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Life lessons: Brenau student learns from Gainesville woman

POSTED: May 9, 2010 12:30 a.m.
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Christina Jundt, left, and Margarget Follingstad

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"The weekend that man tried to murder me, was what you would call ... a long weekend."

It was hard to believe I was hearing this statement from 89-year-old Margaret Follingstad, sitting in the library of Smoky Springs Retirement home. But little, even the prospect of being shot, seemed to phase Margaret as I quickly learned from the resilient woman who sat before me.

What is more remarkable than the events in Margaret's life is the confident, collected and fearless manner in which she faced them. But more importantly to Margaret than her unwavering courage, was the fact that she spent her life in constant service to others.

I was not sure exactly what to expect from Margaret as we rode up the Smoky Springs Elevator and walked into the library. Her grandmotherly appearance did little to suggest the fascinating stories I was about to hear.

Margaret was one of 10 children, who were supported by her widowed mother.

The moral backbone of their family was strong, as Margaret recalls that gossiping was never tolerated; "In my family, if you didn't have something nice to say, you shouldn't speak," Margaret recalls.

"One time at the dinner table on Sunday, I made a comment about how I thought a woman at church had a funny hat on. My older sister said ‘I guess you're not hungry tonight, Margaret,' and I left the table. I have avoided gossip ever since!"

Margaret was taught to be kind and selfless, and these ideals are exemplified through her life's path.
After finishing high school, Margaret's desire was to find a husband; however, there was some one very close to Margaret who had other plans for her life.

Lying in bed one night, Margaret recalled, "I felt a hand on my shoulder. God spoke to me, and talked to me as clearly as any person would. He told me that I needed to go back to school and be a nurse."

After such an intervention, Margaret took these words to heart and began down the path that would lead her to becoming a nurse.

The servant's spirit that Margaret possessed made her ideal for the occupation of nursing, which is called "a mechanism for virtuous women to contribute to the improvement of humanity" in Eleanor Hein's book "Nursing Issues in the 21st Century."

After receiving acceptance from several missions, Margaret settled down on an Indian Reservation in Arizona, which she described as " a lot of fun."

As a woman strong in her faith, Margaret enjoyed the opportunities to work at a mission. Margaret eventually transferred to a missionary hospital in Kentucky, where she served as an administrator. It was because of this position that Margaret would experience her first death threat.

A woman who worked for Margaret had been stealing bed sheets and towels to sell. When Margaret learned of the transgression, she quietly let the woman go, thinking the issue was over. Therefore, Margaret was surprised to receive a phone call the next day from her former employee's husband, threatening Margaret that if she did not hire his wife back, she would be "pushing daisies by 3:00 on Monday."

Most people in this situation would probably be stricken with fear; Margaret, however, responded in a calm and collected manner, stating "I knew God wouldn't send me somewhere to get killed. That just didn't make sense."

The following weekend was tumultuous, and yet did not seem to faze Margaret. She informed a colleague about the threat and subsequently received several visits from pastors of nearby churches, sending their condolences and best wishes to the 30-year-old nurse with a death sentence.

"I didn't understand why they were telling me this. I knew I wasn't going to die."

Needless to say, Margaret made it through the weekend, but it wasn't until police found a man pointing a gun at Margaret's window in the middle of the night that the trouble really died down, as he was put on trial for his threatening act.

Perhaps the most intriguing facet of this story was the calm manner in which it was delivered. Not once did Margaret seem to recall the events with fear; impressed, I asked "Margaret, have you ever been afraid of... anything?" She thought for a moment then replied, "No."

I was shocked. Being raised in a society filled with violent news stories and statistics seems to have caused my current generation to be constantly alert, aware and indeed, fearful. People are ingrained to feel fear constantly, practicing self preservation in dark alleys at nighttime or installing costly security systems.

"Well actually," Margaret began, "I was afraid of the dark once, when I was young." I couldn't help but laugh.
Margaret attributes her courageous spirit to her faith; in Margaret's eyes, she believed that harm would not come to her because she was protected by God, and the time that she finally passed would be the right time according to God.

Up until this point, Margaret had spent her exciting life as a single woman. Maybe it was due to her recent near death experience, but Margaret decided that the time had come for her to find a spouse. She recalls driving to the hospital and saying "Lord, I think I've reached a point in my life where I would like a companion. If that's not what you want, I understand."

About a week later, Margaret received a call from a patient she had seen in Arizona, who now lived in California. He asked Margaret if she was married, and upon learning of her single marital status began calling Margaret regularly.

As the relationship grew more serious, Margaret began visiting Mr. Follingstad in California. She remembers one particular visit where she decided to bake an apple pie. Mr. Follingstad's family warned Margaret that he had never liked apple pie; however, Margaret's future husband ate with gusto, and later bought her a bushel of apples "to make all the pies I wanted," Margaret recalled with a chuckle.

When Margaret and Mr. Follingstad eventually tied the knot, their wedding was small and humble. The service consisted of a few prayers and simple songs. When considering raising a family, Margaret remembers "we were told that if you had children after the age of 35, they would not be healthy, so we decided to love other people's children instead."

Margaret recalls the years spent with her husband as happy ones. "He put me on a pedestal," she said with a smile. "I remember once I was backing the car out of the driveway and ran in to a garbage can. I felt horrible but he said ‘You shouldn't feel bad. It's the trash can's fault for being there."

The marriage was happy and loving, but unfortunately Mr. Follingstad passed away from a heart condition in the early '90s.

Margaret recalled "I had been told that you should never make any sort of big decision within a year of your spouse's death... well, I didn't exactly follow that advice because I decided to move to Gainesville in order to be closer to my niece," who she regarded as one of her sisters. Margaret has spent the majority of her life serving others, and would finally be able to take some time to rest and relax.

Margaret very much enjoyed the change of scenery in Gainesville, but could not smolder her passion for serving and her love of mission work.

Of course, church and religion had always been a big part of Margaret's life, so it comes as no surprise that she was very active in her new church.

She celebrated her 80th birthday by going on a mission trip to Peru. "I did everything that the young people did — everyone was so surprised. They expected me to just sit there." At this time, Peru was recovering from  period of political violence that left approximately 70,000 dead, and was consequently struggling to rebuild their nation ("Population Association of America").

The mission trip involved strenuous manual labor in order to do so. Margaret described building 10-foot walls around schools for children so that squatters would not invade the area. She remembers being warned against wearing watches, because the Peruvian children would try to steal them, but as you can imagine Margaret was not threatened by the thought.

She remembers sitting in the middle of two children; a little boy began touching and complimenting her watch. "He never tried to steal it, though. They were such sweet children."

Years following her mission trip, Margaret continued to support those traveling on missions by baking a dozen cookies for each person on the trip. "The smallest batch I ever made was 36 — 36 dozen that is. One young man said it was worth it to go on the trip just for those cookies!"

Margaret continues to lead with a servant's heart in Gainesville. She is an active member of Westminster Church, and enjoys teaching young Hispanic children how to crochet.

The children can sell the items they make, benefitting the church and their families. Many at the church have asked Margaret to become their honorary grandmother because of her kind and gentle nature. "I've acted a grandmother at weddings and baptisms. I love the families as if they were my own."

Margaret also enjoys the time she spends at Smoky Springs. "I like to read and crochet. And I love going to see plays at the high school." Margaret told me she continually feels blessed by the life she leads, and feels every sense of satisfaction with her place in the world.

There are few women like Margaret Follingstad. Her presence is the elusive mix of humble and commanding, content and confident.

In our meeting, I did not hear Margaret issue one complaint or grievance. It is rare to find anyone with such a positive and modest outlook on life.

My final question to Margaret was what piece of advice she would give to a young person growing up today. I was not surprised in the least when she answered peacefully, "Trust in the Lord with all your heart; and don't lean on your own understanding. In all things acknowledge him, and he shall direct your way."



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