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Jerene (Doerring) Mortenson, 83, went to her heavenly home on Sunday, Sept. 18, 2016.
Five months after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, she breathed her last, encircled by her children, extended family, hospice and pastoral care in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
Jerene lived life to the fullest. She learned she had cancer after returning home from a winter-season volunteer job as a park host at Mammoth Lodge, in her beloved Yellowstone National Park. Even in her last week of life, although no longer able to walk, she still made it to Sunday church, and continued to return calls and answer hundreds of cards from well-wishers.
On Sunday, her final day, she relished a last bit of Norwegian custard pudding, and beamed as Rev. Obed Nelson serenaded her with Lutheran hymns and read her favorite Bible passage, Romans 12:9-12.
Jerene was born in Kimballton, Iowa, to Alvin and Lyria Doerring. When she was 3, the family moved to Luana, a farming town in NE Iowa, where her father was a teacher and coach and her mom, also a teacher, ran BenDale cafe and store. Her most cherished memories were visits with Grosspapa and Grossmama (her paternal grandparents), where she learned German, and learned to cook delicacies like Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte (Black Forest cake), Krumkake, Apfelstrudel, and Pfeffernüsse. And from Lyria's Danish side, there was another host of desserts like Æbleskiver (pancakes), Rabarber Rødgrød (rhubarb 'pudding'), and Æggekage (omlettes). Jerene in turn, carried on the traditions far and wide, from America, to Africa and Asia.
After World War II, when Jerene was in 9th grade, they moved to Pequot Lakes, in Minnesota's north woods, where her parents ran Vi-Lu fishing resort. Jerene was an avid athlete and student leader. At Vi-Lu her passion for fishing and adventure took root.
Everywhere and anywhere, life was an abundant adventure. During college (1954), on the spur of the moment, Jerene and her high-school sweetheart Irvin "Dempsey" Mortenson decided to get married. Dempsey, stationed in the Army at Fort Riley in Kansas, drove 700 miles for a quick ceremony at Vi-Lu, officiated by Rev. Merle Severtson, and then right back to Kansas. Soon after, he was deployed to Hokkaido Island, Japan, where Jerene wrote him a letter every day.
After completing college at St. Cloud State University, the young couple heard at a church service of the need for educators in East Africa. On March 28, 1958, on a whim, they boarded the ship Saxonia in New York with their newborn son, Greg, and moved halfway around the world to teach school, and train teachers in Tanganyika's remote Usambara Mountains. While in Africa, Jerene and Dempsey had two daughters: Sonja, born in Bumbuli, and Christa, at Machamé hospital on Mount Kilimanjaro. Their daughter Kari was born in Minneapolis while they were on furlough.
In Tanzania, Jerene taught at Luindai Girls' School, Moshi Primary School and founded the International School Moshi (ISM) in 1969. Today, ISM is a thriving International Baccalaureate School on two campuses with 520 students. Locals give her the honorary title "Mama Mwalimu," or "mother teacher," a Swahili designation given to educators or leaders held in high esteem. Dempsey began the region's first basketball league, and helped to found, raise funds for, and establish the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center (KCMC), the region's first teaching hospital.
Fourteen years later, nearly penniless, they returned to Minnesota.
In her mid 40's, Jerene worked as a student teacher supervisor, and went back to get a master's in school administration from St. Cloud State University. Dempsey tragically passed away in 1981. As a widow, Jerene continued to work full time, raise her children, opened her home to foster children, and continued on with her education to earn a doctorate in developmental psychology from the University of Minnesota by age 50.
Jerene was a peacemaker and educator to her core. Many of her students in Tanzania – Arabs and Israelis, Indians and Pakistanis, Irish and English – came from warring countries and she taught the students conflict-resolution skills in hopes of nurturing future peace leaders.
Later, while principal at Westside School in River Falls, Wisc. (1986-1998), Jerene hung a banner in the entrance with the number of "fight-free" days, and honoring students' use of peer mediation to settle disputes. After collecting 62,340 pennies in 1994, Westside students and teachers were the catalyst to launch Pennies for Peace, an educational program of the Bozeman-based charity, Central Asia Institute, founded by her son Greg.
After "retiring," she took a job as education administrator on a Native reservation in Shawano, Wisconsin, where she advocated for more indigenous tribal knowledge and culture in the curriculum. She continued to volunteer in classrooms for children until this past spring.
Jerene despised bullying, bigotry, racism, and violence against women. Last year, she told her family, "I will spend the rest of my life devoted to promote kindness, which has gone out of fashion." A lifelong feminist, she believed women hold the key for world peace, but advocated big doses of kindness along the way. "With women gaining influence and power, the old boys network is scared of losing power. They're acting out. Rather than oppress women, men should embrace and empower them. We can get them to do that with kindness and love," she said.
"Grandma J" loved and cherished her eleven grandchildren – including Amira and Khyber in Bozeman – and three great-grandchildren. She celebrated their birthdays, achievements, and most importantly, was always there to offer hope during tough and trying times.
Her curiosity and intellect never ceased. She studied and loved to discuss the work of Danish theologian, Søren Kierkegaard, widely considered one of the first existentialist philosophers, Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg - who conceived theories on the stages of moral development, and was a life-long reader and student of German theologian Martin Luther, of which her life was the living example of his quote, "Even if the world ends tomorrow, I'll plant my seed today".
A frugal woman who lived simply, Jerene was generous with her time and limited funds. She funded construction of two schools in rural Pakistan; was a member of the American Association of University Women; League of Women Voters; and National Education Association; volunteered at Holden Village in Washington's Cascade Mountains; judged essay contests for the Abdelkader Education Project in Iowa; and led Bible studies at church.
For several summers in her last decade, she had a post-retirement "summer job" serving ice cream at Lake Lodge General Store in Yellowstone, which also put her closer to family in Bozeman, and to services at the United Methodist Church, where Pastor David McConnell gave "the best sermons in town." During those times, she drove the Alaska Highway several times to "winter" with her childhood best friend and cousin Jackie Sparrow in Anchorage.
As cancer slowly compromised her, hundreds of people reached out in beautiful ways, for which she was so grateful. She lived her final months to their fullest – and opted to live at home, with the support of her family. Although frail, she traveled to the Field of Dreams in Dyersville, Iowa, to fulfill a birthday promise to her daughter Christa, who died in her sleep July 24, 1992, hours before their planned trip. Jerene also visited Kimballton, her birthplace, Elkhorn, home of her Danish ancestry, Luana, her childhood home on her German side, visited the Czech community of Spillville, Iowa, where composer Antonín Dvorák wrote Symphony No. 9 in E minor, aka the New World Symphony, and went to Elkader, Iowa, named after an Algerian revolutionary, Abd al-Qadir al-Jaza'iri, and where Jerene served on the board of the Alkader Education Project, a nonprofit seeking to create cultural awareness and tolerance, and build a counter narrative to balance the negative images of Muslims presented through the media and public. Her last big outing was an annual family fishing trip to Lake of the Woods, Minnesota to restock her refrigerator with Walleye.
Jerene was a fierce proponent of public education, and ardent believer in the democratic process. She truly believed that education brings freedom. She volunteered as a poll worker, helped with election caucuses, taught children about the election process, and active in the League of Women Voters. Rather than watch TV politics and pundits, she encouraged others to simply go out and volunteer in the community, to get a real grasp on societal issues.
Jerene planned her last outing to be on Sept. 23rd, to the Minnehaha County auditor's office in Sioux Falls, to cast an early vote – and spoke with them to say she was coming. However, she did not quite make it. Nothing would please Jerene more than if everyone would take time to vote this year, no matter what their affiliation.
Jerene was preceded in death by her parents, Alvin and Lyria Doerring; husband Irvin "Dempsey" Mortenson; daughter Christa Eliana Mortenson; and foster son Le Quac Châu.
She is survived by her children: Greg Mortenson (Tara Bishop) of Bozeman, Montana; Sonja Joy (Dean) Rauen of Sioux Falls, South Dakota; and Kari (Dan) Theisen of Roseville, Minnesota; foster daughter Debbie (Bob) Halbekath of Phoenix, Arizona; brothers Rev. Lane (Barb) Doerring of Chanhassen, Minnesota; and Tate Doerring of San Antonio, Texas; 11 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
A Holden Evening Prayer memorial service will be held at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Roseville, Minnesota, at 5 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016. All are welcome. In lieu of flowers, donations, or gifts, the family asks people to honor Jerene's last and enduring request: "Be kind to one another, pray for peace, and thank a teacher."
Peace Lutheran Church
5509 W 41st St
Sioux Falls, SD 57106
Published in Bozeman Daily Chronicle on Sept. 25, 2016