Mary Jo Dathe.,
Mary Jo Dathe.,

Mary Jo Dathe is living proof that retirement can be whatever one chooses to make of it. At 84, she has filled hers with people and activities that keep her constantly on the go.

A familiar name and face to those in the Spring Valley area, Dathe has always been very involved in community events. From serving on the City Council and Library Board to her indispensable work with the Spring Valley Historical Society and accompanying museum, she’s always had more than one ball rolling at any one time and retirement hasn’t changed that.

Born in Spring Valley, Dathe has lived in the area all her life except for a brief stint in Stewartville during high school. She has held a handful of different jobs throughout the years, starting as a secretary and typist for John Osterud, as well as doing a considerable amount of housecleaning and even working as the “vacation relief” at the Standard Oil terminal (now owned by BP). However, the primary focus of her attention and energy for many years and what she is perhaps best known for is her work with the Spring Valley Historical Society.

 Dathe has been interested in Spring Valley’s history “since 1955” when the town had its bicentennial. She was a vital part of the formation of the Spring Valley Historical Society and later the founding of the museum in 1975. She started there as a volunteer secretary and recorder, though she said that as the Historical Society grew “they gradually paid me a little.” That job gradually evolved into a position as director of the Historical Society, a position she held for 25 years before turning the reins over to Julie Mlinar.

As director, Dathe ran the Spring Valley Methodist Church Museum and played a significant role in getting Spring Valley on the map as part of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway. She and other Historical Society members went to the state Legislature to get the road to pass through Spring Valley on its way from Pepin, Wisconsin, to De Smet, South Dakota.

“I’ve been involved with the Laura Ingalls Wilder site for a long, long time,” Dathe said.

She eventually wrote a book collecting all her research on Wilder’s connection to Spring Valley. Titled “The Laura Ingalls Wilder ‘Connection,’” it was published in 1990, with the most recently revised edition being printed in 2007. Dathe also helped write and publish a history of Spring Valley with fellow historian Sharon Jahn.

Researching and writing about Spring Valley’s history has been part of Dathe’s life since 1955 when she started doing publicity for the Historical Society. However, after years of turning her writing in and seeing it printed as publicity without having her name attached to give her credit, she started a regular column in the Spring Valley Tribune. Her column, called “Glimpses of Yesteryear,” was started in 2004 and she writes a new article for it each week chronicling the history of Spring Valley.

“I keep copies of each column and then categorize them so I can refer back to them,” Dathe said. After over 60 years of writing, she has an impressive filing system of columns, as well as old newspapers, books, magazines and other research. “My memory isn’t what it once was,” she claimed, though even without turning to her research she has a grasp of the area’s history that few can match.

And if she can’t find the information she needs in her own records, she said she’s always been able to rely on Jahn’s expertise and research to help her out. “She’s the ‘historian,’” Dathe explained. “I’m just the writer.”

With increasing age, Dathe has cut back on some of her community involvement, particularly with the Historical Society, which she has completely turned over to Mlinar, though she is still called on occasionally to answer questions and confirm information. But however much she has withdrawn from major roles in the community, Dathe is constantly on the move in her everyday life.

She and her husband, Don Oss, walk the trail on the northeastern side of Spring Valley every morning — an undertaking that takes nearly an hour to complete. Once a week they also eat downtown with the Senior Dining, and they do a considerable amount of traveling besides.

“We spent two weeks or more in Norway last year, and we’re going again in August,” Dathe said. “We’re going to take a cruise along the west side of Norway and then fly down to Oslo. The exciting thing is my one surviving sister and her husband are going to meet us in Iceland and will go on with us from there.”

This will be Dathe’s second trip to Norway, though her husband, Don, has been there six times. They also regularly travel to visit Don’s friends in Columbia, Missouri, since he worked there as a consultant for 25 years.

Another activity Dathe likes to fill her time with is photography and scrapbooking. “I’ve done family scrapbooks for a long time,” she said. “I did scrapbooks on each member of my family: my mother, father, three sisters, my four granddaughters, my husband, and of course a personal one.” However, she feels distance will make it too difficult to continue this practice of making scrapbooks for her three great-grandchildren.

She continues to do a tremendous amount of writing on a daily basis, sending letters to residents at the care center and continuing her weekly “Glimpses of Yesteryear” column. However, she noted that she didn’t know how much longer she will continue to maintain the column.

“Don would like me to not be so busy,” she joked.

“Not so busy” isn’t a phrase likely to apply to Dathe anytime soon, however. Currently she’s undertaking the mammoth task of clearing out her old house on Broadway.

“Right now I’m trying to dispose of all my goods that have been accumulating over 60 some years so my son and his wife can live there,” she explained. Some items, like an old roll-top desk, have been moved to her current residence, where she expects they will continue accumulating for the rest of her life.

“I’m lucky to have had husbands who have tolerated all this nonsense,” she said laughingly.

In other words, to Dathe “retirement” has been just another word, not a lifestyle change.