On warm summer days for 20 years, Betty Stranberg has walked out her back door, strolled down the alley, jogged slightly to the left and arrived at the home of Shirley Walsh for coffee and conversation about their favorite topic: grandchildren.
This wearisome winter has put a temporary hold on those sweetly simple gatherings, so they’ve found other ways to honor their enduring friendship. On Feb. 15, Betty and Shirley, born four days apart in 1924, celebrated their respective 90th birthdays at the Atwater Community Center, with homemade birthday cakes and a room filled with relatives and friends from as far away as Texas.
“We almost had a party together at 85,” Betty recalls. “But we said we’d wait till 90. I didn’t think we’d make it.”
“And here we are,” Shirley says.
Hair coiffed to perfection, corsages securely fastened (Betty’s an iris, Shirley’s a rose), the birthday girls bookend a sign-in table, greeting a flurry of guests dropping birthday cards into two wicker baskets. One guest has given each honoree a handmade kettle-scrubber.
Betty leans over to catch Shirley’s eye. “I haven’t written a speech. Have you?”
Shirley considers the question. “No,” Shirley says. “They haven’t mentioned that.”
“We might just say thank you,” Betty suggests.
They were born 5 miles apart, both at home, Betty on Feb. 12, 1924, in Kandiyohi; Shirley, on Feb. 16, 1924, in Atwater.
“She’s so much older than I am,” Shirley says, bursting into laughs.
They were confirmed together at Immanuel Lutheran Church in 1938 and were two of 29 students in the Atwater High School graduating class of 1942. Their lives diverged after that. Shirley left her small town to attend Macalester College and the University of Minnesota, where she earned a teaching degree. She taught elementary school in Atwater, raised two children with her late husband, Gene, and with him owned Atwater Ford.
Betty and her husband, Glenn, who will celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary in April, moved to a farm west of town for almost 50 years before moving back into Atwater in 1994, just steps from Shirley’s house.
On the snowy morning of their celebration, Betty greets guests and invites them to hang up their heavy coats and fill their plates. The fare is barbecue pork sandwiches, nuts and mints, and platters of delectable desserts, including cheesecake, chocolate bars and heart-shaped sugar cookies, made with love by daughters, daughters-in-law and grandchildren.
Betty’s son, Kevin, has made the birthday cakes, white cake with lemon filling for Shirley and chocolate cake with cherry filling for his mom. Guests fill seven long tables covered in white tablecloths and sing “Happy Birthday” to Betty and Shirley (in that order, Betty would tell you).
Betty’s daughter, Linda, honors the two women with a heartfelt speech: Whether it was hot dishes, rides to school events, home-baked cookies or modeling strength and character, girlfriends Shirley and Betty offered all of it in abundance.