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Hillside moms hang tough, friends still

DCN Correspondent

Nancy Needham has been in the East Hillside a long time. Thirty-nine years to be exact.

Through the years, Nancy has seen changes. She has raised children. Been through graduations, weddings, and divorces. She has seen moves, births and deaths—including the death of her own child. She got by with the help of five friends.

This group of six women lived within a block and a half of each other around Portland Square. They raised their kids together— and they did it without fathers.

“[The women] have been there through thick and thin. We became like extended family,? Sandy Robinson, one of the six friends said.

It was that family support that was needed for raising kids alone. And dealing with the death of a child.

Nancy’s son, Mitch, had never left Duluth. Born and raised, he had just graduated from the University of Minnesota Duluth and was living at home. He went to bed ill one evening and the next morning he was gone. Mitch died of a heart aneurism in the night. It was 2006.

“I don’t remember how [the women] got there, I don’t remember who I talked to,? Nancy said.

The friends called three other neighbors who had each lost children. They all gathered in the living room. And then they brought food.

“He was really healthy and just like that—he was gone. It was tough. Thank goodness for friends,? Nancy said.

Gene McKeever has been a resident of Duluth for 39 years, 14 of which were spent in the East Hillside. “All of us came to her home. And that was probably the saddest thing. We all went to support her,? Gene said.

That friendship created a community within a community. Potlucks, a mainstay for the group, were held almost once a month and in those days, keeping track of the kids was usually a topic of conversation.

“I mean we were all broke. But we’d call up one day, and one would say 'Well, I've got peas,' and one would say 'I've got soup, let's get the kids together and make lunch,'" Nancy said. “It was great. I mean we were poor as church mice at the time but we didn’t know it, I guess. We had a good time.?

Gatherings were held in the park for friends, family, and almost anyone who was there.

“We’d always buy extra hot dogs and ice cream cones, you know,? Sandy said. Eventually, kids started coming to her house looking for ice cream there too.
This was in the early 1990s when Sandy lived on East Fifth Street on Portland Square.

But almost two years ago, Sandy went to the deli at the grocery store and the boy behind the counter asked, “Are you the ice cream lady?? He was a neighborhood kid who grew up in the Hillside.

“I mean, what’s five bucks for a gallon of ice cream and some cones? I guess it’s just one of those random acts of kindness. You just do it,? Sandy said.

More than friends they were the caretakers; the neighborhood eyes and mothers to other kids too.

“All the moms in the neighborhood looked out for the kids and everybody knew everybody,? Nancy said.

She remembers coming home one evening to no kitchen chairs and silverware. “We said that either we’d been robbed or someone’s having a party. And it was—three houses down. But that’s the way it was,? she said.

Today, the neighborhood kids are grown. Joanne Chesser, another mom in the group, still goes to Portland Square. But now she brings her grandchildren.

Others, like Gene, have moved out of the Hillside but the group still gets together twice a year to celebrate Christmas and birthdays.

One Christmas, Nancy knitted five Afghan blankets—one for each friend. The holidays were busy and soon they came and went. “Finally I made a big pot of chicken something or other and I called them all up.? Nancy said.

She told them, “Alright, I made ya a present. You come up here and eat this stuff and take your present cause I haven’t got room!?

Nancy simply said, “It was stuff like that that we do.?

"Christmas Party" (L-R) Nancy Needham, Sandy Robinson, Gene McKeever, Toni Thorsted, Chris Odden, unknown, Joanne Chesser
Photo courtesy of Sandy Robinson

"The boys" (L-R) Mitchell Needham, Andy Anderson (Sandy's son), Anthony Bolton (Toni Thorsted's son), Ben Moore
Photo courtesy of Sandy Robinson


Chris Odden is the one holding the baby. the little guy on the fence is Ben Moore.(he still lives in the neighborhood)