Montana woman shows Minnesota how to reach the youth

Alberta Marth stands in front of several frames of photos of past New Ulm Post 132 commanders. Her images appears in the top row, second from left. She isn’t wearing a Legion cap in the commander picture because she is wearing her Army National Guard uniform. She worked full-time for the Guard at the New Ulm Armory at the time.

Western ways

By Tim Engstrom
The Minnesota Legionnaire

NEW ULM — Bertie Marth proves you don’t have to be big to be a leader. She is an example of what comes from reaching out to people and communicating.

New Ulm residents and Minnesota Legion members know her as Bertie, but she started life in 1934 as Alberta Nordstrom. Her hometown is Helena, the capital of Montana. She graduated from Helena High School in 1952, when the western town had about 17,600 people.

These days, Helena is 34,300 with a metro population of 83,000.

Growing up in Helena, Marth was riding horses all the time. She did barrel racing and pole bending. Her parents belonged to a saddle club, and the kids would do square dancing and entertain at nursing homes.

Eight of the saddle club kids thought it would be fun to try square dancing on horseback. They went on to entertain at rodeos.

Bertie Marth stands in front of Seifert-Bianchi American Legion Post 132 in New Ulm. She is well-known in town for recruiting youth to participate in American Legion programs.

“Horses like music,” Marth said. “Once you train them, they know what to do. They go by the music.

Her father, Victor, was unable to serve in the military. He had rheumatic fever as a kid, and it left his joints weakened. However, he worked at Fort William Henry Harrison in Helena and sometimes would invite soldiers over for dinner.

During World War II, the fort was used for training paratroopers, and Helena was a railroad center. The Northern Pacific Railway ran through the city. Troop trains stopped in town frequently.

“I saw lots of military growing up,” she said.

During high school, she had a part-time job at a savings and loan. After graduating, she worked a year as a secretary for three men at a bank.

“Later on, those three men had three secretaries. I had done the job of three people myself,” she said.

Nordstrom enlisted in the Air Force in 1953, five years after President Harry Truman signed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act. She did basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, but she didn’t finish. And she didn’t go on to advanced individual training.

Why? Officers found out about her secretarial skills, and they wanted her to be the secretary for the hospital commander. She performed that role her entire enlistment.

“The hospital I worked at was a bunch of one-story buildings,” she said. “It took up a whole bunch of Lackland Air Force Base at the time.”

Jim Marth was a medic who came by her office now and then, and he was younger than Bertie. They began dating.

Jim was from Minnesota and had been orphaned his sophomore year at St. James High School. His parents and younger sister went shopping in Mankato and were killed in a crash on the drive back home.

His mother’s sister lived in nearby Madelia, and he finished high school there before joining the Air Force.

Bertie and Jim were married by the chaplain at Lackland AFB, and they honeymooned in Minnesota and Montana. It was April 1955.

“That’s how he met my parents,” she said.

She became pregnant with their daughter, Shirley Marie, who was named after Jim’s late sister. Bertie left the Air Force that year while Jim finished his enlistment in spring 1957, when he came back from Germany. He then joined the Air Force Reserves.

After the active-duty military, Jim worked a little while for his uncle, a building contractor, among other jobs.

Their son, James, was born in 1957, and he became known as Butch. Their second son, Brian, was born in 1961.

Somewhere around 1960, the Marths and another couple purchased the Dodge Chrysler dealership in St. James. Sadly, Jim died of cancer in 1966. Bertie held on to the dealership another year before selling to the other couple. In 1969, the husband of that couple died of a heart attack, and the widow sold.

Tony Downs Foods, meanwhile, was a growing business in St. James. After their youngest went to kindergarten, Bertie became a buyer.

The century-old, fortress-like New Ulm Armory is where Bertie Marth worked for many years. The Minnesota National Guard has plans to build a new readiness center to the tune of $17.2 million, mostly with federal funding. It would open in 2025 on the western side of New Ulm. The New Ulm Journal says the armory would be offered first to the city, then the county, then the schools.

After all, she knew Tony. He bought trucks from the dealership. In fact, one time, Jim and Bertie flew to Detroit and hauled three trucks back on a semitrailer for Tony. Bertie even learned to drive a semi.

She left Tony Downs Foods in early 1973. She attempted to join the Minnesota National Guard in May 1974. She passed the physical, but, because she was a single mother, the Guard held off approval.

Her enlistment went all the way up the chain to the National Guard Bureau in Washington. Thanks to her background and qualifications, the Guard approved her on Aug. 22, Brian’s birthday. She went to work the day after Labor Day as a full-time soldier. She was an AST — administrative service technician.

She did payroll. When the Guard is activated, it can be a real pain for payroll staff. She recalls the Guard getting called to Austin for the Hormel strike in 1986.

In recent years, the Guard has been activated frequently — combat deployments, civil unrest, COVID shots, among others.

“It’s got to be a pain in the neck for the payroll staff,” she said.

She remained in the National Guard for another 20 years, retiring in 1994 as an E-7. Well, actually, she had saved up so much leave she had to burn it the final year through an early release.

Over the years, she recruited a lot of New Ulm boys into the Minnesota National Guard. She wasn’t a recruiter, “but no matter the title, you are all recruiters in the Guard.”

One time, a sergeant inspected the New Ulm unit’s quarter-ton trucks. He asked her to fire up one. No problem.

“He said, ‘I know you didn’t drive these in the Air Force.’ I told him I drove Jeeps on ranches after World War II to check on cattle in Montana. I was 13 when I first learned to drive a Jeep off-road.”

That sergeant went on to become the commander at New Ulm American Legion Post 132. In fact, he was commander the year after she was commander.

Bertie remarried in February 1978. Unfortunately, Don Wohlfeil suddenly died in January 1979 while at work.

Jim had belonged to the Legion and VFW in St. James. No one bothered to ask her to join, so she didn’t. She was in the VFW Auxiliary. When Bertie came to New Ulm in 1975, Jack Bloedel asked her to join. He had been post commander. He became 2nd District commander in 1979-80.

She served as New Ulm Post 132 commander in 1980-81. She was one of the first female commanders in Minnesota.

Bertie asked the 2nd District commander to be the installing officer. That district commander happened to be a past St. James Post 33 commander.

“I got back at St. James in that way,” she said. “He conceded he should have asked me to join.”

After she was commander, Bertie served as adjutant for the next 13 years. She presently is the chaplain for Post 132.

But she wasn’t just involved at the local level. Bertie has served eight terms as the 2nd District adjutant. She served as 2nd District chaplain for one term. She is in the fifth year of serving on the Minnesota American Legion Family Hospital Association Board of Directors.

Like she was recruiting New Ulm youth to join the Guard, she was sending New Ulm boys to Boys State and getting New Ulm boys to play baseball for Post 132. Her ability to recruit was well-known.

Members of Post and Unit 132 take a lot of pride in the Legion and their post home. The sign by the Post 132 kitchen says, “All work done here is done by volunteers of The American Legion and Legion Auxiliary, working for the benefit of our post home.”

“Kids are like anybody else. You just got to talk to them. Kids like that,” she said. “Some old-timers avoid kids. I’m going to talk to them.”

Bertie also has been involved in Boys State as a counselor, administrator, jack of all trades. She enjoyed teaching civics to the boys for a week. These days, she comes on the final day.

Minnesota Boys State takes place in June on the campus of St. John’s University in Collegeville. She said this will be the 25th year she has been involved in Minnesota Boys State.

“I made a lot of friends through Boys State through the years,” Bertie said.

Why Boys State?

“I’ve always been into that type of stuff,” she said.

Why teenagers?

“I survived three of them and had a lot in the National Guard.”

One of her Boys State recruits, Peter Spengler in 2018, went on to participate in Boys Nation and was a counselor this past summer.

The New Ulm Journal recently had a story on local students doing well at the Knowledge Bowl. Two of them, Bertie pointed out, are Boys Staters.

“That reflects on the kind of boys we take to Boys State,” she said.

She got her supervisor at the Armory, Richard Mueller, involved in New Ulm Legion Baseball.

“I started getting involved with Legion Baseball when I was wearing the uniform,” she said. “He knew how I related to youth, and he started helping out in the 2nd District.”

Mueller became the director for 2nd District on the Minnesota American Legion Baseball Committee.

“He needed a secretary of the 2nd District Baseball Committee, and I am still the secretary of the 2nd District Baseball Committee.”

He stepped down after a health condition in spring 2013.

“And then I got Vern to do it.”

Vern Kitzberger is SAL member with New Ulm Squadron 132 who was active in the baseball program, and he had been trying to figure out who ought to be the next director. Suddenly, the state director at the time, Mike Perry of Hopkins Post 320, calls him.

“I sure didn’t campaign for it,” Kitzberger said.

Bertie was inducted in the Minnesota American Legion Baseball Hall of Fame in 2014. Her name appears in the list of inductees in the rule book sent out to teams each year. New Ulm Post 132 has a local baseball hall of fame, and she is in that, too. Mueller, in December, was recognized for his contributions and received a plaque for being a 2020 inductee to the Minnesota American Legion Baseball Hall of Fame.

New Ulm hosts two 16-team tournaments, one for senior level and one for junior, in back-to-back weeks — the last week of June and first week of July. They use fields in New Ulm, Searles and Essig. Bertie, of course, has been involved for years.

Her grandson, Thomas Keech, joined the Marines in December 1994 and now he is retired. He spoke at the memorial service at the Department Convention in July near Redwood Falls.

Butch and Brian became truck drivers. Butch lives in Alden and Brian in Walnut Grove. Shirley got a degree in finance at Mankato State University and spent 19 years at the Mankato Harley-Davidson dealership, managing it for 13 of those years. She now lives in Searles, not that far from the south end of New Ulm where Bertie lives, and she and her husband, Steve, a building contractor, run the Searles Bar & Grill.

Alberta Marth has nine grandchildren, 10 great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren.