Lorraine Eitel, former Bethel University student professor, is an 81-year-old with a metal hip who is married to travel, long walks and a whole lot of books.
Story by Maddie DeBilzan, photography by Jared Martinson, videography done by Josh Towner
Lorraine Eitel lives simple. She’s an 81-year-old with dyed-brown hair cut evenly to the bottom of her ears. She tucks a red turtleneck and a blue vest into her khakis. Her apartment has vacuum lines on the carpet, four vases on a shelf, and a few paintings on the wall from Japan and Norway. She has no kids, no grandchildren. Just two nieces and two siblings. She’s got what she needs, and it isn’t much.
Eitel, a former Bethel University student who continued her education at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, came back to teach English at Bethel, where she remained for 25 years.
As a parting gift, the English department gave her a red and blue vase, and she displays it in her kitchen.
Eitel grew up in New Brighton. When her parents told her to “be seen and not heard,” she’d sit at the grown-up table with the same content, pursed-lipped smile she has now, and listen. She’d listen to them talk about Hattie McDaniel, Hitler in World War II and whatever else grown-ups talked about 70 years ago as they nibbled on soda crackers. She spent her high school years in the library, finding new trails to walk and reading mystery novels. She loved it: getting lost. Lost within the parallel world of a Jane Austen book, or within her own thoughts on a long stroll through the woods, or within a lesson that made her question the very ground she walked upon. Still does.
So while her friends went off to find careers after high school, she packaged powdered milk, clerked at a variety store and managed a laundromat to earn enough money for college.
She never lived on campus because she couldn’t afford it, but she didn’t have trouble making friends. And although she doesn’t remember much from college, she remembers taking a raft ride down the Colorado River and down to Lake Mead. Her eyes play it back, and she chuckles.
“That was the ugliest place I’d ever seen.”
She almost married three times. One time, she broke off an engagement after learning that she’d be living with her fiancé and his mother after they married. She wouldn’t have that.
“I like men. I get along with men, but I didn’t want to spend my life with one.” – Lorraine Eitel
“It was a shame, too. The ring was so pretty.”
The other two “almosts” either blurred together or weren’t worth her time explaining. She shrugged them off as if they were old childhood friends who moved away. By the time she hit 40, she was done dating altogether. But not in a bitter kind of way.
“I like men. I get along with men,” she said. “But I didn’t want to spend my life with one.”
Instead, she fell in love with adventure. She’s been to every single continent except for Antarctica, but she made sure to sail close enough to see it. She’s taught English in Japan, she’s walked the Great Wall of China, and – she can’t remember where – but she’s ridden a camel.
Her favorite place is Norway. That’s where she fell and had surgery for her broken hip, but she came back to Minnesota for a second operation because “doctors here do a better job.” They moved her into assisted living at Johanna Shores, but she rehabbed enough to earn her way into independent living again.
She moves well on her own, without a cane or a walker. She doesn’t hold onto the railings when she walks through the hallways. She barely has a limp.
If the weather is nice, Eitel wakes up and walks two times around the path along Lake Johanna. If not, she takes the elevator up to third floor so she can circle the entire building three times. She loves Philippians 4:13. She lives it out every day when she defies gravity with a metal hip: she can do all things through Christ. She volunteers at a memory care group, playing games and speaking with patients of dementia. She eats every meal in the dining room because “life’s too short for cooking.” Last weekend she read “Sense and Sensibility” because she loves how smooth and elegant Jane Austen’s writing is. She doesn’t remember how many times she’s read that book. A lot. She looks forward to when the mobile library knocks on her door every week. Sometimes, she’ll visit with her girlfriends or her brother. Sometimes, she watches 3 p.m. movie showings at the retirement center’s built-in theater. This particular afternoon, “The Fighting 69th” was showing. She didn’t plan to go because she didn’t like war movies.
She doesn’t really care if people remember her or not, but if they do, she hopes they’d describe her as a pleasant person.
In her career at Bethel, she established the communication arts major for secondary English teachers, which means students can achieve an English literature major on top of their teaching license. English professor Daniel Ritchie knew Lorraine as a pioneer of the English-literature department: she made sure that aspiring English teachers would graduate with a deep understanding and appreciation of literature. She led the big brother/sister program, which helped new faculty members feel welcome by matching them with a veteran faculty member. An article about the program was highlighted on page four of a 1982 Clarion.
Professors like Dan Ritchie, Gerry Healy and Jeannine Bohlmeyer remember her frequently saying, when she had to make a difficult decision, “it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission.”
“There was always an undercurrent of humor in Lorraine’s approach to life,” said English professor Dan Ritchie.
Susan Brooks, Bethel’s current head of the English department, was a student of Eitel before she received her master’s degree and replaced Eitel when she retired. Brooks remembers Eitel writing at the bottom of one of her papers, “I’m not going to say anything on the structure of your essay until I can say it’s good.”
“She wouldn’t hold anyone’s hand and coddle them along,” said Brooks.
When Brooks replaced Eitel, they walked past the bookstore together and saw professors standing in line to buy the latest Beanie Babies. Eitel turned to Brooks and said, “I hope I never see you in the beanie baby line.” Eitel was always conscious about being taken seriously as a professional woman — probably because, when she began her career at Bethel — there weren’t many.
Now, she’s the class clown of the retirement home.
It’s the way she fluffs her hair for the camera, asks if she’s going to get her makeup done, or pops her hip out and poses for her friends in the dining room. “I’m a movie star.”
As she touched the elevator button, someone asks, “Lorraine, you’ve been to a lot of places, haven’t you?” She looked at him – almost defensively, almost as if she were offended.
“Yes. And there are a lot of places I’m going.”