Dorothy Swenson gladly shares her age: “pert near 96.” But she shakes her head when asked what she paid in 1964 for her cozy, one-story house in south Minneapolis’ Powderhorn Park neighborhood.

“We don’t need to get into personal stuff,” she says.

She’d rather talk softball. Swenson pulls out her old bat, a Park Board trophy and a fat scrapbook of yellowed sports-page clippings and black-and-white snapshots — artifacts that transport her back to the early 1950s.

She was working at Sears, packing and shipping catalog items for 42½ cents an hour, when co-workers asked her to join the Victors Market team that played fast-pitch on Tuesday nights at Parade Park in the Kenwood neighborhood.

“Dorothy Swenson plays third base and has played errorless ball thus far,” according to a 1952 Minneapolis Star clip that included her photo and reported she was batting over .400. The Victors beat Pillsbury 27-3 that Tuesday night, giving them 50 wins in three dominant seasons — earning berths in big-time tournaments in Detroit, Toronto and Orange, Calif.

“Holy buckets of butterballs,” she says, recalling the first time she faced a windmill pitch at the 1951 women’s softball national championships in Detroit.

“I’d never swing at the first pitch so I could see what the pitcher was throwing,” she says. “So I’m standing at bat when all of a sudden she winds up like a windmill and — whoosh — it naturally sails right past me. I was flabbergasted.”

Not much else has rattled Swenson, who endured a hardscrabble, heart-wrenching childhood during the Depression. The youngest of seven siblings — “and the last one left” — she was born in western North Dakota in 1924. A 1925 census lists her at age 1 among 42 residents of Werner — 13 miles east of Killdeer. Werner dissolved in 1971.

“The town’s not there anymore,” Swenson says. “But I sure did like North Dakota.”

That is, until her oldest brother, Paul, died in 1931 at 14 from heart problems. Dorothy was 7. Her mother, Ruth Clarissa, died the next year at 45.

“She had double pneumonia and her heart just gave out from working too hard,” Swenson says. Her father, Edward, worked as a bank cashier and Dunn County deputy treasurer, but they lost everything when the Depression descended on North Dakota. Dorothy was sent to live with her maternal grandparents in Granite Falls, Minn., and then with an uncle in Minneapolis. She graduated in 1942 from North High School.

On Sept. 7, 1942 — 77 years ago almost to the day — Swenson went to work at Sears, Roebuck and Co.’s large white office building where the Midtown Global Market now stands on Lake Street in Minneapolis.

“I started as a duplicator in mail order at 42½ cents an hour and moved up to aisle head and supervisor,” she says. “We sent stuff. They called us packers, but we wrapped it all up and shipped out the catalog orders.”

Until her retirement in 1987, Swenson spent nearly 45 years as a cog in that giant Sears retail machine — eventually supervising 132 people.

“That was a lot to keep track of before there were any computers,” she says.

Yet, as a woman, she earned far less than male counterparts.

“Some men were good, but some men were assistant managers who didn’t work hard,” she says. “They’d be in charge of five or 10 people and make more than me.”

She complained to bosses in the personnel department.

“They’d say: ‘The men have kids to take care of,’ but I’d say, ‘What’s that got to do with the work?’ ’’

So she’d take out her frustrations on the softball diamond.

“We had jobs and some of the women had kids at home, so it was hard but we’d practice when we could,” she says. “We wore spikes — and not the plastic ones either.”

Swenson never married. Her cousin Olive lived with her until she died in 2003. Dorothy quit driving at 90, gave up mowing her own grass in recent years and still uses a rotary telephone.

While she’s outlasted many, her cousins’ grandkids still visit and neighbors stop by for coffee and conversation.

“I’ll tell you what, you can’t find better friends than these two,” she says, nodding toward Powderhorn neighbors Ouida Crozier and Jill Waterhouse.

“She’s like an animal whisperer,” says Crozier, who met Swenson 15 years ago while walking her dog. “All the neighborhood pets and birds know her.”

“They love me,” Dorothy admits. Her own schnauzers are all gone now, but figurines and paintings of the breed punctuate her home.

“She likes to sit under my crabapple tree and hold court,” says Waterhouse, an artist who lives next door, serves as block captain and often drives Dorothy to the grocery store. “We call her the queen of the block and the queen of the hive.”

Dorothy smiles, shrugs and says, “I’m not as peppy as I once was.” To which Crozier scoffs: “I sure hope I can stay as fit and active as she has.”

 

Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at mnhistory@startribune.com.