Gjertrud Anderson has spent her life helping people, and the former nurse isn't about to let the fact that she's 103 -- or "a hundred plus three," as she puts it -- stop her now.
She's part of a volunteer crew from Pilgrim Lutheran Church in St. Paul that serves lunch to the homeless at the Branch III drop-in center in downtown Minneapolis. And when she isn't dishing out food, she's serving up comments that keep both the diners and her co-workers on their toes.
"She's hard to keep up with," said Ray Carlson, a fellow church member who, along with his wife, Gertrude, volunteers with Anderson. "Always has been. Still is."
Anderson isn't about to let anyone get away with anything. When asked, "How long have you been doing this?" she answered, deadpan, "Since I started."
We're not sure whether that referred to the hour she'd just spent preparing buns for Sloppy Joes or the years since 1985 that she's helped serve food to the needy, but it didn't matter. The people around her laughed knowingly. The response was just, well, so Gjertrud.
"When I was a nurse, I would do my job and keep my mouth shut -- although you certainly wouldn't know it now," she confessed.
She has to stand on her tiptoes to reach 5 feet, but she has a spirit the size of Texas. And in the summer she walks 2 miles a day at a brisk pace, said her daughter, Elizabeth Ozmon, 75.
"Unless I'm with her," Ozmon added, "then it's not so fast. She walks so fast that no one can keep up with her."
Anderson fires off disarming answers at an equally robust clip. When asked if she has a computer at home, she rolled her eyes at her technological ineptitude: "If we depended on me, we'd still be waiting for the wheel."
When asked about her insistence on feeding any stray dog or cat that wanders to the south Minneapolis home where she has lived for 75 years: "I like all animals, but I did take to a tree once."
When asked about her youthful outlook: "You don't always improve with age, you know."
After every couple of answers, she tried to shoo the reporter away. "Don't listen to me, I have nothing to say," she'd say. Then she'd gesture toward her fellow volunteers. "You should go interview them."
Trying to divert attention from herself is another of Anderson's trademark behaviors, according to Gertrude Carlson.
"When she turned 100, we had a surprise party for her at church," Carlson said. "She wasn't very happy. She doesn't want any recognition."
Anderson was raised in Luverne, Minn. "When I grew up, I wanted to have a nice house and all the answers," she said. "But everything has become more complicated."
She came to the Twin Cities in 1924 to become a nurse.
"In those days, it was very different: You couldn't be a nurse if you were married," she said. "I managed to hide it until I was going to have a baby. Then the secret was out."
She had a series of service-oriented jobs before she landed at the University of Minnesota, where she stayed until she retired. To hear her tell it, her job description was simply "to help people."
"I worked in the admissions office," she said. "The university is a nice place, but it's so big and intimidating that I felt sorry for some of those kids, the ones from small towns. I knew my way around, so I'd help them."
She's coming up on 40 years of retirement. Thirty of them have been spent as a widow, all of them have been spent as a volunteer.
"That's what human beings do," she said. "You always volunteer. My mother did during the first World War. I can still see her knitting socks. And I did for World War II. I went straight to the Red Cross and rolled bandages." She shrugged her shoulders. "Being a human being isn't always easy."
Does she think that the younger generations, especially today's teenagers, have that same helpful attitude? She had nothing but nice things to say about modern-day kids -- at least, until she had a couple of minutes to think about it.
"I don't like what they're doing to the grammar," she finally admitted. "If Miss Armstrong could hear them ..." She shook her head sadly. And yes, you guessed, it: Miss Armstrong was her high school English teacher.
Anderson had a classical education that included Latin, "although that language doesn't do me much good these days," she said. But it stuck with her, so much so that very few people know her daughter as Elizabeth. Everyone calls her what her mother calls her: Ipsi, a Latin nickname meaning "myself."
Anderson claims that she wasn't a good student. "I had such an average mind, I'm surprised I didn't flunk," she said. Yet, minutes later she recited a poem she learned in grade school.
"Don't you just love poetry? I love to recite poetry. Nobody listens, but that's OK." Looking around to see if people were bored, she asked, "Should I shut up?"
Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392