At age 96, after 48 years, woman calls it a career at Polk County DAC

She still greets with a smile, and a big hug

Mike Christopherson
Bernice Lehman

Bernice Lehman has set a mark for longevity of service as a client of the Polk County Development Achievement Center (DAC) and maybe similar agencies everywhere, that, it’s safe to say, will never be eclipsed. Lehman, born in 1924, starting working at the DAC on July 27, 1972, her family members tell the Times, and it wasn’t until Oct. 20, 2020, at the age of 96, that she retired from the Crookston-based DAC.

Her family did the math, and it adds up to a career spanning 48 years, two months, three weeks and two days. And, her cousin David Dale of Fargo adds, it was the COVID-19 pandemic more than anything else that spurred Lehman and her family to make the decision to finally end her decades of service at the DAC.

Her story

The following information about Lehman was provided by David Dale and his sisters, Pam Dale and Mary Briggs. It’s a compelling story, in more ways than one.

Bernice Anna Lehman was born Oct.18 1924 in Virginia, Minnesota to Edward and Elsie Lehman. She had one brother, Kenneth. Bernice and Kenny were both born with cerebral palsy and intellectual disability. They lived on a farm near Fertile with their parents. Her mother was a homemaker and died in 1953 from breast cancer. Her father was a farmer and in the U.S. Army in France in World War I. As a child, Bernice attended public school for four years in rural Fertile.

Bernice and brother Kenny Lehman on the family farm

In 1970, Edward sold the farm and the three of them moved to a house in Fertile. Her father died in July of 1972 from stomach cancer. When her father died, Charles Gustafson was appointed guardian of Bernice and Kenny. He was hunting in Wyoming in October of 2005 and was lost; his body was never recovered.

“They are not just wards or cousins or foster children, they are family,” David Dale said. “Ray and Alice’s children, all nine of them as well as their children all love Bernice and Kenny.”

After their dad died, Bernice and Kenny lived in Fertile by themselves from 1972 until 1981, with Alice (her foster parent) and her family seeing them several times a week. When she lived in Fertile ,Bernice would cook for herself and Kenny. They loved it when Alice's family would come to visit, Bernice always had cookies and lemonade ready to serve them.

In 1981, they moved in with Alice and her husband Ray to Herald Station, six miles southeast of Crookston. They lived with Alice from 1981 until 2004. Bernice was always ready to help Alice with preparing meals and she loved to bake. Bernice also loved sweeping the floors or doing some dusting, she loved to keep busy and it made her feel good that she was helping out. Bernice also enjoyed embroidery, coloring and reading to Kenny.

Siblings Kenny and Bernice Lehman participated in Special Olympics for many years.

Once she started at the DAC in 1972, Bernice also attended the Occupational Development Center. She and Kenny participated in Special Olympics for many years, and spent one week every summer at Camp Sunshine in Minnesota. Bernice fell and broke her ankle in September of 2004 and she could no longer stay at Alice's house, so she moved permanently to a REM Group Home in Crookston. 

In January of 2006 Alice and her son, David, were appointed as Bernice and Kenny's legal guardians. Kenny passed away in 2016.

"Bernice and Ken were inseparable and were very helpful to one another. If one’s language was difficult to understand, the other one assisted them,” said Polk County DAC Director Jo Bittner. “Bernice was always cheerful, ready to try anything and so much fun. She loved to joke around. Bernice was such a hard worker and so determined to do her best. She is now enjoying her well deserved retirement!”

“Bernice loves animals, especially cats; she always had a lot of cats on the farm,” David said. “She can't have real cats where she lives but she has a few stuffed ones that she carries with her. Bernice is very social, she loves visiting with people and you always get one of her big hugs when she sees you. She always had a smile.”