, ’76, her goal for Iris following the surgery. Jane said that Iris needed to be able to crawl up into her pickup truck to go for country drives. In less than six months, Iris had surpassed doctor’s expectations and was riding shotgun once again.

Born in 1905 on a farm near Aneta, N.D., Iris reminisces of days when the world was simple. She enjoyed sleepovers with her school friends, apple pie (which she still loves today) and playing with her barn cats and her three brothers. “It didn’t take them long to realize it was no fun to play with a girl,” she snickered.

Iris’s memory is sharp, and she is thoughtful as she continues to tell stories of her youth. “My folks decided when they were first married that their kids would go to school past the 8th grade,” she said, adding that she was the only one from her class to attend college.

In 1923, Iris enrolled at the University of North Dakota. She said it was the closest university to her home, so that is, “just where everybody went.”

Her memories of her days on campus are as descriptive as if they happened just yesterday. She gets excited as she tells about the UND ceramics department, which was led by Margaret Cable, who is famous to this day for her pottery. “Margaret believed with all her heart that North Dakota clay would be a big business financially,” Iris stated.

Iris said she never joined a sorority because money was tight. “I was going to school on as little money as I could possibly manage. I knew it would take money to get in and then I would need nice clothes for those meetings those girls had,” she explained.

Instead, she lived in a house “down University Avenue.” She explains, “I liked it except in the winter it was so cold. I would catch the streetcar and the University was the end of the line. It cost 10 cents to ride the streetcar from downtown to campus,” she reminisced.

Iris remembers singing in the UND choir and has special memories of her graduation day, when a parade marched down University Avenue. “Because I was in the choir, I had to line up in front of the dormitories, and we had to be in the parade. I remember all the professors marching in the parade wearing a stole of their college around their neck. That was neat,” she smiled.

Iris earned a degree from the UND College of Education and taught in several rural North Dakota schools before moving to Worthington, Minn., to teach. She later went on to earn a degree from the Minnesota School of Library Sciences and became a librarian. Her love of books, which remains strong today, anchored her lifelong career.

A family legacy

Iris never married or had any children. She firmly states, “I had a chance to be married once, and I think my mother and father were quite disappointed I didn’t accept the chance. Later, I am so glad I didn’t accept the chance,” she said.

However, Iris has generations upon generations of nieces and nephews who admire her and have followed in her footsteps and graduated from UND.

As we continue to reminisce of the past in her sun-lit room at Deaconess Health Center, a young man of whom she is most proud walks over to Iris and squeezes her hand. “Hi, Iris, It’s Hunter,” he says, as Iris’s eyes light up and her voice exudes excitement.

Westman and Hunter Pinke, her oldest great, great, great nephew, who is a tight end on the UND Fighting Hawks football team. Photo by Sam Melquist/UND Alumni Association and Foundation.

Hunter Pinke, Iris’s oldest great, great, great nephew, is a tight end on the UND Fighting Hawks football team. Though several generations of lineage separate Hunter and Iris, their relationship remains close. “I am so proud of Hunter,” smiled Iris. “He is a person who is good in many things. He can play football so well. And he plays piano beautifully,” she said.

Side by side, Hunter and Iris walked to the commons area in the nursing home where Hunter played piano by ear for Iris and several other star-struck residents.

“I like most kinds of music,” said Iris. “I have not been very fond of jazz or ragtime. Classical music is probably best. But, not too classical,” she states.

That is, unless Hunter is playing the tune. Then it’s music to her ears. “Hunter is a very special person. He asked to take piano lessons at eight years old. Imagine an eight-year-old boy asking to take piano lessons,” she says.

The Oldest North Dakotan

Iris recalls a conversation with her childhood best friend, Clara, about getting older. “We were probably 10 years old at the time, and we talked about what age we would like to live to be and we decided not more than 100. We decided 90. Older than that was just too old,” Iris said.

Though Iris has far surpassed her childhood wish, she is grateful because she says she still feels pretty good. “Sometimes I feel kind of tired, but then I think to myself, ‘I’m 114, my goodness, don’t I have the right to feel tired?’”

According to the Gerontology Research Group, Iris is the oldest North Dakotan ever, and is currently one of the oldest living people in the United States.

Regarding her supercentenarian status (a person who is 110 years or older), Iris says it’s simple. “There is no secret. It’s God.”

She will continue to live each day lighting up the room with her sweet smile and positivity until it’s her time to go. “My faith is important to me. Isn’t it to you?” she concluded.

About the Author:Leanna Ihry

Leann Ihry, ’02, is an Impact Writer at the University of North Dakota Alumni Association and Foundation. Since graduating from UND with a degree in communication in 2002, Ihry, a native of Leeds, N.D., has had an extensive career in public/community affairs and local television media in Grand Forks.