The Ottumwa Courier


May 22, 2014

Life story told live

OTTUMWA — Kids weren’t reading about World War I in a history book. They were hearing directly what one witness thought when she saw banner headlines about the deaths of American soldiers.

Celma Birdsall was born in Hampton, Iowa, in July of 1908. Anyone bored with her presentation in a small classroom at Evans Middle School, she told students, should blame Madison.

That’s eighth-grader Madison Konrad, who took her homework assignment from English teacher Jacqueline James to heart: Find somebody one “could learn something from.” The two pals, Celma, 105, and Madison, 14, met at Good Samaritan’s nursing home in Ottumwa.

“I remember World War I, the war that was never supposed to happen again,” Birdsall said.

But it did: She recalls the painful start of World War II. Much better, she said, was the end of the Great War. She woke up one morning in 1919 to the sound of the clear, loud chiming of every school and church bell in the area.

“It was Armistice Day [when the treaty ending the first world war was signed] and I could hear all the bells ringing. The first thing I noticed was that I woke up with a nose bleed. Now, that has nothing to do with Armistice Day, but I remember that. And second, although I’ve got to say as kids, it was always our first thought — I knew right away, 'There won’t be school today!'"

One young lady at Evans wanted to know what dating was like when Birdsall was a teen; it was the second question about relationships.

“[She’s] a little boy crazy,” Ms. James explained to Birdsall.

“That’s all right,” the guest responded, “so am I.”

Just like kids who want to get out of school, she said, dating hasn’t changed much. They had boyfriends, they’d go to a movie, or on a picnic. Teens tended to hang out in groups even then, she said.

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