The woman who lifted up those who were low

Aaron J. Brown

When I was 21 years old I was named the editor of the erstwhile Hibbing Daily Tribune, which has since merged into the Mesabi Tribune newspaper you read today.

How does a 21-year old get to be a daily newspaper editor? That’s a good question that lots of people had at the time. After the first day on the job, I counted myself among them.

The first private meeting I took as editor was with a tall, imposing man who wanted me to withhold his son’s name from the paper after he was convicted of drunk driving. I felt like the shift manager of a Chuck E. Cheese telling Clint Eastwood he couldn’t let his grandson pee in the ball pit. I learned that a title doesn’t always convey the authority you think it does.

By the end of my first week I was wracked with an overwhelming imposter syndrome that gave me a zit the size of a weather balloon. This, too, wasn’t helping.

One day, an older woman appeared at the door of my office. She had easily brushed past the front desk and newsroom staff. Everyone knew her. Her name was Norma Schleppegrell and she was here to tell me that every editor of the Hibbing Daily Tribune since its founder, R.W. Hitchcock, had been a member of the Hibbing Noon Rotary Club. I was to be the next.

Her request was more of a statement. Nonetheless, I appreciated that she was the first elder in the elderly town of Hibbing to treat me like I was supposed to be here.

By the following Thursday I was sitting at my first Rotary meeting at the old Hibbing Park Hotel eating French dressing garnished with lettuce and listening to Norma’s husband Bill play after dinner music on the piano. Norma took me around and introduced me to everyone. More than that, she had been reading my editorials. She liked some of them. She had questions and comments. Whatever my struggles were, she wanted me to keep at it. She wanted to see what I would write next.

That was 21 years and a few thousand editorials ago. Norma died last Sunday at the age of 94.

Norma Schleppegrell

Norma Schleppegrell

I got to know Norma and Bill pretty well in the years that followed. Bill was a WWII fighter pilot who had been a prisoner of war in Germany. Despite terrible conditions there, he would go on to teach German at Hibbing High School and preach a doctrine of pacifism in his personal life. Norma had grown up in Kansas City when it was still ruled by the Pendergast Machine. She spoke lovingly of the button she wore as a little girl when her parents campaigned for Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Norma hailed all the big moments of my life: a new job, career milestones, but especially my children.

To Norma, the accomplishments of her children and grandchildren, and those of all the people she knew in Hibbing, were part of the same joy of life. She told me that the first person to show kindness to her when she moved to Hibbing was Beattie Zimmerman. Beattie took her around and introduced her to friends. So when Beattie’s son Robert enjoyed a great deal of success in the music business (he went by Bob Dylan; that’s pronounced Dillon, not die-len), Norma’s pride was for her friend as well as the young man she knew as Bobby.

Norma and Bill lost a son to mental illness before schools or institutions knew anything about treating it. So she dedicated her life to learning more, to helping kids who struggled, and to expanding services for what would become Range Mental Health. “Norma’s Place” became an important part of RMHC programming.

As we contemplate the mental health crisis in our schools and community now, consider how much worse off we’d be without Norma’s pioneering work. And, for those of us who knew her, think of how much worse off we’d be if she hadn’t taken an interest in us.

People like Norma Schleppegrell remind us how far simple kindness goes in dealing with others. In the moment, we can easily forget to be kind. It takes time to take interest in people. But it’s not impossible. Maybe it’s not even hard. In fact, it’s just a habit that any of us could form. Norma lived it.

As her adopted hometown pauses to remember Norma, the only Missourian to hold the title Titan of Taconite, we would do well to emulate her example. Call on those who struggle. Lift up those who need help. Be generous with praise and support. Let your love do the talking. In doing so, you will live far beyond your years, as Norma certainly does in my heart and many others.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Sept. 25, 2022 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.


  1. Betsy Schleppegrell Moore says

    Thank you for this tribute to my Mother, Norma.

  2. john e antonelli says

    i knew her only in passing, but her husband was a sweet man who taught me 1st yr spanish (so well i retain much of it after more than 60 yr)…he also wasdirector at memorial bldg playground for one summer ( motivated, i’m sure by his appreciation of children & the financial need created by having so many of his own)……..theirs must’ve been a very intellectually stimulating home…..God bless them both for all they’ve done

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