Our Neighbors....Mike Toland

Mike Toland is a gentleman and a scholar. The fact that he quickly learned to read everything he could get his hands on, is fond of taking the ladies out to lunch (or vice versa!) and has always sported an impeccable set of manners has made him a...

Mike Toland is a gentleman and a scholar.

The fact that he quickly learned to read everything he could get his hands on, is fond of taking the ladies out to lunch (or vice versa!) and has always sported an impeccable set of manners has made him a popular "man about town" for most of his 61 years.

The fact that he was born with Down Syndrome has merely served to round out the corners, smooth out the edges and make him into the remarkable man he is today.

A couple of weeks ago, Toland retired after 29 years of service at B&B Market in Cloquet, and he was celebrated with a very special picnic by friends, coworkers and family members.

Today, he continues to perform useful tasks at the Pinewood Learning Center three to four days a week. And though early signs of Alzheimer's disease have caused him to experience a certain degree of forgetfulness of late, he's still as personable and engaging as ever.


Toland was born in Cloquet to Hugh and Acte (Oja) Toland, and despite the challenges of his disability, the family was as closely knit as a family could possibly be.

His parents taught him the value of manners early on and made sure he was polite, cordial and gentlemanly at all times.

"I am always, always, always available to help out," Toland graciously proffers yet today. "If I can help with anything, call me up if you need to."

"He always makes sure to call people all the time to see how they're doing, too," attested good friend Kim Lind.

Toland's dad loved to fish and always took young Mike out fishing with him, and his parents also saw that Mike was always dressed neatly and made sure he received all of the schooling they felt he deserved.

Thanks to the support of family and community, Mike went through special education classes all the way up until the time he was 18 years old, and he learned to read (something once thought by some to be impossible for Down Syndrome children), thanks in large part to a very special teacher named Ruth Rostad.

In high school, as throughout life, Toland was popular and well liked by the other students.

"Mike used to sit up in the balcony with his mom and dad during the high school basketball games at the middle school gymnasium," recalled Lind, "and band director Zane Gray would always let him take his turn at directing the band."


Another family friend, Paul Dupont, instructed Toland in how to be an usher at Queen of Peace Church, where the young man always dressed up in a shirt and tie and proudly put in his time taking up the collection with Dupont by his side.

When Toland reached the age of 18 and completed his time at Cloquet High School, he moved on to an adult education program that had been started just the year before under the guidance of program director Betty Hennum.

"We started the program in January 1961 as a half-day program and met in the mornings at Zion Lutheran Church in Cloquet, where space was provided rent free," explained Hennum. "There were six adults in the program to begin with, and Mike became part of the program during its second year."

The program was basically designed to provide sociability and basic life skills for those folks with disabilities who participated in it.

"The program began by teaching daily living skills, things like table manners, cooking, physical education activities and arts and crafts," related Hennum. "Mike's folks were so thrilled when he learned to tie his own shoes. They thought that was just the cat's meow! It made things easier for the parents when their son or daughter could learn to take care of some of their own daily needs. Many used to think you had to do everything for people with disabilities."

Hennum recalled a couple of funny stories about Toland as a young man that the two still chuckle about yet today.

"Once we were walking to the bowling alley from the church," she related, "Mike was walking behind me and all of a sudden he came up to me and said, 'Betty, do you remember me?' I said, 'Certainly, I remember you. You're Mike!' We went another block and he said to me, 'Well, what about next week? Will you remember me then?' I said, 'Well sure, Mike. I'll always remember you.' We went another block and he said, 'How about next year? Will you remember me then?' I said, 'Sure!' After we arrived downtown, Mike came up to me again and said, 'Knock, knock!' and I said, 'Who's there?' - and he said, 'See, I told you you wouldn't remember me!'"

Hennum also tells of the time when he was fond of watching the Superman show on television and had seen an episode where one of the "bad guys" had hypnotized someone in order to get them to do his dirty work for him. She said one day at Zion she overheard Mike talking in a trance-like fashion to his buddy, Bob McGladrey.


"Mike kept saying to him, 'You are getting sleepier and sleepier,'" said Hennum. "'Now, you are going to go out and rob the bank!'"

"At that point," Hennum continued, "I intervened and said to him, 'Mike, surely you can't mean that - your father works at the bank!' At that, Mike turned to Bob and said, "You're going to go out and rob City Bank, not First National!'"

The fast-growing adult program at Zion soon expanded to eight participants and was all the way up to 16 by the time they decided they needed more space. The program was moved to a place called the Pattison House on Broadway Street in west Cloquet.

"At Pattison House, one of the staff members and three or four of the people there would make lunch every day," recalled Hennum. "We used to get surplus commodities, and we had really good lunches. It was part of the program for the participant to learn how to cook. I'll never forget when Bobby Gilderman went home and made a carrot and raisin salad for his family. His mom and dad were just so delighted that he made a salad for them!"

As the program continued to grow and thrive, so did Toland. He and others, accompanied by Hennum, used to go on field trips to Minneapolis, to see plays such as "Mary Poppins" and take in other activities, and he also once traveled as far as Florida with his cousin, Jerry Ralph.

Participation in the adult program continued to grow at a rapid pace.

"So much of the program's success has to be credited to a wonderful group of parents," said current work services supervisor Jack Hagen, who's been with the program for 32 years. "They've done so much to support it and help it thrive over the years."

In response to the growing need, the Pinewood Learning Center (now Pinewood-Cloquet Inc.) was built on 18th Street in Cloquet in the mid-1970s, and the program moved in with some 45 to 50 participants taking part. With the eventual expansion of the facility, today it is now licensed to accommodate up to 85.


"Along the way, it became very work oriented, and since then we have expanded on that tremendously," said Hagen. "I'll never forget when we first started to say to the participants, 'OK, we're going to give you a choice. We're going to let you have some decision making power,' and then adding, 'OK, now what do you want to do?' We'd help guide them, and once in a while there'd be some failure, but we'd be there to help pick up the pieces.

"The one thing I learned the most was to be positive," reflected Hagen, "because you get so much more success when you're positive."

"Another thing we stressed is to never make a threat that you're not going to carry out by saying, 'If you don't do this I'll....' Then if you don't do it, it teaches them the wrong thing," added Hennum.

Toland was around the age of 30 when a brand, new avenue opened up to him. His parents lived on Boulder Avenue in the Sunnyside area north of the St. Louis River Bridge, and he was fond of walking along Highway 33 to Gordy's Hi Hat and on to Bystrom's Grocery Store (located where the Surplus Depot now stands).

"One day Mike's dad, Hugh, went and talked to Mr. Bystrom and offered to pay Mike's wages if he would take Mike in to work there," said Hagen. "They worked out a deal, and eventually Mr. Bystrom went to Hugh and said, 'I can't take your money anymore. Mike works hard and he earns it!'"

After four or five years of working at Bystrom's Grocery, the store closed, and a year or so went by before Hagen decided to go and talk to Dorothy and Hawk Huard at B&B Market. He told them he wanted to find something for Mike to do. Dorothy, who used to drive one of the Pinewood vans, said enthusiastically, 'Bring him up!'"

The rest, as they say, is history. Toland went on to put in the next 10 years working with the Huards at B&B - and another 19 after the Huards' daughter, Kim Lind, and her husband John took over as proprietors.

"He would stock all the shelves, arrange all the boxes, pick up garbage outside and haul groceries out for people when they needed it," said Kim. "When he worked with us, it seems as though almost every single day someone would come in and take him out to lunch. Every time he worked, he'd have a lunch date with folks like Harold Otterson and Peg Lavick."


"Even after his parents died," added Hagen, "he had more people taking him out to lunch, at least once or twice a week."

"If it was my birthday or my mother's," said Kim, "Mike would always know about it and he would take us out to eat. It was never the guys, though - was just me or my mom. He had his own checkbook and he'd pick up the tab and everything. We'd do the same thing for him on his."

Lind said her family has benefited as much, if not more, from knowing Toland as he hopefully has from knowing them.

"My kids realized not to make fun of people with disabilties, because every holiday Mike would be at my mom and dad's house - for Easter, Christmas, and many of the others," she said, "and they pretty much grew up around him."

"Mine was the same way," added Hagen. "I took my son, Josh, to the Special Olympics from the time he was three years old."

"One thing about Mike is he always made up a Christmas list, no matter what," chuckled Lind. "He'll write it up for me, and then it always seems to turn out to be something that isn't made any more!"

In the meantime, as Toland found success in the grocery business, the rest of the folks at Pinewood were also expanding their scope and potential.

"I always look at the time back when I first started and all of the different things we've done since then," mused Hagen. "We'd always go over to Don Kronemann's fourth grade class and talk about the history of the program, and then they'd come over and visit us. When I look at our program, our county and the general public, there's such a difference. I think our county is just amazing as far as opening those doors and the number of our people from Pinewood we have working all over the place at businesses who take us in and give us a chance.


"You know what they get in return?" he posed. "They get a group of individuals who love to work."

Pinewood currently has 82 people in its program here in Cloquet and 60 more in the Duluth program started more recently.

"We have six to eight people every day go to pack produce at Upper Lakes Foods, in addition to a person who works in the office there and is paid by Upper Lakes," said Hagen. "Upper Lakes has just been fantastic to us. We also have some of our people doing dishes at Sammy's. We've had people at Black Bear for nine years, since not long after they first opened. They're always anxious to get more of our people out there because they are so dependable and do their job."

A supervisor works together with Pinewood laborers at most work sites, though in some cases they're on their own.

"We just drop off the person who washes dishes at Sammy's at 10 a.m. and pick him or her back up at 2:30 p.m." explained Hagen.

The day program participants at Pinewood also make soy candles and ceramics and shred paper for area businesses - one of Toland's special tasks.

"Mike is still very popular and happy-go-lucky today," attested Hagen. "He shreds every day at 1 p.m. and does anywhere from 15 to 18 and sometimes as much as 20 pounds of paper a day. We shred 6,000 pounds a month for businesses around the area."

Hagen said Toland and roommate Bob McGladrey were always on the cutting edge when it came to testing out new processes.

"If we did a new job, we tried to figure out the best way to piece rate it to see how much we are going to pay for it," explained Hagen. "It was always either Mike or Bob that we'd bring in and say to them, 'OK, we have to assemble this. Let's figure it out.' Sometimes, we'd be working at something for a week and then Bob or Mike would come up and say, 'Jack, we don't want to do it this way. I think we can do it better this way.' I would look at them and say, 'Oh, yeah! You guys are right!' These guys were challenged when they were young kids by their parents and others around them, and they could think. They were sharp."

Now, as Toland has gotten older, Hagen said they affectionately kid him and say he has "banker's hours" much like his dad did.

"He doesn't come here to Pinewood until 10 in the morning and can lay in bed and take it easy, until someone says, 'Mike, do you think you should get up?'" said Hagen. "Then he gets his coffee and someone brings him in to Pinewood and for about 15 minutes he and I talk together before he goes to work.

"There is never a dull moment with Mike," Hagen continued. "He just wants to keep busy."

Above all, Toland has maintained his sunny disposition and cheerful attitude.

"Everything makes me smile," he confessed with his characteristic grin. "And I love sweets - especially chocolate!"

As Lind prepared to leave after a recent visit with Toland in order to help out with a project for the R.E.A.C.H. program, he eagerly jumped up and thoughtfully offered, 'I'd be glad to help out if there's anything I can do for you. Just let me know....!'"

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