One hundred years ago, Alvina Hammer Rutzen left a good job for something greater.
It was 1923, a time when children with disabilities could be locked away in asylums for the rest of their lives. Alvina Hammer worked at one of those institutions. She thought the children deserved more. An education. A home. A full life.
She quit her job at what was then known, cruelly, as the State School for the Feeble-Minded in Faribault. Unmarried and unemployed, she rented a house near Minnehaha Falls in Minneapolis, hired a teacher, and took in four children with special needs. The very first students of the Hammer School.
Her good name lives on in the thousands of lives she touched, and in Hammer & NER, the nonprofit that continues her work.
But when her great-nephew John Barnett came to town to pay his respects at St. Paul's Elmhurst Cemetery, there was nothing to mark her resting place but a typo in the cemetery registry that listed her as Alvin.
It seemed wrong that such a remarkable life had ended in an unmarked grave.
So staff at Hammer & NER, which got its start a century ago as the Hammer School, raised the money for something better. On a rainy autumn afternoon in 2023, staff and members of the founder's extended family gathered around a new headstone.
Founder of Hammer School
"I have no doubt that she never guessed her original 'This could be so much better' would become what it is today," said John Estrem, CEO of Hammer & NER.
Decades after the Hammer School opened its doors, the United States came around to the idea that every child deserved an education. The school became Hammer Residences, offering housing and support services to adults with developmental disabilities.
"Sixty-eight locations, 390 people living their best lives," Estrem said. "Because one woman took a risk and tried something new and courageous."
But a century ago, it was just one woman, one house and a lot of hard work. Years passed. The Hammer School grew. Alvina married her longtime friend Herman Rutzen and purchased a tax-delinquent property with a big farmhouse off a dirt road that would one day become Hwy. 12 and moved the Hammer School to remote Wayzata.
During the Great Depression, when few families could afford the $35 monthly tuition, she scrimped and borrowed money from her own staff to ensure there was food for the students and coal for the farmhouse furnace.
Hammer School teachers used to make the rounds of local schools, asking teachers to donate half-used pieces of chalk and half-filled notebooks at the end of each school year. Alvina made up her own enrichment exercises and lesson plans tailored to each child.
Wayzata neighbors gave what they could. When the school opened a greenhouse, nearby farmers taught lessons and helped the children plant. When it opened a woodshop, the neighbors taught students to use the tools.
John Barnett has warm childhood memories of the kind, generous woman who was his grandmother's big sister. He made the long trip from Canada this week to stand by her graveside — now marked — with his family and her Hammer School family.
Among the small crowd gathered around the grave was Elizabeth Poppe, who has lived in Hammer residences for the past 16 years.
She was curious to see the ceremony and the grave, and she was full of questions about the woman who worked so hard, so long ago.
"I have different abilities," she said with a smile as she stood arm in arm with her caregiver, Ruth, who accompanied her on the outing.
Alvina Hammer believed everyone had a right to a real home and a full life, surrounded by people who care. Poppe's days are filled with activities that bring her joy — long walks, outings to a therapeutic riding stable, travel with family.
Alvina has a memorial now. She always had a legacy.