As a small-town doctor's wife in Belle Plaine, Minn., Leona Juergens had been on hand for countless joyful births and heart-wrenching medical setbacks. Comforting patients' anxious relatives was nothing new for her.
But on Nov. 12, 1938, it wasn't a stranger Leona was consoling. She sat in her home on Walnut Street with Kitty Olsen, her former roommate at a women's college in Mankato who had made a frantic drive through the Minnesota River valley to Belle Plaine from her home in St. Peter.
While they waited, Leona's husband, Dr. Herman Juergens, was trying to save the life of Kitty's 19-year-old son, Karl Olsen. When Herman walked across the driveway from his office to his home to tell Kitty her son had died, the house filled with wailing.
Karl had been driving a bus carrying 15 fellow members of the Gustavus Adolphus College football team. Blinded by fog and snow early that Saturday morning, the bus had smashed into a truck loaded with fence posts near Belle Plaine.
Sophomore center Donald Anderson, of Washburn, Wis., also died at Dr. Juergens' office. The team's highly regarded coach, George Myrum, 41, who had survived World War I, fractured his skull in the accident and never regained consciousness.
"Striking the rear of the truck, which loomed suddenly in front of the bus, the passenger vehicle was splintered into a shattered hulk," the Minneapolis Journal reported.
The team had been on a giddy ride home, having defeated St. Norbert College near Green Bay, Wis., the previous afternoon. In addition to the three deaths, six players were hospitalized, but it could have been worse; about a dozen players and coaches took car rides home or hopped off the bus in St. Paul to spend the weekend at their homes in the Twin Cities.
The grief that Leona and Kitty shared 85 autumns ago wouldn't be the last time their lives intersected. Amazingly, they'd wind up sharing four granddaughters a generation later, after Leona's son married Kitty's daughter.
Leona Thoelke was born in Perham, Minn., in 1895, the third daughter of a German immigrant who owned the town's first gas station. Two years later, Anna Christiane Strand — Kitty for short — was born in Hartland Township, Minn., near Albert Lea, where her Norwegian-born father was a Lutheran pastor.
Leona and Kitty met in 1917 at the Bethany Ladies College, a two-year program in Mankato, and both married soon after graduating. Leona gave birth to her son, John, in 1925; five months later, Kitty had a daughter, Kristy. John and Kristy married in 1948 in Columbia Heights.
"My parents used to laugh and say they knew each other when they were in the crib together," said Ann Juergens, 72, of St. Paul, a retired law professor and granddaughter of both Leona and Kitty.
Ann said her parents met at summer picnics when their moms brought the families together. John earned a Boy Scout badge pedaling his bike 50 miles roundtrip from his home in Belle Plaine to St. Peter and back.
"He said he really wanted to see Kristy in St. Peter," Ann Juergens said.
Ann never knew her uncle Karl, who died 13 years before she was born. "But I know from pictures that he was handsome, and my mother told me her brother had been engaged to a music teacher when he died," she said. She speculated that Karl was driving the bus that day in 1938 to earn extra money at the tail end of the Depression.
Ann's father was 13 on the afternoon Karl Olsen died in Belle Plaine. He was "listening at the top of the stairs," she said. "Once he heard Kitty's wailing and crying, he worried — wondering who had died."
Even as a teenager, John had faced death firsthand when his father took him along to accident scenes in the 1930s and '40s. He'd sometimes find body parts while his father attended to accident victims.
"These were vivid memories for a boy, and he decided to be a doctor like his father was when he was quite young," Ann said.
John Juergens went on to study medicine at Harvard, becoming a cardiovascular specialist and a pioneering cholesterol researcher at the Mayo Clinic for 37 years, and an instructor at the Mayo medical school in Rochester. He died in 2019 at 94. Kristy, who earned a nursing degree at the University of Minnesota and worked in the public health field, died in 2011 at 85.
Kitty Olsen died in 1979 at 80. When Leona Juergens died at 100 in 1996, her son John called her "the quintessential country doctor's wife and helpmate." They're both buried at Norseland Lutheran Cemetery in rural Nicollet County, northwest of St. Peter.
Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear every other Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.