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COMMENTARY: What one woman can contribute to community

Sometimes, one person can make a huge difference. Ebba Hedin played this role for decades in Carlton County. She managed, created and led organizations offering finance, education and health care for surrounding communities.

Last week, I was present for Ebba's funeral. Bethany Lutheran Church in Cromwell was packed with four generations of family, friends, and people with stories of what Ebba had done for them.

"She gave me my first car loan, on generous terms," one man recalled.

"She taught me how to save," another said.

"She showed that women as well as men can be outstanding managers and board members," said another.

The fourth child, Ebba grew up on the Finnish farm of Swan and Alina Maki on Rosicky Road. Later as a mother of six, she would get up as early as 4 a.m. to milk her cows. She'd sing to them in Finnish — she claimed they let down their milk faster that way — and then go off to work. In some stretches, she held three jobs at a time: running the Cromwell Credit Union, serving on the Cromwell-Wright School Board (the only woman at the time), and planning for, initiating and leading what became Villa Vista & Cardinal Court senior apartments, memory care, nursing, and assisted living complex.

After high school, Ebba worked at the Wright Farmer's Co-op and Creamery. She taught herself bookkeeping, and later ran the books for the Cromwell Co-op. At day's end, she'd bring a bag of cash across the street to Lawrence Lundin's gas station. In the 1960s she became the manager of the Cromwell Credit Union.

Ebba's leadership style was matter-of-fact, energetic and creative. At the credit union, she never used a calculator. She computed everything — loan totals, interest payments, deposits — with paper and pen.

"She was never off a single penny," her grandson Derek shared. "And she trusted people and rarely was disappointed."

One year, she developed a demonstration project where she gave folks $100 and asked them to pay it back at $10 a month, a roundabout way of showing them that if they had saved $100 to begin with and deposited it in savings, they could be earning compounded interest! Her daughter Cherie remembers her mom working at home, welcoming people to come there for loans, and asking her and sister Julie to check her numbers — a good way of demonstrating to her daughters how real work works.

Ebba's greatest and enduring contribution is the creation of the Villa Vista complex that she and her husband, Ray, opened in 1974. She had a knack for finding out how to support space and care for aging people in a relatively low-income community. Her ambition was to create a place where she could go herself when the time came. She did indeed spend her last eight years there.

I interviewed Ebba about Villa in 2010. She told me that Ray's mother, Anna, suffered poor care in area nursing facilities.

"The food was terrible," recalls Ebba. "A piece of bread with a piece of sausage on it." Anna was losing her voice: "There is no one here to talk to," she told them.

The Hedins dreamed of a home for 10 that would be like family. Ebba and Ray knocked on many doors and finally got a loan from St. Louis County Federal, which valued their involvement in Cromwell's Credit Union, Co-op Store and Co-op Creamery.

Ebba and Ray's Villa started with a small number of beds. For the first few months, people were willing to work without pay until revenue began to flow in. Ebba discovered that the U.S. Department of Agriculture would support the building of senior apartments in rural communities. The wing she added offers transitional housing space and, more recently, space for child care. And later, when her grown children, Julie and Mike Peterson, took over management, they added an assisted living wing that offers a missing link between apartment and the nursing care units.

Ebba didn't just manage at the Villa. She served as the activities director for the complex, organizing dances and music, a speaker's series, cribbage games, religious services, and holiday and birthday parties. And she was generous. She bought Christmas presents for those who didn't have families, and if a resident of the subsidized apartments lacked blankets or other furnishings, she'd supply them.

It's wonderful that Ebba was able to enjoy eight years at the Villa herself. I loved going there occasionally to give talks, participate in a memorial service, visit a friend, or for music and dancing. When I gave a talk, she'd ask insightful questions or share an opinion or memory of her own.

For all of us trying to build community here, Ebba remains a wonderful role model of what one woman can achieve.