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8 Over 80: Go-to woman operates food pantry

This is the fifth story in an eight-part series featuring North Dakotans age 80 or older still making a difference in their communities. LAKOTA, N.D.

Gunny Schmidt, 86, of Lakota
Gunny Schmidt, 86, of Lakota helps prepare food baskets for Thanksgiving each year. Special to The Forum

This is the fifth story in an eight-part series featuring North Dakotans age 80 or older still making a difference in their communities.

LAKOTA, N.D. - Gunny Schmidt went to work helping hungry people with nothing but $20 and a dream.

Since 1988, the now 86-year-old Lakota woman has worked hard to maintain the local food pantry.

And people know she's the go-to woman willing to lend a hand.

"If anyone comes to town looking for food assistance, it is Gunny Schmidt they are directed to," said Phyllis Kupitz of Lakota.

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Schmidt, who has been active on the county Social Services board, said she started the food pantry because she knew of the need.

"There was no funding from anyplace except for them to go to the churches, and the pastors sometimes would have to dig in their own pockets to help them," she said.

Schmidt takes 15 to 20 calls a month from local families or people traveling through who need food assistance. She recently helped four families in one day. The pantry is supported by local donations.

Schmidt also helps organize the annual Thanksgiving food baskets, working with other volunteers to put together about three dozen baskets earlier this week.

Nelson County Social Services Director Marcia Beglau said Schmidt's longtime involvement with the Social Services board and the community is admirable.

"You can't find a younger 80-some-year-old person," Beglau said. "You can't find a more compassionate person than Gunny."

Schmidt's compassion is also evident with her longtime dedication to education. Schmidt knew from her first day of first grade that she wanted to be a teacher one day.

"I couldn't even speak English," said Schmidt, who spoke Norwegian. "But after that, I wanted to be a teacher."

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She started teaching in 1943 in a rural school. For nearly 60 years, she's been a substitute teacher at Lakota Public Schools.

"You know, in small towns there aren't very many (substitutes)," she said of why she's taught for so long.

Lakota Superintendent Joe Harder said Schmidt also goes to the local ball games to support the students, who "treat her just like a grandma."

"She's just always willing to help out in our school system whenever she's been asked to," he said. "She's just a super gal who has always just been a big part of our school system and our community."

Schmidt is also active with her church, helping with "whatever is needed" and making quilts. She fixes hair twice a week at the nursing home and makes lefse each year for the town's Labor Day celebration.

Schmidt said she grew up staying busy and said she didn't know what she'd do if she slowed down.

"Some people say the minute you sit down and stay sitting down that's when you go downhill," she said with a laugh. "I'll stay on top of the hill."

Finneman is a multimedia reporter for Forum Communications Co.

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