101-year-old Philo Pritzkau, with his family, from left, Bob MacLachlan, Emily Charest, Jamie MacLachlan and Patricia MacLachlan. Photo by Jerrey Roberts.

Philo Turns 101

Germano, Michelle. "Philo Turns 101."Daily Hampshire Gazette, 17 March 2003.

Note: Philo T. Pritzkau is author of the book, Growing Up in North Dakota: A Memoir, published by the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection in 1996. The Pritzkaus immigrated from the former German village of Kassel, Glueckstal District, Russia (today north of Odessa, Ukraine).

Monday, March 17, 2003 -- NORTHAMPTON - After 101 years, Philo T. Pritzkau has lived long enough to be many things to many people. To his daughter, Patricia MacLachlan, an award-winning author who lives in Williamsburg, he's the one who awakened her interest in telling stories.

To the people of the North Dakota State Library who published his memoir, Pritzkau is the man who wrote an intriguing tale of his own - about growing up in a sod house in Napoleon, N.D. [Note: Philo Pritzkau was born in a sodhouse in a farmstead near Burnstad, North Dakota, south of Napoleon, Logan County, North Dakota.]

To decades of education students at the University of Connecticut, he was the mentor who kept in touch, encouraging them all through their careers.

And to a friendly group from the Florence Congregational Church, he is a regular at Sunday brunches at a Northampton restaurant, exhibiting a great sense of humor and a vibrant personality.

On Sunday, Pritzkau was the guest of honor at his daughter's home, where family and friends saluted the milestone he reached today: turning 101 years old.

When asked for the secret to his longevity, Pritzkau first joked that he owes his age to years of just sitting in a chair, looking around.

Then he added, in a more serious tone, "I just never think of anything but living."

A farm childhood

If he's been feeling reflective lately, he must turn his thoughts way back.

The son of German-Russian immigrants, he was born in 1902 and spent his childhood haying, harvesting and threshing to help his family eke out a living in the town of Napoleon.

"The population was under 200, and we could see from one end of the town to the other. Nevertheless, we considered it a lively place," Pritzkau wrote in his book, "Growing Up in North Dakota," adding, "The butcher shop was a great socializing place."

Like other children who attended his one-room school, Pritzkau spoke German, with English as his second language. Later, he was the only one of his nine siblings to attend college. He went to the University of North Dakota for one semester, then ran out of money.

To earn more, he secured a teaching job at a country school, where teachers were in short supply. There he discovered a love for teaching that eventually led him to earn a doctorate in education from Columbia University.

An offer to teach at UConn brought him to Mansfield, Conn., where he lived for the 30 years he taught education at the university.

He remembers Connecticut as "a funny state with a lot of little crazy towns. We had one general store and a post office in our town. The man who owned the store would bring groceries to our home and even put them in our refrigerator."

Before he retired in 1972, Pritzkau touched the lives of many he taught.

Alexina Baldwin, one of those students, remembers the times Pritzkau held classes around the dining table of his home, where students were treated to dinners cooked by his wife, Madonna.

"He felt that each individual needed to be a whole person and care for others and subsequently care for children," said Baldwin, who is herself now a professor of education at UConn.

MacLachlan remembers waking up in what she thought was the middle of the night and seeing her father engaged in discussions with his students. "I thought that's the way it was everywhere. It was a very exciting environment to grow up in," she said.

Friends say Pritzkau never lost his connection with UConn. He said he phones and writes former students, corresponding with "whoever will stay in contact."

"He watches every UConn women's basketball game and has a signed poster given to him from the coach," his daughter said.

Instilling a love

MacLachlan said she inherited a love for teaching and young people from her father. She remembers he read constantly to her during her youth, acting out "Peter Rabbit" a hundred times a day, if she asked.

MacLachlan went on to write the 1986 Newbery Award-winning novel "Sarah Plain and Tall," as well as many other works.

Eventually, MacLachlan married her husband, Bob, and moved to Leeds, a neighborhood of Northampton. In 1984, her parents followed in order to be closer, she said, and so her father could have help caring for his wife, who had Alzheimer's disease. She died at the age of 88 in 1994.

"My father was a very loving husband, very tolerant and very patient. He was very good to my mother," said MacLachlan.

She recalls her father talking about the pain he felt having to put his wife in a nursing home. "He once said to me, 'She deserves better than what I can give her at home."

Today, Pritzkau lives in Leeds by himself, receiving help from family members and a closeknit group of friends.

His loved ones, he says, "are people I call every day. They mean a lot to me."

Pritzkau jokes about having "several" women in his life. They include Melodie Tewhill, who helps him tidy up his home. Claire Byrom assists with bills and Kitty Allman takes him shopping and out to lunch.

"His friends keep him very independent," MacLachlan said, adding with a laugh: "He has a better social life than I do."

Other good friends include John Ward of Florence, whom he met when they once shared a room at the Cooley Dickinson Hospital, and Sue Stanley.

Stanley started giving Pritzkau rides to their church, Florence Congregational, after he stopped driving.

Stanley recalls the first time she drove Pritzkau home. "I had to stop by a nursing home to deliver flowers. It turned out that the flowers were being delivered to his wife," she said.

Stanley, Ward and Pritzkau now follow their church visits with brunch at Bickford's Family Restaurant on North King Street. His favorite meal, there or anywhere, is broiled haddock, butternut squash, mashed potatoes with gravy (on the side) and plain tea.

He has to watch what he eats and drinks because of a minor heart condition he's had for 50 years. He is an energetic and regular walker.

Friends say Pritzkau is a pleasure to be around. "He is very upbeat and never negative," Ward said. "His friends keep him going."

"He is a joy and inspiration to a lot of people. He is very knowledgeable - and very humble," Stanley said.

Next Sunday, Florence Congregational will prepare a cake in Pritzkau's honor. People there will also intentionally annoy him with a rendition of "How Great Thou Art," one of Pritzkau's favorite songs, as performed by a handbell choir, perhaps his least favorite type of ensemble.

The Rev. Dewey Gierke of the church said Pritzkau has indirectly influenced how things are done at the church.

"He is not dramatic, not flashy," said Gierke, in a remark that might please generations of North Dakotans. "He just has a wonderful character and he has always been one to contribute to conversations in an intellectual, intelligent way."

Donna Pritzkau Turner with Uncle Philo Pritzkau opening birthday cards
(left to right): LaVerne Pritzkau Calverly, Donna Pritzkau Turner, Uncle Philo Pritzkau, James Pritzkau, and Richard Pritzkau.
Richard Pritzkau visiting with Uncle Philo Pritzkau at his home.

Reprinted with permission of Daily Hampshire Gazette.

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