PROCTOR, Minn. — Betty Merling's 80th birthday turned out a little different than expected. The longtime Proctor, Minn., resident's daughter, Julie Saatoff, had planned to host a big open house party on Aug. 7.

"Then COVID came in and ruined my plans," Saatoff said. "So we changed everything. I put an ad in the newspaper and reached out to people and told them to drive by, and it worked out."

From her home in Fargo, N.D., Saatoff arranged a birthday drive-by parade for Merling's 80th birthday, including the Proctor police and fire departments and several of Merling's friends and former students.

"It's a little overwhelming but fantastic," Merling said as she waved at one of the final parade drivers.

Betty Merling of Proctor talks to friends and relatives during her 80th birthday party Thursday in Proctor. (Clint Austin/caustin@duluthnews.com)
Betty Merling of Proctor talks to friends and relatives during her 80th birthday party Thursday in Proctor. (Clint Austin/caustin@duluthnews.com)

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Betty and Jim Merling have lived in Proctor for nearly 60 years and recently celebrated their 64th wedding anniversary. The couple met while growing up in Duluth.

"She lived in Piedmont Heights, and I lived in Duluth Heights, and us boys used to ride our bikes over to Piedmont Heights and chase the girls. And I caught one," Jim said.

The couple raised four children: three boys and one girl. They stayed at the same house in Proctor for the full 60 years and still use a rotary phone. Jim said they've lived happily together.

"She's saved my life many times," Jim said. "She's been my secretary, cook, whatever else. She helps me when I'm forgetful and makes sure I'm heading in the right direction."

A lot of the people who showed up for the parade knew Betty from her 18-year tenure of volunteer teaching at Bay View Elementary School. She worked with first- and second-grade students at the school on primarily reading development and art.

"She changed the way I taught," said Bay View teacher Linda Hart. "I don’t think I would have enjoyed my teaching as much without her help. She came in there and gave those students exactly what they needed."

Betty Merling of Proctor talks to someone who drove past her house to celebrate her 80th birthday Thursday night in Proctor. (Clint Austin/caustin@duluthnews.com)
Betty Merling of Proctor talks to someone who drove past her house to celebrate her 80th birthday Thursday night in Proctor. (Clint Austin/caustin@duluthnews.com)

Hart taught first grade for several years at the elementary school. Although Betty denied that she was "any good at art," Hart said she still has some of Betty's artwork hanging up around her house.

"She was my art specialist. We had so much fun together," Hart said.

Merling retired from volunteering at the school, but still keeps in touch with several of the students. Every year she's invited to many graduation parties for her former students; she received 14 invites this year alone. She also has kept several pieces of artwork or crafts that students made for her and brings them along to their graduation parties.

"I loved spending the time with them," Merling said.

Today she still likes to volunteer at local nursing homes, although not since the pandemic began. She can also be found working on her whittling, a hobby she picked up while working with students. She said she's glad she's made it to 80 years.

"I’m not ready to go. Lots of people say they’re ready to go, not me. I still have lots of stuff to do yet," Merling said.