Charter member of Austin Zonta chapter is honored by others

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 29, 2002

Years from now visitors to Austin Community Park will sit in the shade of a genuine variegated Princeton golden maple tree.

If it is a beautiful fall afternoon, the leaf colors will be brilliant.

If one of the visitors is a young woman, embarking on a career in business, she will have chosen the right place.

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That tree is no ordinary tree. That's the tree planted to honor Dora Tollefson, the only surviving charter member of the Austin Area Zonta International.

Someday, the story will be told about her contributions to the quality of life in Austin as both and educator and a Zonta International member and how the club's faithful planted a tree to honor the woman on a summer's day, when Ms. Tollefson was the last living charter member of the club.

That's what happened Tuesday in the park to the much-loved and respected 91-year-old woman.

"I'm so happy they did this," Tollefson said Tuesday. "It's nice to be remembered liked this. Zonta International is a wonderful organization for women."

Mary Jo Follmuth, president of the organization, praised Tollefson's half century of devotion to Zonta International.

"You've given 50 years of service to the club and the community. We appreciate all that you have done, Dora," Follmuth said at the mid-day tree dedication ceremonies Tuesday.

The Austin Area Zonta International was organized in 1950. The list of charter members reads like a "Who's Who" of the city's most prominent career women and "original liberated ladies," with Alice Bigelow, Rephah Hirsh, Dr. Elizabeth McKenna, Geraldine Rasmussen and Tollefson, among others.

Years later, more distinguished women joined forces with the Zonta charter members. Esther Plehal and Florence Vogel, to name only two, also distinguished themselves as loyal Zonta International members and ushered a new generation of career women all committed to the lofty ideas of the organization.

Tollefson was no exception.

She was recruited by Geraldine Rasmussen and Mable Olson to join the club, when a minimum of 15 members were needed to obtain a charter.

The organization met twice monthly at the old Fox Hotel.

Tollefson described them as "working women. We all had jobs at that time."

The club's members found time between their careers and personal lives to visit local nursing homes, form the original March of Dimes fund-raisers in Austin and embark on an ambitious scholarship program with a special focus of assisting those students who wanted to study aviation and engineering. "That's because Amelia Earhart was one of our original members when the organization was first formed in Buffalo, New York," Tollefson said.

Ms. Tollefson, who was perviously honored as Zonta International's Women of the Year, was the embodiment of a "working woman." She became the Mower County school superintendent and held the position for the longest period of time before it was disbanded. Later, she worked for the former Minnesota Department of Education before retiring to care for family.

"Zonta International taught me to learn how to work with other people," she said. "It helped me understand people better and their problems. We all learned how important it is to work together."

Business meeting, too

Also Tuesday, Zonta International members enjoyed a catered lunch at their meeting held in the Veterans pavilion (formerly St. Paul's Lutheran Church).

The guest speaker was Dawn Helgeson, executive director of Arc Mower County, who discussed the organization's future.

Lee Bonorden can be contacted at 434-2232 or by e-mail at