Culture. It defines us, shapes our lives, and molds us into unique individuals in this world. For Donna (Babinski) Kuta, a 1960 graduate of the Northwest School of Agriculture (NWSA), her cultural roots are strong. She was born and raised on a North Dakota farm near the small town of Warsaw, which was primarily a Polish community. Kuta learned the Polish and English languages at a young age and practiced them both at home and in academic settings. In her community, there was a one-room schoolhouse she attended for her education preceding high school. When it was time for her to enroll in a high school, Kuta was left to search for a new school to attend. For those who have experienced the northern midwest, the winter weather is something that must be taken into account when planning to travel. Kuta and her family recognized this problem, and they discovered the Northwest School of Agriculture. Because the Northwest School allowed students to live on campus, which was not available in other high schools in the area, it eliminated her family’s concern of commuting during the snowy season. To add to this perk, she knew other classmates from her town and the surrounding area who attended this school. Although it was quite the adjustment from attending a one-room schoolhouse to a high school with dormitories, Kuta was able to easily find her place at the NWSA.
Whenever she attends alumni social events or gatherings, she and her classmates reminisce about the quality education they received. “They taught you all aspects of what you were going to have in your life.”
When moving away to a new school, there are numerous opportunities to converse and enjoy the company of many new people. As an outgoing person, Kuta had no trouble finding friends to spend time with. One of her favorite times to socialize was after dinner. Music was played downstairs beneath the cafeteria every evening following dinner, and she and her friends loved to dance and unwind there. Furthermore, Kuta’s heritage also linked her with other students on campus. Her freshman roommate, JoAnn “Joey” (Gunderson) Grundyson, was raised in a Norwegian household, and her roommate for the following three years, Elaine (Szczesny) Gerszewski, was from the same Polish community as her. They all bonded over the trouble they would run into from switching from their native languages to English. There were times, however, when knowing two languages would be highly practical for them. She mentioned she could communicate with other Polish-speaking students without the teachers knowing what they were saying. “Of course us kids had fun with that,” Kuta laughed. Even while living away from home, Kuta was able to embrace her Polish heritage and meet other individuals with similar backgrounds.
Kuta explained “being active and social is kind of my personality.” This trait has always accompanied her, even during her time at the Northwest School of Agriculture. She was a member of a wide variety of activities, including the Girl’s Athletic Association, band, and girl’s choirs. There were many firsts Kuta was able to experience while being in these activities. She went for her first swim in a pool within the Sports Center on campus. Because she grew up on a small-town farm, she was not well-acquainted with swimming. Kuta expressed she was able to get in just fine, but once she was in the pool, she did not know how to get out. While singing in the choir, she tried voice lessons for the first time as well. All of the singers participating in voice lessons were invited to sing at a recital to show off their new skills. Kuta was given the song, "Danny Boy," to perform at the recital. After many lessons perfecting the song, it was finally time for her to perform. She recalled getting up on stage and completely freezing. Even after two attempts of restarting the piano accompaniment, she stayed silent. “That was the end of my voice lessons,” Kuta joked.
Even though the voice lessons did not stay around long for Kuta, she spoke highly of the lessons she learned within the classroom. There were many informative courses available with topics of all types, such as farming, balancing checkbooks, cooking, and sewing. Her favorite course was home economics taught by Mrs. Peterson and Ms. Parbst. In addition to the cooking and sewing lessons commonly taught in this course, Kuta remembers learning how to decipher between the different types of china and how to reupholster furniture. To keep the students of the Northwest School engaged with their schoolwork during the summer season, they were tasked with canning food, making jelly, and repurposing clothing with their parents. Teachers from the school would visit their homes to ensure the students were completing their work. This provided Kuta and the other students on campus a well-rounded education during their four years of attendance.
In 1960, Kuta graduated from the Northwest School of Agriculture and never lost her desire to experience what the world had to offer. She worked as a dental assistant after graduation, and two years later, she married her husband, LeRoy. While raising a family of four, Kuta moved to Connecticut and Minnesota while working various jobs. She then returned back to school to continue her education at Lakewood Junior College, which was where she was introduced to a new job opportunity. A classmate of Kuta’s was establishing a travel agency and was in need of a travel agent. Kuta was offered an outside sales position at the agency, and she happily accepted the position. Working as a travel agent provided her the opportunity to travel on five cruises throughout her time in this role. Helping the community was another focus of Kuta’s life. Her positions as a member and president of the Jaycees, a chairperson for her church, and as the president of the Ramsey and Washington Homemakers through the University of Minnesota provided her an outlet to utilize her active nature and make a change in the places she resided. All these activities kept Kuta busy during this stage of her life.
Presently, Kuta and her husband spend the warmer months of the year living in Mahtomedi, Minnesota and escape to Mesa, Arizona in the winter. Their Arizona home is located right by a golf course, which is highly convenient for Kuta’s love of playing golf. She will often play one to two times per week. In her free time, she volunteers for Friends of Minnesota Barns and Bruentrup Historical Farm and plays cards with friends. No matter how busy her life becomes, family will always be the center of her life. Kuta has four children, eight grandchildren, and recently became a great grandmother to her first great grandchild last November. Even though her family members are scattered across the country, she ensures they get together for every special occasion they can. Last summer marked a big family adventure as Kuta and two of her daughters took a trip to Italy. During their trip, she took classes about cooking Italian cuisine that expanded her already broad knowledge of the art of cooking.
To spread joy in the Minnesota and Arizona neighborhoods she lives in, Kuta shares her hobby of cooking and baking treats with her neighbors. “Instead of making a loaf of banana bread, I make four,” Kuta explained. She has a neighbor in Arizona who brings grapefruits and lemons over to her home, and she delivers them back as pies. These types of favors often leave her friends asking if they can move into her house to enjoy her cooking every day. Kuta explains that without family close by, she enjoys cooking for her neighbors and the supportive friendship they share. Whether she finds herself in the Land of 10,000 Lakes or in the Grand Canyon State, her cooking will always include dishes from her Polish heritage. Kuta continues to make traditional pierogi, golumpki, and potato pancakes whenever she can. “The culture is living with us,” Kuta mentioned, referring to the dishes she creates.
As Donna and LeRoy celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary this year, they hold great pride in the family they raised. One of Kuta’s most prized achievements is raising a family who took pride in their education and set goals of attending college after high school. She believes in the importance of academics and raves about the education she received from the Northwest School of Agriculture. Whenever she attends alumni social events or gatherings, she and her classmates reminisce about the quality education they received. “They taught you all aspects of what you were going to have in your life,” Kuta stated. Home economics skills continue to be used by her on a daily basis, and she hopes it makes its way back into schools once again in the future. Although there is no true recipe for success in life, Kuta has proved that a mix of culture, travel, hobbies, and education will lead to unforgettable life experiences.
Written for the Spring 2022 Torchlight e-Newsletter