A love of learning that never grows old

Iris Westman, UND ’28, has inspired others for 115 years. And if her family’s wish for a documents conservation lab at UND comes true, that’s only the beginning

Image of Iris Westman courtesy of UND Alumni Association & Foundation.

Iris Westman is celebrating 115 years of life on Aug. 28. She is the oldest North Dakotan to ever live, the second oldest recorded U.S. resident, ranks in the top 10 supercentenarians in the world, and is a proud alumna of UND.

Born in 1905 on a farm near Aneta, N.D., Iris was the only one in her class to attend college. She graduated from UND in 1928 with a B.S. in Education. Iris was just a year short of earning her degree when she planned to quit school to start earning a paycheck. Her father encouraged her to instead finish her studies, so she followed his advice.

Ever since then, she has valued her diploma and the doors it has opened.

Iris launched her career in education taking a dual position as an English teacher and high school principal in Killdeer, N.D. She went on to teach in Aneta and Hillsboro (N.D.), then Staples (Minn.), followed by a longtime position as Elementary School Librarian in Worthington, Minn., before retiring in 1972.

During her summers off, Iris continued her studies, taking classes at the University of Minnesota to earn her Master of Library Sciences degree in 1946.

Wherever Iris calls home, she embraces the essence of the community – attending church activities, singing in choirs, and winning her way into the hearts of many. Iris’s wit and charm has made her a favored aunt among four generations of nieces and nephews. She is a resident of the Northwood Deaconess Health Center, where a parade will be held to celebrate her birthday.

Conservation lab at Chester Fritz Library

Blessed with a love of learning, Iris traveled by horse, car, bus, train, boat, ship and plane to see the world she read and dreamed about. She is a supporter of the Chester Fritz Library and the educational enhancement it offers to UND students.

And to celebrate Iris’ milestone birthday, her family would like to raise funds for a conservation lab in the Chester Fritz Library.

A conservation lab is a space dedicated to the conservation and preservation of valuable materials, usually historical and sometimes quite brittle. “You may have seen some of the more famous ones doing things like unrolling a scroll or digitizing ‘Beowulf,’” said Stephanie Walker, dean of libraries and information resources at UND.

“But on a day-to-day basis, what they do is take care of materials so those materials don’t decay or disintegrate. The labs also try to restore those materials that have been damaged.

“It’s vital work, in that so many items have been kept in people’s great-grandmother’s attic or basement, and have been exposed to leaks and mold and mildew and dust. And when items are lost, so is history.”

UND, as the flagship institution of the state and an institution that is, in fact, two years older than North Dakota itself, is an ideal home for a conservation lab, Walker said. “We also have an explicit mandate to gather and preserve local and regional history, and thus we really should be doing more preservation and conservation work.”

Moreover, there is currently no conservation or preservation lab at any public institution between Minnesota and Oregon. So, a UND lab likely could do contract preservation work for other public institutions – and in that way, help the whole region preserve its history.

A love of books and libraries

“Iris has enjoyed books and libraries since she was a child,” said Jane Lukens, a UND graduate who is Iris’s primary caretaker and great niece.

“During her career as a teacher and librarian, she inspired others in that love of reading and books. The conservation lab at the Chester Fritz Library, on the campus of her beloved alma mater, seemed like the right project to honor both her long life and her love of books and libraries.”

The conservation lab at Chester Fritz Library is an estimated $750,000 project. For more information and to donate in Iris’ honor, visit the web page set up by the UND Alumni Association & Foundation.