By Ellen Thompson/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
After emerging last week from a single-vehicle car crash that left her nearly untouched, MaryEtta Sohm, a retired Havre school teacher, has referred to herself as a "walking miracle." She counts surviving the crash as one among many blessings in a long, active life.
Sohm taught fifth and sixth grade at the Devlin School for 28 years, until retiring in 1976. She is still greeted by her former students, but now she is also known for other community work.
After retiring, she began running the gift shop at the hospital, a volunteer position. But she didn't intend to make a second career out of volunteering.
"It was tying me down too much," she said, and so she left the position at the hospital to pursue her second love, traveling.
But Sohm was used to a busy schedule, and though she has made time for six trips to Europe, two trips to Alaska and two trips to the Caribbean, 11 years ago she began volunteering with the Havre City Court. She is currently working under her third judge. Sohm spends each of her mornings filing records, sending out notices, and accounting for the money that comes in. If you get a jury notice, a summons or a fine, chances are it has passed through Sohm's hands first.
"They need someone who can see it here, and leave it here," Sohm recalls hearing when someone from the senior center approached her about the City Court's request for a volunteer.
Sohm approached the offer with the same direct, unswerving attitude that brought her to teaching, and to Havre itself. When they asked, "When can you start?" she answered, "I can stay a couple hours now."
Sohm grew up on a dryland farm west of Billings during the Great Depression. She credits this upbringing with forming many of her values.
"Growing up on a dryland farm, I'm used to being outside," she said. "(Dad's) farm helpers were his two daughters."
Today, Sohm still mows her own lawn. Though her son encourages her to hire someone, she said, "I can't keep up my strength watching somebody else do things for me."
This isn't the only value she learned on the farm. "We went through grasshoppers, drought and the Great Depression," she noted. During that time, her father taught her the value of sharing.
When people would come to the farm looking for work, they were always at least invited to supper, Sohm said.
Now, volunteering has become a source of joy for Sohm. "They do for me as much as I do for them," she said.
Sohm was educated in a country school, and one memory there stands out above the rest. Sohm is left-handed, which was once frowned upon and corrected by tying the students' left hands behind their backs. When a school superintendent was visiting her school one day, he told Sohm's teacher to let her write with her left hand. Though the teacher acquiesced, Sohm remembers that she said, "You'll never learn to write so anyone else could read it."
That stuck with Sohm.
"I went up to my room and practiced," she said.
Now, she acknowledges, she has good penmanship, but her left-handed tendency was still an obstacle. Sohm had wanted to be a home economics teacher, but was discouraged because her left-handed style, she was told, would be hard to follow.
Sohm instead found a passion. She began to teach social studies. Sohm is also happy to have taught many left-handed students some techniques for how to write legibly, while still using their favored hand.
Sohm's first schoolhouse was a one-room schoolhouse west of Billings with eight students working at eight different grade levels. Sohm might have stayed on there much longer, but in 1946, as soldiers were returning from World War II, most of her friends were getting married. Sohm's fiance had died in the war, and during this period Sohm was very depressed.
"I got to feeling sorry for myself," she said. She noticed she was making everyone around her miserable too.
Sohm decided to have a change of scenery, and asked a friend with connections in Havre to look for a job. The friend found two jobs and both women moved, Sohm by herself, and her friend moved with her husband.
Sohm had a degree in education from Eastern Montana College in Billings, and got another degree working nights and summers in Havre.
In 1953, Sohm met her husband and the two had a son, who now lives in Santa Fe, N.M. Now Sohm is a great-grandmother of two little boys.
Sohm's husband died six years ago, and since that time she has felt the value of her many activities. "Friends become more valuable day by day," she said.
"Being alone, the walls can close in on you," she said. Sohm feels the importance of keeping busy.
Last week Sohm was returning from Great Falls with friends John Andrus and Frances Hatler when the car began to swerve off the road. Andrus, who was driving, overcorrected and sent the car across the oncoming lane into a ditch, where the car rolled onto its roof and spun 180 degrees.
All three of the passengers were conscious after the crash, and Sohm remembers that they were discovered by a couple. The man bent down and said to his companion, "There are two ladies in the back seat, and they're elderly." Sohm, not losing her humor, responded, "You can say that again."
Sohm hopes to find the two and thank them for calling for help.
When the ambulance arrived, one of the paramedics was Tim Hedges, a former student of Sohm's. "It's Mrs. Sohm," she recalls him saying.
Sohm and her two friends had gone to Great Falls to buy peaches for canning. After the accident, in which no one was seriously injured, the three went to look at the car - and to go get the peaches. They found that one peach had fallen out of the box; they were otherwise unharmed.
The car had belonged to Sohm and was 1 month old. Andrus felt bad about the accident, to which Sohm answered, "That's a material thing. The dear Lord has his arms around us and we still have a purpose in this world."