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TOWER- Carol Alstrom was a force of nature. She was a large person and had a voice to match. She was strong and a competitive athlete. She was a teacher, a coach, and a leader. She knew how to get what she wanted, and most of the time what she wanted was to make her students grow into better citizens. She was generous throughout her entire lifetime, and an excellent example of paying things forward.
But most of all, she was a friend… to her family, her students, her co-workers, and to all the others she met along the way.
Over 200 former students, parents and children of former students, co-workers, family members and friends gathered on March 25 to remember and honor Carol’s legacy.
A permanent memorial was unveiled, a Love Lock post which will be installed this spring outside of the Tower-Soudan School, where she worked for her entire teaching career.
Carol started teaching at Tower-Soudan High School in 1970, after graduating from Bemidji State University, and stayed until she retired in 2004. A few years after she retired, she moved to a lake home with her sister Susan in Litchfield. Carol passed away on Oct. 11, 2022, at the age of 74.
This past weekend’s event was organized by former students Sarah (Agbe-Davies) Christmas and Angie Mroszak Koski, with help from many other former students. The school gym was decorated in purple and gold, in honor of both the Tower-Soudan Golden Eagles, and the Minnesota Vikings, two teams for which Carol was a most dedicated fan.
Carol’s personality was evident from an early age, as her sister Susan related with stories that demonstrated both her burgeoning leadership skills and her generous nature. Her ability to test limits was also evident, as she often brought along her sister when doing something she knew would get her in trouble, figuring that her parents would spread the blame around.
Her teaching skills definitely improved over time. Susan recounted how Carol once tried to teach her how to swim by tossing her off the dock at the family cabin and used similar “sink or swim” methods while teaching her how to water ski. While mostly encouraging Susan in her own athletic pursuits as she got older (buying her sports equipment and helping with the costs of attending tournaments), she also was still a trickster.
While coaching Susan in the discus (an event Carol competed in at college), Susan recounted how the discus landed deep in a large puddle. Neither of them wanted to wade in the muddy water to get it, so Carol told Susan she would hold her legs up while Susan inched forward on her arms, wheelbarrow-style, into the puddle. Of course, in hindsight, it was obvious how this was going to end up. Susan’s legs were dropped, and she was muddy and wet head to toe. But Carol laughed so hard, Susan said, she wet her pants, and they both showed up back home wet and needing clean clothes, to their mother’s amusement.
Susan followed in her big sister’s footsteps. Susan earned the first gold medal given out at the first-ever Minnesota State Girls Track Meet, introduced after the passage of Title IX.
“I was competing in shot put and it was the first event,” she said. While she started college pre-med, she graduated with a degree in physical education and coaching and also made her career in teaching and coaching.
For her big sister, teaching was everything. “Carol was married to her job,” Susan said. “She always lived right by the school. It was her life.”
Gloria Gervais started teaching at Tower-Soudan the same year as Carol, and they both stayed at the school their entire careers, retiring the same year.
“She was always there for you,” Gervais said.
The two became lifelong friends and travel companions, even both venturing out on a motorcycle road trip along the south shore of Lake Superior when neither were experienced riders. The chain on Carol’s motorcycle kept falling off, and Gloria remembered how they kept getting rescued by other riders, who were heading west towards the rally in Sturgis. Somehow, they both got home safely.
But Gervais also remembered what a good colleague she was, and easy to work with. She also got talked into volunteering for Carol’s track team, driving equipment to meets in a separate car from the bus. This ensured another teacher was there in case someone was injured and needed a ride, Gervais said. Though one time, Gervais ended up in Virginia, with the team’s equipment, when the meet was in Aurora.
Carol stayed in better touch with Tower than almost anyone, Gloria said, even after she moved to Litchfield.
“I got all my Tower-related news from her,” Gervais said.
Gervais’ final visit with Carol came last spring, and the two spent hours visiting. She was still able to drive, but had started to have trouble walking, Gloria said.
“A month later she was in assisted living.”
“She was absolutely my favorite teacher,” said Kalee Bjorgo, whose mother Gen Bjorgo also had Carol as a coach and teacher. “She was the bomb.”
Sarah Christmas recounted how Carol, who coached her in track while she attended T-S, helped her throughout her high school and college career.
“I was a new girl at school at age 12,” she said, but Carol saw and nurtured her potential. Sarah stayed at T-S a few years then her family moved, but “Coach A” as she fondly called her, kept in touch and helped throughout her athletic career, and instilled in her a dream of making the Olympic team as a sprinter. While she didn’t make it on the Olympic team, she did qualify and race at the Olympic trials.
“Then she stayed in my life,” Christmas said.
Alstrom stayed in many of her former students’ lives, and not just those who excelled at athletics. She remembered birthdays, attended weddings, and visited when new babies arrived.
“She was a unifying force,” said Christmas, whose calculations showed that 980 seniors had graduated from T-S while Carol was a teacher there.
Learning for life
Carol’s approach to teaching was ahead of her time. While she adored team sports, she wanted to make sure her students graduated with skills to be active as adults, when it wasn’t often possible to play traditional team sports. She designed a high school “Life Sports” class, where she taught cross-country skiing, rollerblading, pickleball (an early adopter!), and more unconventional skills like unicycling.
“She got six unicycles for the school back in 1988,” remembered Jim “Chimpy” Tuominen, a long-time unicycle rider who went on to create a thriving afterschool unicycle club. With the urging from Carol, the “Unicyclowns” were soon performing community shows, at area parades, and during halftime at regional basketball tournaments.
“She was always teaching us new games,” remembered Gen Bjorgo. “I think she put her life’s earnings back into the school.”
Gen remembered how Carol had purchased new Adidas shoes for the entire volleyball team.
“My family could never have afforded them,” she said.
Gen’s sister Geralyn Hendrickson remembered how Carol brought volleyball team members on a trip to the Twin Cities to watch the state volleyball tournament.
She also remembered how Carol never let her athletes give up.
“One time I hurt myself diving,” she said, “and she made me get right back up there on the board to try again.”
Carol’s teaching approach was often loud.
“I remember her bellowing at the top of her lungs at us…boogie, boogie, boogie, as we were running in the gym,” said Emily Eloranta.
Phillip Tomsich, who has spina bifida and uses a wheelchair, said Carol was always willing to do whatever was necessary to allow him to participate in gym along with his classmates.
“She made it the same for me,” he said. “That’s what I remember the most.” Phillip went on to play in competitive wheelchair basketball leagues while in high school.
“She has always been in my life,” said Betty Parker. Carol had coached Betty’s mother, Julie Suihkonen, who went on to teach and coach swimming. Betty was on the track and field team in college, and Carol followed her career closely.
“I hoped to be a teacher like that,” she said. Betty now teaches science at Rock Ridge, and she and her husband are welcoming their first child in a month.
Former students who later became friends said it was hard to stop thinking of her as “Miss Alstrom.”
“It took many years to be able to call her Carol,” said Katie Popesh.
“She was always Miss Alstrom,” said Barb Burgess.
Katie said Carol was always mad at her for quitting the track team when she was in junior high. But that didn’t stop their friendship. Katie said she was in touch with Carol until the very end.
“I can’t remember why I quit the team,” she said. “And she was right. I shouldn’t have quit.”
Katie said the highlights she remembers of her time in high school all seem to have been in Carol’s Life Sports class.
Carol’s impact on some area families was, at times, highly consequential.
“She lived in our duplex when she first came to teach in Tower,” said Randy Johnson. “In eighth grade she bet me five dollars to ask Margie Grahek out on a date.” Randy won that bet, and 44 years later, he is still happily married.
“Carol has been part of our family that whole time,” he said.
Margie said Carol became a mother figure to her.
“She kept me on track,” she said. “I lived with my father. If she hadn’t been in my life, it would not have been this wonderful.”
Margie joined Carol’s track team and earned a trip to the state tournament in the long jump.
Carol went on to teach Margie and Randy’s two daughters, and when they grew up, became friends with their husbands and growing families.
Mike Korpi, who recently earned recognition for running over 1,000 miles in his 42 years racing in Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, said there wasn’t a boy’s track team when he was in high school. But the skills Carol taught served him well in life.
“She made us all become better and stronger,” he said. “She taught us how to persevere and not to be afraid to work hard.”
Carol also kept in touch with Mike.
“Her friendship was very important to me,” he said. “She was a friend for life. She was always asking about my running and marathons.”
Melanie Raj remembered Carol’s sense of humor.
“She flunked me in gym class, and I still loved her,” she said. The failing grade was due to Melanie’s refusal to get in the pool.
“I wasn’t willing to get my 80s hairstyle wet,” she said.
While not athletically inclined in high school, Melanie said she began walking a few years ago, with Carol’s encouragement and support, clocking in over 2,400 miles in 2020. “All those things she tried to make me do in Life Sports,” she said.
Linda Schmidt was a star high jumper, coached by Carol. She said the skills she learned from Carol, and her methods of coaching, helped her daughter, who now is on the track team at Notre Dame.
Schmidt recalled an incident when she was goofing around in the school pool, and when she ignored Carol’s instructions to stop, Carol jumped right in the pool, fully-clothed, to stop the mayhem.
Carol’s generosity started while at Tower-Soudan but continued well after she retired.
When she needed sports equipment the school wouldn’t purchase, she would fund it herself. She purchased equipment and shoes for many, many of her students. She was a huge supporter of the Tower-Soudan Athletic Association, and even after she moved away would come back for the annual auction fundraiser.
Kandi Olson, who used to teach and coach at Tower-Soudan High School, was coaching golf when she transferred to North Woods High School.
“I mentioned that we needed more golf clubs,” she said, “and Carol put the word out and then drove up with a car full!”
Several lifelong friends also attended the event, and spoke of their connections to Carol, and friendships that had endured over 50 years. Carol’s schedule as a teacher left plenty of time for travel, and two women whose friendships stretched back over 50 years, talked about the many trips they tooked together.
“She loved the ocean,” they said. “We were a ‘travelling trio” but Carol was the glue.”
A BSU classmate and lifelong friend, Nancy Kruger, said when she was living in Vermont she visited a craft fair and started talking with a vendor. When she mentioned she was from northern Minnesota, the vendor said he had met someone on a tour bus in London, from this tiny little town called Tower, and low and behold, he knew Carol and they shared stories about her.
Carol’s health started to fail last spring, and Susan related how frequent falls meant she could no longer live at home and needed to use a wheelchair. She moved into an assisted living facility, then was moved to the hospital, and then briefly in hospice care so they could treat her pain.
“She just wanted to go home,” Susan said. “But she said that home was anywhere I was.”
“I still hear her yelling at me….Susan,” she said. “But she’s not here anymore. She is in my heart and hopefully she is in yours, too.”
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