Erma Bombeck, the matriarch of American suburban humor, said, “Never have more kids than car windows.” Loreen Hartman, the matriarch of the Milbank Hartman family, was probably too busy to listen.
Loreen has 12 children. She and her late husband, Bill Sr., raised their rollicking brood in a sturdy, two-story house on Diggs Avenue. Loreen, now 91, lives in a more manageable, but still roomy rambler.
If the size of her dining table is any indication, she’s rarely alone. But even with a lot of squeezing, the table still isn’t big enough to seat all of her 48 grandchildren and 40 great grandchildren. She says, “Number 41 is due in October.”
“Michael, Bill Jr.’s son, was my first grandchild. There’s just a four-year difference between my youngest son, Mark, and my grandson Michael.”
“I’m so grateful to have such a large family and have people popping in all the time. And, It’s sooo fun when we all get together, but that doesn’t happen often. We had our biggest reunion a few years ago when Tom was ordained.” Everyone was there.” Tom is now a priest at St. Michael’s in Sioux Falls.
Loreen says, “Before COVID, I would spend a lot of time visiting the residents in St. Williams Care Center. I feel so sorry for the people there. They need to have company and get out.” But she also remembers the days when there would be “Quarantined” signs posted on doors due to the measles and mumps. “I refuse to live in fear, though,” she declares. “If my family is coming, let them come!”
Her daughter Lois now lives on Bainbridge Island in Washington; Bev lives in Las Vegas; Carol and Dean in Orlando; Karen in Alta, Iowa; Tom and Jean in Sioux Falls; Mark in Watertown; Mary and Bill, Jr. in Ortonville; and Jim and Bob in Milbank.
Of course, when they visit, Loreen is prepared for them. Her eyes sparkle even more when she says, “I cook all the time. I like to make hot dishes and put them in my freezer so I can pull them out when they come. I make a lot of bbqs and soup, and I still do my big Sunday breakfasts. I’m always a mom.”
Even in her ninth decade, she’s cool as a cucumber. Always has been. As the mother of 12 children, she learned to go with the flow a long time ago or perhaps it’s because she’s trained as a nurse..
If you’ve lived in Milbank long enough, you might have heard the rumor of one child bursting into the house with the news that one of the other kids was jumping off the garage roof. Loreen promptly told them to go back outside. “I’ll get my nurse’s uniform on and be right out.”
She says, “I worked as a nurse until I had four children.” She jokingly adds, “Then I really had to slack off.” She and Bill, Sr. started Bill’s Super Valu in 1954, and she says, “Bill preferred that I work in the store rather than the hospital.”
“I did private duty for a while. The most money I ever earned was $2 per hour. Think about it! We worked hard. If there was overtime, we just stayed. When I worked at St Alexius in Bismarck, I earned $250 per month. And, we stayed until our work was done. People had a great work ethic in those days.”
Grandparents Day is Sunday, September 12, but it wasn’t a holiday back when Loreen was a child, and she says she didn’t really have the opportunity to get to know her grandparents. “We lived in Braddock, North Dakota, and they lived in Minnesota. We didn’t have a car while I was growing up, so we didn’t see each other often. I didn’t learn to drive either.”
“In Milbank, I walked a lot, Still do. But, when I was 28 and had three kids, I decided I’d better learn to drive.” She practiced a little before attempting to get her license.
“I often walked to the church, but I started driving to Mass. I always made sure I was the last one there so I could park easier, and I parked in a place where I could make my getaway. Then, I waited until church was well over before leaving.” She remembers the Pribyls also waiting to figure out who was driving that car!
“One day, I went home, piled all the kids in the car, and drove all the way out to the country club. We stood on a hill, honked the horn, and waved to Bill, Sr. He was playing golf.” She got her license.
She says, “I have driven ever since. Eventually, we had to split up to take all the kids to Mass. Now, it seems like I’m the oldest one in church. But, if you are able to go, you don’t miss. It’s a blessing to go.”
Loreen will be 92 in December, but she’s as spry and sharp as someone 20 years younger. She says she comes from a family notable for its longevity. Her secret to a long life? She laughs and says ”Oh, my word…my secret…I have no secrets. And she laughs again. “You just live. Live, live, live your life!”
She enjoys traveling and recalls her trip back to Braddock last May. Tom drove her there, Bill picked her up, and in between she spent a glorious week with her sisters.
Although Braddock’s population has dwindled from 350 to 15, the home where she was raised was still standing. One of her sisters is 95 and resides in a nursing home in Bismarck, one is 93, and one is 89. “We all met in Bismarck, she says. ”Oh, my gosh, that was nice!”
Of course, they enjoyed lots of meals together. Food is a bond in every tribe and Loreen and her siblings have done their share of cooking over the years. Her niece compiled a cookbook of the sisters’ recipes and added vintage photos of their family. Some new ones, too. It’s a treasure and Loreen says the recipes are really good.
After owning a grocery store for decades, she knows a lot about food — on the table and before it gets there. Bill’s Super Valu has evolved into Hartman’s Family Foods and is now owned and run by her son Bob.
“Back when we first started the deli,” she says, “I would cook all the potatoes and rice at night. The next morning I made the potato salad, cole slaw, baked beans, and glorified rice. Made it and boxed it up. I worked a lot,” she says.
“All 12 kids worked in the store, too, and they all started young. When Bill and Dean were six or seven years old, their job was to sort potatoes. Not the most fun job when they uncovered a smelly potato.”
“But they were all trained in the store,” she says, “and trained well by their dad. I’m so glad the family store has continued.”
She’s also happy she’s retired and can spend her time now being a grandma. “I love it! I really have time to enjoy my grandkids. And I’m enjoying the great grandchildren even more because I can watch them grow. With my own kids I was so busy all the time.”
Some of them even have very familiar names. There’s a William, a few of the girls have Loreen as their middle name, and Karen chose Marks –Loreen’s maiden name– as her son’s middle name.
What does she do when the kids visit? “ I like to do whatever they like to do,” she says. “As a parent there wasn’t time for all of that. I like to read to the little ones and I like whatever games they come up with. They come here with games on their phones now, and I play those, too. It’s fun.” She also uses her ipad to stay in touch with photos.
Does she offer them advice? She shakes her head and says, “The best advice I ever received was ‘pray, hope, and be happy.’” Her favorite word is joy.
Every day she prays: “Jesus, I surrender myself to you to take care of everything.” She says, ”It’s like He really is taking care of everything — all my needs. I see it happening every day.”
Because in every family there’s always something. In the Hartman family, there is also always someone to help you through it.