In the eyes of her loved ones, she wasn’t the worn-out weak-as-a-kitten cancer patient with sad eyes on the day she left this earth.
She was the peppy twenty-something working in the art department of Land O’Lakes in the early 70s.
She was the shapely blonde with a sparkle in her eye when her husband first spotted her across the crowded Left Guard on Lyndale after a Vikings game.
She was a stunning bride in 1975 with a brand-new life ahead of her.
She was the tender Mommy always quick with an encouraging word and a warm hug.
She was the young and energetic mother, raising four children, running her home daycare business, supporting her husband’s sales career, teaching Sunday School, coaching her kids’ teams, and driving them to their after-school activities.
She was the Executive Assistant at Tricord Systems, Inc. where she would solve a problem before her boss even knew there was a problem to solve.
She was the sister who could be counted on through good times and tragic.
She was the daughter forever frozen in time as the little girl her mother cherished.
Cancer may have taken her from us way too soon, but cancer can never take away our sweet memories.
Let me tell you a little about my sister-in-law Carleen. She was born the daughter of Dick and Ruth Schopf in 1948 in northeast Minneapolis. She had two sisters, Chris and Cindy, and one brother, Dick. And in a weird coincidence, she married my brother whose name is (what for it…) Dick.
They were married for 33 years until cancer whisked her away from us on a chilly October day in 2008. The word “whisked” may be a stretch; there was nothing quick about it. In fact, once the cancer took hold of her body, it took another eight long years of debilitating chemo and radiation before she passed thru the pearly gates.
She was just 60 years old.
Carleen was the oldest in her family and of course all parents remember all the little things about their first-born. The fact that she walked early at only eight months old! The fact that her folks owned a Doberman who watched over little Carleen like a rare treasure. One day her mother told the toddler, “Now you stay in this yard. Don’t go in the street!” Of course, Carleen slowly teetered to the edge of her yard only to feel that big dog’s teeth sink into the waistband of her diaper and gingerly drag her back to her mother!
At the age of 4, Carleen liked to visit her Aunt Lorraine, who lived right down the street. She would proudly don her cowboy hat and boots. And she would lead her imaginary horse outside. Then she would canter down the street and around to the back door where she would tie up her trusty steed and go into the house. After her visit, she would untie her horse and gallop back home. All within sight of her mother in the window.
Around the same time, on an Easter Sunday morning, the family was getting ready for church. You know the drill if you were a Lutheran in the 1950s: frilly pastel dresses, shiny patent leather shoes, and Easter bonnets with lavish bows. Well, Carleen was having none of it. She wanted to wear her favorite old Cowboy hat and there was no negotiating! Wisely, her parents gave in. Carleen walked into Easter Sunday service, head held high and pleased as punch, all dressed up in a crinoline skirt and patent leather shoes. And her well-loved crumpled-up Cowboy hat.
When Carleen was in first grade, the teacher gave the assignment for all the students to pack their own lunch for the next day’s class. Carleen packed limburger cheese on Wonder bread. The next day the teacher called Ruth called laughing, “Did you see what your daughter packed for her lunch today?” Carleen had eaten the whole thing; it did not matter one bit that the other children thought it stunk to high heaven!
A few years later when Carleen was a teenager, a boy asked her out for Saturday night, and she said “yes!” When Saturday morning rolled around, she began to worry she had nothing to wear. The problem solver in Carleen sprung to life; she went to the fabric store, bought a pattern, and spent all day sewing. By the time the guy picked her up that evening, she looked like a million bucks.
It might have been this guy or another high school crush who came a callin’ one day, and Carleen’s little brother Dickie commenced to buzzing around them, running, jumping, yelling, teasing, and generally driving them crazy. The story goes that when they had finally had enough, they tied Dickie to a tree, walked away, and left him there.
There is a meme that some of we Huseth girls have used, and it reads something like this, “Women bearing the name Huseth have always been known for their courage. You are brave and loving, even when you are exhausted. You never give up and you always learn from your mistakes which makes you an incredibly strong woman.” We found these words long after Carleen was gone, but it occurs to me just how perfectly they apply to her.
The first grandchildren, nieces, and nephews came into our family through Dick and Carleen. They were crazy about their kids: Dawn, Dayna, Nick, and Alex. The rest of the family agreed the sun rose and set around them. It would be many years until they would have to share the spotlight with the rest of the grandchildren.
It is true, Carleen was strong and courageous and innovative and creative, but best of all she was a kid at heart. From elaborate practical jokes on April Fools Day, to the most creative Christmas Eve programs, to Halloween mischief, to memorable birthday celebrations, to silly fun and games any old day of the week, Carleen brought her own fun with her wherever she went!
I remember Carleen telling this story from her high school years on Minneapolis “Nordeast” side of town. Friday nights at Minnesota Dragway in Coon Rapids featured a Powder Puff race featuring only women drivers. Carleen and Chris got the bright idea to wait until their folks were sound asleep, quietly borrow their dad’s 1965 Dodge Charger, tear up that track, and be back in their beds before anyone knew they were missing. This went well for a few weeks and then one day their plan was foiled by the unexpected. THEY WON THEIR RACE! And local news was there to cover the story! And their dad watched on the news as his girls accepted the trophy in front of HIS Dodge Charger! That was their last race! What a shame to get caught but what a great way to finish up their racing careers!
[DISCLAIMER: I remember Dick and Carleen telling this story to enraptured audiences over the years but in doing a few interviews for this piece I learned from Ruth and Chris that Carleen was not involved in the Powder Puff adventure, but it was just Chris who was the star of this family lore. Just goes to show the power of oral storytelling and retelling and retelling! But it was such a great story I had to include it here.]
Chris remembers Carleen as a serious kid growing up. She was a very good student and took life seriously when she was little. It must have been her husband and kids who brought out the little kid in her!
Dick and Carleen Huseth were married on April 5, 1975, at the Lutheran Church of the Living Christ in Chanhassen. They were still living in south Minneapolis (next door to the renowned wildlife artist Les Kouba incidentally) but made the drive out to Chanhassen for church every Sunday morning. Soon Carleen convinced Dick to teach Sunday School with her at LCLC, a practice they took with them as they moved three times throughout Minnesota.
When the kids were little, Nick wanted to play soccer, but it seems there was a shortage of coaches that year, so Carleen took up coaching soccer. When we asked if she knew anything about soccer, she pulled out a rule book from the library and said, “Not yet, but I will by morning!”
Over the next few years, she coached those little boys into a winning soccer team and eventually ended up traveling to Scotland for a tournament. It was truly a family affair; the boys ran their little hearts out and Dick ended each game by crawling around on the ground picking up orange peels. The kids on that team will never forget all the fun they had with the first “mom coach” in the league.
Alex remembers his mom coaching his hockey team. Carleen came from a hockey family; her dad coached and her brother was a goalie at St. Cloud State and on the semi-pro team for the North Stars. Carleen was the only mom hockey coach in the league and when she glided out on the ice in her white figure skates, the rest of the dad coaches couldn’t keep their bone-headed comments to themselves. Carleen went on to a paid coaching position at Hopkins High School for the Sophomore girl’s hockey team where she did well as a coach and more importantly as a role model for young women athletes everywhere. Glass ceiling? What glass ceiling?!
Carleen could pull a party together like none other. Just for fun, she organized an outing for the siblings and cousins playing Moonlight Golf for charity. What could be more fun than running around in the dark chasing little glow-in-the-dark golf balls? They had so much fun that they made it an annual event.
Carleen and Chris were sisters and were born on the same day but three years apart. They always had a thing to see who would say happy birthday first. Carleen was tricky on that. One time she waited for Chris to call first and then answered the phone by shouting into the receiver HAPPY BIRTHDAY, CHRIS!
On one of Chris’s birthdays, Chris and Tom went out for dinner. Their daughter, Mary, stayed home and secretly met Carleen. They clandestinely decorated the yard and house with women’s triple triple triple X size panties. They flung them in the trees, on the roof, on the deck, and all over the yard. There must have been at least 50 pair of panties. However, there was no Happy Birthday sign in the yard, so neighbors driving by just saw this bizarre scene of giant underpants lavishly draped all over the place!!
Chris recalls, “Who buys and collects women’s panties at garage sales and thrift stores for months just to prank her sister? You have heard of houses being TPed? My house got UNDERWEARed!”
A few years later when Carleen turned 50, Grandma Darlene, Chris, and Cindy conspired to throw her a birthday surprise party. They worked for months pulling together friends and family to conduct a birthday parade. Sadly, Grandma Darlene passed away a few months before she could see her plan executed, but the rest of the family stepped up to make it happen.
Chris lived on Weaver Lake Road and Carleen was waiting at her house for a little get-together when all at once there arose such a clatter, Carleen sprung to her feet to see what was the matter! There she saw parade of dozens of men, women, and children on foot, in cars, trucks pulling fishing boats, riding bikes and trikes, and armed with pots, pans, lids, kazoos, drums, and loud melodic voices, and tossing candy to the children who came out of their houses to check out the mayhem. Celebrating Carleen’s half century on this planet was quite the talk of the town for a long time.
Dick’s parents hosted Christmas Eve every year which involved Dick and Carleen traveling the furthest to be with family; first from Minneapolis, then from St. Cloud, then from Duluth, and finally from Maple Grove. Family tradition held that we would meet at Grandma and Grandpa’s house, attend Christmas Eve service in Chanhassen, have a full Christmas dinner around the heirloom dining room table, then retire to the basement for Christmas programs, and finally the opening of the gifts. We all grumbled when Grandma Darlene hatched her new plan of each family doing a Christmas piece before opening gifts, but not Carleen! She always came up with the very best and most creative presentations. I remember one year when Dayna was just a baby. I teamed up with Dick’s family and we created a film using a big old VHS camcorder. We looked like Channel 8 News ready capture the FILM AT 11. We drove out to where I was boarding my horses on the west side of Chaska. Our cousin Linda attached tree branches to her horse’s bridle to resemble a reindeer’s antlers, hitched old Fred to the toboggan, the rest of us piled onto the sled, and Fred pulled us through the snow. Carleen had written a song or a script but all that could be heard was the howling of the sub-zero wind and all that could be seen was that big bay gilding pulling something through the wind-driven snow flying sideways in a blur. The windchill was well below zero so I volunteered to take one-year-old sweet baby Dayna with me to sit in the warm car. My hands and feet and face were aching with cold, and I imagine everyone felt the same, but Carleen finished directing the scene and finally they all scurried into the car, freezing cold and weak with laughter.
Over the years, other Carleen Christmas programs featured Dick impersonating Ricky Martin, the whole family singing Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer with tiny flashlights stuck up their noses making the tips of their noses glow red, lip syncing White Christmas to the Temptations version of the classic, drawing upside-down faces on the chins of the children who hung upside-down off the couch singing a Christmas carol, and many other programs that always stole the show and had us rolling in the aisle. But our very favorite presentation was in 1981. Carleen began by explaining the rules to a game of Family Feud. She began with something like, “name six Christmas carols” and “name six traditional Christmas foods.” You get the idea. This went on for a while and then she said, “name six Huseths.” We all shouted the names of all the Huseths we could think of but there was one slot remaining open. When she pulled off the last cover, it read, “You’ll find out in June!” It was her clever way of telling the family that Alex was on his way and their family of five would soon be a family of six. We all laughed and screamed and cried all at the same time!
Carleen was known throughout the neighborhood for her April Fool’s pranks. So funny. So creative. One April Fool’s Day it became clear that Carleen’s first born, Dawn, was the apple that hadn’t fallen far from the tree. Very late the night before, Dawn made sure that her parents and little brothers and sister were sound asleep. Then she sneaked out of her bedroom and down the stairs to the kitchen.
She started by filling her mom’s sugar bowl with salt; she knew that coffee with sugar was her mom’s go-to first thing in the morning. Dawn then slipped into her dad’s bathroom and stretched saran wrap over the toilet bowl; she also knew her dad’s first stop in the morning! Next, she tip-toed into her little brothers’ and sister’s rooms where she drew all over their faces with magic marker. She finished her April Fools masterpiece by making a bed of coats in the front closet. There she lay down, covered up, and fell fast asleep for the night.
The next morning, Dawn was awakened by the frantic yelps (and a little colorful language) from the rest of the family as they discovered her handiwork AND discovered that she was not in her bed! That day it became clear that Dawn was indeed cut from her mother’s bolt when it came to fun just for fun’s sake!
Halloween was one of Carleen’s favorite times of year and the costumes she came up with were legendary. She was known for wearing a big black cloak and witches hat dragging a shovel up and down the street, scaring any children still out late enough to encounter her! When the kids were getting too old for trick or treating, she got Nick (a teenager by then) to dress up like an old man sitting in a chair outside the front door. He looked just like the scarecrow figure that had decorated that same chair all thru October. When the little ones came close with their chants of TRICK OR TREAT, Nick would jump up and scare them! There was even legend of grown-ups peeing in their pants upon their discovery that it was Nick inside that costume and not straw stuffing. Carleen would howl with laughter every time. And then hand out extra candy.
Dick’s sister Holly remembers a time when she and Carleen were washing cars in the driveway at Grandma Huseth’s house. They began to splash each other and then throw water on one another. One thing led to another and soon they were dumping pails of water on each other! Holly dashed into the basement to fill her bucket with water and when she turned around there was Carleen! With the hose! At point blank range! Inside the house!
I loved the way Carleen would deflect when her kids would ask her the hard questions:
Nick: Hey Mom! I had so much fun at my buddy’s cabin last weekend. We should have a lake place. Why don’t we have a lake place? I wish we had a lake place.
Carleen: Oh Nick, I’m sorry. If I had only known you wanted a lake place, I would have gotten you one. If I had only known yesterday, but today it’s too late. Sorry.
Nick (about 5 years old): Hey Mom, I love that song playing on the radio. Who is that singing?
Carleen: Lionel Richie
Nick: Oh man! I wish Lionel Richie was my dad.
Carleen: Oh, Nick. I’m sorry. I didn’t know you wanted Lionel Richie to be your dad. If I had only known, I would have arranged that sooner. Too bad, you’re stuck with your dad now.
Another thing I loved about Carleen is that she was fearless. If she wanted a deck on the back of the house, she would figure out a way to build it. She would enlist the help of her kids and from an early age they all four became capable kids who had the courage try most anything. And if it didn’t work, they would try another way, learning from their missteps. Want an ice fishing house? Build one. Need a compost bin? Design one. Need a lawn mower shed? Build a GREAT BIG one. The bathtub fixture sprung a leak? Find the water main and just fix it. Husband taking too long to install a sump pump in the basement? Give it a try yourself (and then call Grandpa for help). Figure out a way and just do it!
I remember sometime during the early 80s when the Urban Cowboy craze was in full swing, Carleen and I went out to a country bar to listen to music and dance. Before the night was over, I looked up and there was Carleen riding the mechanical bull! I was too scared to look silly, but she was so gutsy. And she didn’t look silly at all. She looked awesome!
Carleen loved pets and probably would have had a zoo if she’d had her way. She loved frightening her sisters with cupped hands showing off a slimy toad or a frog, and not just as kids … well into their 50s! A long list of purchases and rescues including dogs, cats, spiders, birds, snakes, guinea pigs, and reptiles made their way into Carleen’s care. There was even a goat! And a Venomous African Frog who ate live mice!! Who needs TV when you have a Venomous African Frog and live mice?!
Alex remembers their friends were always welcome in their home. It was not unusual for any of the kids to come home and find their friends sitting around the kitchen table visiting with Carleen. They knew where they could grab a good meal (her specialty was pork chops) or just shoot the breeze. Carleen excelled at keeping all the plates of family life spinning. She was always there with a listening ear, a bowl of chili, and a laugh. She kept the home fires burning as her family ventured out into the world learning valuable lessons along the way.
Carleen just laughed and let the lesson teach itself when one day she got a call from the high school principal saying that Alex and some other guys were caught mooning the parking lot full of students from a second story classroom. How did they know it was Alex? Seems he was wearing his football jersey complete with name and number on the back! Sometimes lessons teach themselves. Carleen just laughed. And then she loved to tell the story to anyone who would listen.
Dayna was Carleen’s second daughter, and she was an equal measure of Dick and Carleen. She was a beautiful girl. She had a great big heart. She was super funny. She was the life of the party! She could weave a tale like none other! I remember one day she began to talk about a wedding she had attended over the weekend. About how long the photographer was taking with the bride and groom pictures. About how all the guests were waiting and waiting, getting more and more hungry, and grumpy. About how she just happened to have a yoyo with her (in her formal gown). About how she began to entertain the whole group with yoyo tricks.
As Dayna spoke, I remember looking at Dick and Carleen watching her holding court. She was animated, witty, insightful. We all hung on her every word, but to see the look in her parents’ eyes as they watched her regale us with every detail was truly a gift! Dayna’s eyes sparkled with every phrase. Carleen’s eyes sparkled right back! Carleen’s eyes told her own story about how proud she was to see the fabulous young woman Dayna had grown into. We laughed til we cried hearing all about the yoyo tricks and the personalities in her audience. But Dick and Carleen enjoyed it on a completely different level. They were watching the culmination of many years of human nature observations from this natural-born storyteller. Yes, Dayna was equal measures of Dick and Carleen, but Carleen knew she had raised an amazing young woman. Though she was gone too soon, there is a sweet blessing in knowing she was spared the pain of Dayna’s 2012 death just 4 years after her own, and that they are both now together in heaven with Grandma Darlene!
Carleen was creative, crafty, and artsy. Carleen was fearless and innovative. Carleen was the life of the party. Carleen loved her family deeply and would be so proud to see the fantastic adults her kids and grandkids have become.
If there is anything on this earth that Carleen would be sad to be missing, it would be meeting the rest of her grandchildren. Being in their lives would give her a brand-new reason to be the kid-at-heart she was born to be.
Carleen was not who she appeared to be on her last day on earth. Carleen was the vibrant wife, mother, sister, and friend living in our memories today.