Her body would live two more days, but she knew as soon as the nurses gave her morphine for the pain that her mind would go.
Before Natalie Stanko would let that happen, she made one last request. She wanted to be baptized. She had been sprinkled as a baby, but she always felt she should have been baptized by immersion.
At 95, her body was fragile, and it was impossible to submerge her completely. Instead, her pastor, Rob Ryg of Euzoa Bible Church, brought in a beautiful bowl and baptized her in her hospital bed while her family and Dr. Lambert Orton watched. Stanko had been a member of Euzoa Bible Church (once known as the Congregational Church) since 1938.
Ryg said the familiar words, "I baptize you in the name of the father ..." Stanko finished the sentence for him, "and the son and the Holy Spirit."
Then she gathered her family and nurses around her bed and thanked them for their care and for being in her life. Then she said goodbye.
Natalie was not afraid to die, her daughter-in-law Jo Stanko said. "She was ready. She was so strong because she knew she was going to a better place."
In her 95 years, the world and Steamboat Springs went through considerable change. Natalie Willett was born Dec. 12, 1909, in Woodbine, Iowa. William H. Taft was the newly elected president, and World War I was only six years in the future. By the time she graduated from high school, the first long-distance phone call had been made, and the first talking motion picture was shown.
Natalie's mother was a college graduate and encouraged her daughter to get a degree. Stanko attended Parsons College in Fairfield, Iowa, where she earned a bachelor's degree in education with a minor in history. In 1933, while searching for a job, she moved to Steamboat to work for her uncle Dr. Frederick Willett at a hospital he had opened at Aspen and Seventh streets. She emptied bedpans, cleaned and did whatever needed to be done. The year she moved to Steamboat, prohibition ended, and Hitler was named chancellor of Germany.
She worked for Dr. Willett until she got her first teaching job at the South Side Schoolhouse. After two years, she moved to a teaching position at the Mesa Schoolhouse.
Throughout her life, she kept in touch with her former students.
At her funeral July 10, of the more than 150 people who came, three of her former students gave speeches.
One of them was Don Lufkin, who Stanko taught when he was in seventh and eighth grades in the 1930s.
"She kept in very good touch with me," Lufkin said. "At her funeral, I told people that I have the greatest admiration for her and other school teachers from that time.
"The conditions she lived in at the little old teacherage (at the Mesa Schoolhouse). There was no water, no electricity and no conveniences, whatsoever.
"We boys would carry water over to her, but in the mornings, she'd have to heat her little house and then walk over to get the schoolhouse warm.
"She did such a wonderful job, both of teaching and the way she operated the school. She played games with us, and we had skiing parties. She was a great teacher and a great person."
On June 18, 1944, Natalie left teaching to marry Pete Stanko and become a ranch wife.
"In those days, teachers couldn't be married. They couldn't play cards, and they couldn't dance," Jo Stanko said. Her son, Jim Stanko, was born within the year.
By the time of her death, Jim had a son named Patrick, who had two children of his own. She loved her biological family, but a big part of her values included treating friends like family.
Suzy Holloran learned what a caring person Natalie Stanko could be when her life started to fall apart.
"Natalie helped me out a great deal in a time I needed some help," Holloran said. "My husband died in a plane crash, and she came to help me with my three children.
"I didn't ask, she just came. She was such a warm, giving spirit. She enjoyed children so much, and when Mike and I got married and had two more, she just accepted them into her family. I have a warm feeling in my heart for Natalie. She was always there for me. She loved me, and I loved her."
Beyond the lives she touched, Natalie Stanko was a founding member of the American Association of University Women (1966), charter member of the Routt County CattleWomen (1971) and honorary board member of the Mesa Schoolhouse restoration project (1998).
Even after she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer three years ago, a condition she kept a secret from all but her closest friends and family, she continued to attend AAUW and Ladies Recreation Club meetings.
She didn't slow down until a couple of months before her death. Natalie Stanko was best known among friends for the saying, "It's a great life if you don't weaken."
"She believed you didn't have time for feeling sorry for yourself," Jo Stanko said. "You go on, and you do your best."
She passed her energy and belief in community involvement to her son.
"She taught me to appreciate everything that comes your way," Jim Stanko said. "She taught me that everyone is family, that education is important and you should use your education. She taught us to be proud of our accomplishments."
Natalie Stanko's legacy is in the hundreds of scrapbooks she made for friends and family. She was a great historian; the library of photo albums and carefully clipped and organized newspaper articles tell the story of the people and places of Routt County.
"She took a great interest in the history of Steamboat Springs," Jim Stanko said. "And she was a big part of that history."
-- To reach Autumn Phillips call 871-4210 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org