Indomitable Spirit

When H. Lou Tofte retired in 2006 after working at the Minnesota Legislature for 30 years, there were two questions on the lips of friends and observers: What’s Linda going to do without her-and will Lou will really stay retired?

“Linda” is State Sen. Linda Berglin, the Minnesota Senate’s stalwart champion of reproductive choice and Minnesota Care. For nearly 30 years, Tofte was Berglin’s assistant. Tofte retired to make sure her husband, George, got the hospice care at home he needed-not an easy task given the often round-the-clock hours she kept at the Capitol. “Linda takes on more than she can do and does it, and I do, too,” Tofte admitted.

The difficulties of blocking anti-choice legislation from getting a hearing and helping protect MinnesotaCare from complete decimation in the face of Republican budget cuts may seem like huge challenges to some, but Tofte is used to challenges, to put it mildly. Abuse and grinding poverty have been facts of her life. Her father’s rage and her mother’s mental illness, the lingering illness and death of her husband (the love of her life) have taken their toll-or have they? Lou Tofte is not the kind of person to dwell on the negatives. There’s just too much to do to focus on the past, be it good or bad.

Interpreting the world
“I felt like my reason for being was to interpret the world for my parents,” said Tofte, who was born Helen Lou Dubey. The only child of deaf parents, “I remember at age 3, standing between my father and his boss, interpreting. My father was swearing; I told Mr. Fee, ‘He’s very angry.’ My father had a volatile temperament, he was always losing jobs because it was always a storm around him.”

As a young child Tofte lived with her parents at a small resort near Faribault, where her father was the general handyman. “He had such a terrible temper that we were nearly thrown out several times, but Mr. Fee would look at my mother and me and change his mind,” Tofte said.

Two other memories stand out from that time. One is the time her father’s pet German Shepherds escaped from their pen and attacked her; she was 3 at the time. “He insisted on having these dogs, and they dug under the fence and escaped. I was screaming but my mother, who was very close, of course couldn’t hear me. They tore off part of my ear,” she recalled.

Though she is able to talk about the dog attack easily, the next memory is a hard one for her. “My father was very abusive,” she said with difficulty. “When I was 3, he pushed my mother down the stairs. She was pregnant with my baby brother,” Tofte’s voice broke as she recalled “She lost the baby, he was full-term.”

Living with mental illness
After the baby died, Tofte and her mother went to live with Tofte’s maternal grandmother in Minneapolis. Their life changed dramatically. Her mother had a nervous breakdown, the first of many mental health problems that would define the rest of her life. “Later on she developed a type of schizophrenia,” Tofte said. When she was well enough, Tofte’s mother worked nights at Taystee bread. “My mother shoveled bread into the ovens, and she could keep up with any man,” she recalled. “They paid her almost as much as a man.” Tofte’s mother was in and out of hospitals. One time, naked, she climbed on the roof and threw all of Tofte’s clothes out. Another time, she took four or five babies from neighbors’ homes.

Tofte’s father was not out of her life. Once he pushed her through a plate glass window. He refused to pay child support unless Tofte visited him, and kidnapped her several times. “He would come to the playground or the school and they would just turn me over, I was a child, he was my father,” she remembered. She was terrified and hid from him. When she still was not home by 10 one night, Tofte’s grandmother came looking for her and found her in a wastebasket at school, her coat over her head. She was 7 or 8 at the time.

Tofte said she survived her childhood by “Dividing up my life … not necessarily talking about [what happened at home]. I lived separate lives here and there. In the neighborhood, children weren’t allowed to play with me because my mother was crazy. I had friends at Sunday School who didn’t know this. I grew up with lots of shame.”

Single motherhood
After high school, Tofte worked a number of office jobs; she was Curt Carlson’s secretary at Gold Bond Stamp Company but her favorite job was traveling with the circus as part of a sleight-of-hand act with the Palace of Legerdemain. “I did that for the summer, and it was enough to pay the rent till Christmas,” she recalled.

She was 20 when she married her first husband, Earl Beaudry. “He was good-looking and didn’t say much,” Tofte recalled. He was also unreliable, given to spending the rent and food money on other things. Tofte left him when their son, Tim, was a month old; their older son, Wes, was 18 months old. “I ran out of groceries and went to the welfare office,” Tofte said. “It was a Friday, and I didn’t realize they wouldn’t give us groceries right away. My mother was in Anoka [Hospital], there were no food shelves back then. It was two or three miles home, and we were walking in deep snow. Wes couldn’t walk anymore, and so I was carrying him too and starting to cry. A cab pulled up and the driver said, ‘Lady, do you want a ride?’ I told him I didn’t have any money, he said to get in.”

Back at home, Tofte bundled herself and the kids up. “Each apartment had its own oil heater, and I didn’t have money for the oil,” she recalled. “I went scrounging in the garbage cans, looking for food. One had some pretty good food, and I cooked it to death and we ate it,”

The experience of being poor with young children radicalized Tofte. “I had been a Pentecostal, pro-life Christian … and then I saw what it was like for children to be unwanted. One mother in the apartment building didn’t like one of her kids, she kept locking him in the broom closet in the hall and I kept letting him out. He was a little tiny kid.” And there was the woman who unexpectedly came to Tofte’s aid: “This woman caught me scrounging in her garbage can, and she brought me a full bag of groceries. She was a prostitute, and she changed my opinion of people. My feelings about abortion, poor people, birth control, judging people … it all started to change.”

Tofte remarried and had three more children, but her husband was abusive and the marriage didn’t last. She raised her five children on her own. She took in sewing and worked at the American Red Cross, a job that paid so poorly that she qualified for food stamps. She lived in a big house with her kids, in a poor neighborhood where it wasn’t unusual to find alcoholics sleeping it off in their front yard. Instead of calling the police or sending them on their way, Tofte sent her kids out with breakfast for them-pancakes, bacon and eggs.

It was during this time that Tofte met Linda Berglin. Both were involved in an ecumenical group formed through four south Minneapolis churches. Berglin hadn’t yet been elected to the Legislature; Tofte remembers her as “long-haired, wearing long skirts, barefoot and very pretty. … When she got elected, I went to her and asked her if she knew of any jobs available.” Berglin talked her into applying at the Legislature. She was Berglin’s secretary in the House, and the two began a long relationship that is like family. Tofte, whose desk was legendarily overflowing onto the floor, kept Berglin organized, met with constituents, tracked legislation and did just about everything that needed doing.

She also made sure that her own kids got what they needed. Her middle son, Cal, was studying Mandarin Chinese at Central High School, and the class was going to make a trip to China. It would cost $3,000 that Tofte didn’t have. At the time, she was working 40 hours a week at the Minnesota House “Four 10-hour days,” she recalled, “And working 10 hours a day each Friday and Saturday at Rush’s [bridal salon].” Money was tight, and she also took in upholstery. But she wanted Cal to go to China with his class. And Tofte is the living embodiment of the phrase, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

“He was so afraid to go anywhere, he needed to see that the world wasn’t so frightening,” Tofte said. She cooked up a scheme to get the money. She borrowed $100 from 30 people, plotting out on a chart each of the next 30 months; people could sign up for the month when they wanted to be paid back. Cal went to China, and Tofte never missed a payment.

Her kids were mostly grown when Tofte met the love of her life. George Tofte was a graphic artist and after a long relationship that began when she invited him to her house for Thanksgiving dinner and he brought his then-girlfriend (“I liked her too,” Tofte recalled). They were married in Tofte’s backyard in 1992.

When George Tofte’s health deteriorated, Tofte was determined to keep him at home. Unable to find reliable care, in 2006 she left her job with Berglin for good. George died later that year. Age and the years of hard work had taken their toll on Tofte. At 70, she decided to retire. “I wrote Linda a letter so I wouldn’t have to argue about it,” Tofte said wryly.

Future plans
Though she no longer spends every day (and night) at the Capitol, Tofte is plenty busy. She still takes in international students as roomers, something she’s done for years (she says the students from Russia, China, Sri Lanka, Saudi Arabia, Japan and elsewhere are “way more interesting than the Americans.”) She is sorting through years of Berglin records and trying to straighten out “the wretched constituent database.” She is getting ready to parent a 14-year-old Native American girl whose parents want her to leave the reservation where they live because the man who raped her is being released from prison; she’ll live with Tofte instead. She’s hoping to finish writing the novel George was working on when he died.

There are some signs she’s taking life a little easier. Tofte enjoys sitting in her sunny kitchen, watching TV. She’s going to Mexico for three weeks this spring, a gift from her children and stepchildren. She talks about taking a car trip around the U.S.

“How’s my health? Well, compared to other old bats, I’m doing good,” she said, “I’m like a gerbil running everywhere, up and down the stairs.” She’s not given to philosophizing-she’s too busy, too practical for that-but she believes “You should never leave anybody in worse shape then you’ve found them,” and “If you can’t return to someone what they’ve given to you, give to someone else.”

Tofte plans to spend more time with her three local grandchildren (only one of her children lives in the Twin Cities; the others are on the west coast and in Alaska), and she hopes to clear out her porch and garage of Berglin boxes. She keeps up with many, many friends. In other words, she has a full life. When she looks back, does she wish anything had been different?

“Regrets? I’ve kind of given up on them,” she said.