One year ago today, North Dakota lost a passionate teacher and visionary, Dr. Anne Carlsen. She was 87 years old and her legacy was the Anne Carlsen Center for Children in Jamestown.
Carlsen was born to Danish immigrants in Wisconsin in 1915. She was missing her forearms and lower legs, but early on, her family recognized her quick wit and keen mind.
Her father told her, “Anne, two arms and two legs missing aren’t as important as one head that’s present. The best way to make that head help is to get it educated.”
So at age 8, Anne went to school. “My brothers would carry me to and from school,” she said. “When there was snow on the ground, they would strap me to a sled and pull me... I had tremendous support from my family and friends.”
Carlsen learned how to write and feed herself without hands. With the help of a kiddie car, she learned to walk and run. She even learned how to swim, play baseball and other games her friends played. She did so well that four years later she graduated from eighth grade at age 12.
During high school, Carlsen underwent a long hospital stay for surgery and physical therapy, learning to use artificial legs. Still, she graduated by age 16. She wanted to teach, so she went on to the U of M, graduating cum laude in 1936. But despite her obvious talents, Anne met with a host of obstacles when she tried to get a job. Finally, in 1938, she was hired by the Good Samaritan School for Crippled Children in Fargo.
She said, “I bought myself a new dress and hat and a Greyhound bus ticket and headed west to Fargo. I had never been to North Dakota. I was offered $25 a month, plus room and board. I thought I was at the peak of my career.”
Three years later, the school was moved to Jamestown. Anne blossomed as a teacher, and after getting her masters and doctorate degrees, she became the school’s administrator in 1950. For the next 31 years, she dedicated herself to making sure handicapped children and adults were not treated as second-class citizens.
“It’s gratifying,” she once said, “to see those who’ve become successful by universal standards, as teachers, physicists, homemakers... But others whose handicaps are so severe that they can’t be employed are successes, too. If they do the best they can and contribute whatever they’re able, they’re really doing as well or better in life than most non-handicapped people.”
In 1958, Eisenhower awarded Carlsen the President’s Trophy for Handicapped American of the Year. In 1971, she was a guest on “The Today Show,” and in 1983, President Reagan appointed her to serve as vice chairperson of the Committee on Employment of the Physically Handicapped.
“Handicapped children and adults are no longer second-class citizens,” she later wrote. “If I have helped in any way to bring this about, then my work here at Jamestown has had a purpose.”
Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm