Faithfully forward: Centenarian reflects on North Central and life

In 1940, two girls from rural Montana got on a train heading to Minneapolis for an adventure they would remember fondly for the rest of their lives.

They stepped on the train with faith that the Lord was leading them to North Central Business College and were ready to learn skills for their future careers. Even more, they were drawn to the stories they had learned about North Central and the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit—where professors would cancel class when there was a move of the Spirit. That was where 19-year-old Hazel Yoder and 18-year-old Ruth Yoder had wanted to study since they were in junior high.

Ruth (Yoder ’42) Howell, now 101 years old and living once again in Montana, recently shared some of the stories from their time at North Central and a life that spans more than a century.

It started with a yearbook

In the midst of doing chores on their Montana farm in the late 1930s, Ruth (Yoder ’42) Howell and Hazel (Yoder ’42) Shank became captivated by the idea of attending college in far-away Minneapolis, Minnesota. While churning butter one day, a young worker hired by their mother to help in the busy farm kitchen showed the girls her yearbook from North Central Bible Institute, and the seed of an idea was planted.

“We would gather ’round her and she was showing us all the interesting pictures from the Assemblies of God Bible school that had started up in Minneapolis,” Ruth, now 101 years old, recalled during a recent phone interview. “I knew it was a little far away, but it was so interesting to us. We were in eighth grade at the time, and of course, we enjoyed this older girl. She was so very, very proud of her North Central yearbook and had lots of stories to tell that were very interesting to young teenagers.”

Ruth and Hazel were one year apart in age but in the same school grade. Even after the young woman from North Central was no longer working for their mother, they did not forget those stories! “She had plenty of good stories, and we just gobbled that up,” Ruth said. “By the time she got through with her stories, there was no question about it: We were going to Minneapolis.”

The stories that drew Ruth in the most were those of the spiritual aspects of the school. “She [the family’s employee] had told how they used to just have an outpouring of the Holy Spirit sometimes during class time,” she explained. “Well, that particular school and most of the Pentecostal schools knew enough and really followed the Lord’s leading enough that when the Holy Spirit was poured out, you just canceled classes, and everybody went to their knees.”

Ruth and Hazel’s parents were committed to their children getting an education. To this day, Ruth doesn’t know how they could afford it, but in the fall of 1940, the girls got on a train and headed to Minneapolis.

Off to Minneapolis!

Ruth recalled the mixture of excitement and apprehension that marked their journey. “They put us on the train, and away we went,” she said. “I don’t know how we ever had the nerve! We were brought up in the country and didn’t know about traveling. I’m glad there were the two of us –I don’t know if either one of us would have been brave enough to just go clear off to Minneapolis!”

While the train ride to Minneapolis went smoothly, the Montana sisters’ first experience in the big city did not.

It was common for female students to live with local families who provided room and board in exchange for childcare services and household help. Families would apply to participate in the program and school personnel did their best to vet the applications, but sometimes the families did not live up to their end of the bargain, for example, providing a private room and ensuring the girls had adequate time for their studies.

Unfortunately for Ruth, the first family she was placed with put her in the same room with two children under the age of four. “There wasn’t much studying you could do with three little kids because they were excited,” she said. Even though she liked the children—who reminded her of the young siblings she had left at home—it was not a good situation. “When the school found out what had happened, they immediately pulled me out of there.”

Ruth and Hazel were quickly settled into more appropriate housing arrangements, and their work as students began in earnest.

Going to North Central was appealing to the sisters because they had started a business college along with the Bible school, and they knew they could gain practical skills they would need to get jobs when they returned home.

North Central Business College

In 1938, under the direction of Dean I.O. Miller, North Central Bible Institute (NCBI) launched North Central Business College (NCBC). According to a history prepared by Chris Woelfle ’00, the development was fueled by the belief that the world was in need of qualified business people to be witnesses in the marketplace. Room #515 of what is now Miller Hall was renovated to meet the curricular needs of NCBC and served as the primary learning lab for the program. NCBC offered courses in typing, shorthand, accounting, and business English. The curriculum was offered on a revolving basis so that new students could join in at any time, using the official tagline, “Enroll any Monday.”

NCBI discontinued the business program in 1945, but Ruth and Hazel Yoder were grateful it was there for their education.

A typical day in the business college

Ruth described a typical day during her first year at NCBC: “The classes only lasted until noon. And then you ate for lunch and grabbed a streetcar and got home. So you had all afternoon to take care of the children. And then at night, that age, children went to bed fairly early. So you would have some study time; they had to have a certain number of hours that I’d be able to study.

“I was taking the business courses because I intended to be a secretary or stenographer, so they would have to allow a certain time we could do typing at the school. Thursday afternoons were reserved for the girls who worked in homes to use the typewriters.”

Ruth’s favorite part of the day, though was chapel. “I rode the streetcar every morning to go to school, and I went early enough to go to chapel,” she recalled fondly. “That was the highlight of the whole day! We had some wonderful chapel services—sometimes the chapel services were so good that we couldn’t go on to our classes. If the Lord decided to move after all, that was why the school was there. And it was the time that the Lord began to move, they moved with the Lord.”

Founded in 1930 North Central’s early years were marked by the powerful leadership of Frank J. Lindquist and Ivan O. Miller—Brother Lindquist and Brother Miller, as they were called by students and faculty alike. Ruth said they preached in chapel and that many of the students attended Lindquist’s church.

A major interruption

During their second year at NCBC, Ruth and Hazel lived on campus instead of with local families and enjoyed campus life. However, that year was marked by a dramatic event in history: the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and the United States’ entry into World War II.

Ruth said the male students had to quickly decide whether they intended to go into full-time ministry because full-time ministers were exempt from serving in the Armed Forces. “I remember very clearly they took all students, one by one, to ask if we were or were not conscientious objectors [to war],” she recalled. “There were a lot of guys that did not know for sure about full-time ministry, and they couldn’t lie about it just to get out of going.”

Returning to Montana

Even though, as a woman, she was not required to serve in the military, the war changed how Ruth closed her chapter at North Central. When she finished her coursework, she went home early. “I chose to come home before my final graduation because the guy that I was dating at that time—we were later married—was going to be drafted and possibly leave before graduation time,” she explained. “So I did my final everything and did not stay for the spring closing graduation because I knew he would be gone by then.”

Hazel stayed for graduation and remained in Minneapolis for some time afterward. Ruth’s boyfriend had already been called to active duty in the military, and Ruth and Hazel’s brother Donald had enlisted and was about to be deployed overseas. Hazel had taken a job in Minneapolis work for Montgomery Ward, but wanted to see Donald before he left, so she took a train trip home to Montana.

Ruth said Hazel intended to return to Minneapolis after the visit, but those plans changed on an impulse. “She came home, and we were all set to take her back on the train,” Ruth recounted. “And the alarm—for the first time any of us remember—failed to go off when it was supposed to. It was like two o’clock in the morning because we had to meet a train at four o’clock to send her back. But the alarm did not go off! And when she missed the train, she said she wasn’t going back—she decided to stay. So until the time I got married, and even for a time afterward, we weren’t very far apart. She was in the next town. We were very close.”

Ruth and her boyfriend, Vern Howell, did not marry before he was deployed because he did not want her to experience potential worst-case scenarios if he returned wounded or not at all. He served in a manufacturing facility in Persia (Iran) during the war—serving three-and-a-half years without a furlough.

While he was away, Ruth put the business skills she had learned at North Central to use, first working at the courthouse in Wolf Point, Montana, and later for Montana-Dakota Utilities. “I stayed there all during the war,” Ruth said, “and was there when Vern came home, and then we got married.”

After the war, Vern returned to his job in bookkeeping for a Chevrolet dealership. His work was in a different town, so Ruth left her job.

Always in ministry

In addition to being a businessman, Vern, who was a pastor’s son, was always involved in ministry.

The Howells lived near the Fort Peck Reservation, and the church worked with Native American people who came to the church. Vern learned their language, which opened up opportunities for him to minister with them.

Vern also got involved with Full Gospel Men’s Fellowship (FGMFI) during that time. When the couple moved from Poplar to Denver, Colorado, Vern became an active member of the large FGMFI chapter. “We were busy every minute going to meetings and speaking,” Ruth shared. “And God used Vern a lot in praying for the sick.”

Ruth and Vern served for years in a ministry they started, A.C.T.S. Fellowship, which acquired surplus or unsaleable groceries, clothing, and household goods and stored them at a large warehouse they ran in Denver. Hundreds of people a week came for food and supplies distributed by a volunteer force under Vern’s direction. The Howells oversaw the operation for nearly 50 years before returning to Montana. “We came back after Vern just wore out completely,” Ruth said. “Well, I did too! We were both in our nineties and came back because my brother and his wife were living in Billings, and that’s where we decided we should probably retire.”

Family tragedy

The Howells’ years of service were also marked by sadness when their only son, Jim, was killed in a plane crash at the age of 22. Jim and his friend were pilots hired to transfer planes between airports. During one of their assignments, the pair got caught in one of the worst storms Denver had ever seen, according to Ruth. “The wind was so wild it blew the plane to one side of the building that was there,” she recounted. Neither boy survived.

“It was just about unbearable,” Ruth said, “but God doesn’t let it be.” Ruth and Vern found solace in Christian friends. “Some really good Christian friends simply prayed us through,” she said. “And you have your family, and that’s all very important. I don’t know how I lived; I didn’t want to. But you don’t die just because you want to. Sometimes you don’t know for sure if you think He’s doing things right, but we have to learn, don’t we?”

Forever close though far apart

Ruth and Hazel eventually lived geographically far apart but stayed close throughout the years. Hazel also married and traveled frequently with her husband, who was in the oil business. Hazel is now 102, and her health did not allow for her to be interviewed for this story.

When asked what wisdom she has for the younger generation, from her vantage point of 101 years, Ruth said, “Find out what God’s will is for your life and then go after it all the way. Because half the time He’s going to ask you to do what you think you can’t do, but you can. If you will, do what God is asking and do it the way He asks you. He knows when your strength fails. He knows when you’ve gone as far as you can. We would have said, ‘Well, there’s no way we can go till we’re 90!’ But God knows if you can’t.”

As Ruth’s interview for table | salt concluded, it seemed it was just not enough time to hear all the stories one can share about a life that spans more than 100 years. Ruth expressed her thanks for the interview and said, “We’ll talk some more when we get to Heaven.” That will be nice.

Update Dec. 19, 2023: North Central University has learned that Hazel (Yoder) Shank passed away on Nov. 30, 2023. She would have been 103 years old on Jan. 16, 2024. We extend our condolences to her sister, Ruth, and their extended family.

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