‘Growing up in a good way:’ Leota Didier continues to look out for the youth of her community
In 1940, Upper Iowa University offered Leota (Morgan) Didier and her sisters an opportunity to change their lives; and for more than 70 years, she has been doing her best to change the lives of others by positively influencing hundreds of young people and her adopted hometown of Dubois, Wyo.
Bernard Didier stood atop a steep hill gazing down past a switch-backed dirt driveway to the red valley below. Hidden in a copse of cottonwood trees a couple hundred feet from a small rushing river sat a group of buildings. A little way apart was the main house, a single-story cabin structure nearly obscured by an overgrowth of sagebrush shrubbery.
Looking out over the mountains, he descended the hill on foot, remarking to his wife at his side, “This is the place, Leota.”
Bernard had fallen in love, and plans were forming in his head long before the couple, with real estate agent in tow, had inspected the dilapidated and lonely ranch. What he saw was opportunity and the chance to continue their mission – making a difference in the lives of youth and families through faith-based ranch experiences.
For three years prior, Bernard and Leota had led mission trips on a ranch in Rifle, Colo. After learning the business, the couple decided to buy a ranch and operate their own mission program. Bernard had extensive experience with mission camps as he and his father had run one for years near Alma, Mich.
Because of the ranch’s condition, the couple was able to purchase it at a fair price. They hired a neighbor to see to its restoration in their absence, and the following Easter in 1970, Leota and Bernard brought a group of youth from their church near Chicago to ready the place for campers. Steadily, the Lazy L&B Ranch emerged from the sagebrush.
From that first summer until 1982, Bernard and Leota hosted youth and families through mission camps and later, dude ranch vacations, at the Lazy L&B and nearby Elk Trails Ranch, which they later purchased. As pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Deerfield, Ill., Bernard had only one month each summer to devote to the ranch. The rest of the summer it was up to Leota, who is an Iowa farm girl through and through, and no stranger to hard work.
Over the years, Leota played a major role in shaping the lives of many boys and girls who traveled far from their homes – mainly the Midwest – to live on a working dude ranch for six weeks at a time during the summer. “Leota has a strong belief in helping young people find their way, and grow up in a good way,” said Rev. Lynn E. Cunningham, Esq., a member of the Dubois community who has worked with Leota on a number of projects over the years.
Leota likes to say that while she had just one daughter, Leota Ann, she has more than 50 children, and many still keep in touch today.
“This woman changed my life,” said Heath Woltman, who first came to the L&B with his family to dude the summer he turned 15. He instantly fell in love with ranch life and begged and pleaded with Leota to let him stay.
“I should’ve never have hired him as a wrangler, he was too young,” chuckled Leota. “But, I did. And, he turned out to be one of the best wranglers I’ve ever had. He came to Wyoming, and he never left!”
Summer after summer, Heath traveled to the L&B to wrangle. When he was old enough to strike out on his own, he settled near Dubois, later meeting his wife, Sarah, a native of Australia who wrangled for a neighboring ranch. Together, they now run Bear Basin Adventures, a wilderness outfitter that offers back country pack trips, fishing and elk hunting in the Shoshone National Forest near Dubois.
Despite running the up and coming Adventures, Heath still finds his way to L&B, to assist the new owners– the Halmays from Canada – get the beloved ranch up and running in time for the dude season. The Halmays are the second owners to purchase the ranch since Leota and Bernard sold it.
The L&B holds a special place in Heath’s heart, much like the woman who helped shaped the man he is today. “Leota is my idol and she continues to be,” he said. “A couple of years ago, she gave me her saddle. It was the greatest thing. It meant the world to me.”
Once, when Heath was 17, he was heading out on a ride with a group of people. His headstrong filly dumped him right in front of Leota’s house. She ran out immediately to see if he was alright. That day, a veterinarian happened to be riding out with the group. She had him tape Heath’s injured fingers to Popsicle sticks, and then offered him a bottle of Jim Beam.
Heath waved it away, “Oh, no. That’s alright.”
Leota looked at the young man, and said matter-of-factly, “Son, if I offer you a good bourbon, you better take it.”
Leota also believed in tough love. A decade or so ago, one Sunday in Deerfield she sat in her regular pew at First Presbyterian. A woman sat next down next to her. When the service was over, the woman turned to Leota and said hello. Leota must have had a quizzical look on her face because the woman added, “You don’t remember me do you?”
Leota couldn’t immediately place her, for she had not seen this woman since she was 14-years old.
“I was the girl you sent home for smoking marijuana in the bunkhouse,” she said. “I came here today to tell you, had you not sent me home, I don’t know where I’d be today.”
Leota’s tough act of love was a pivotal point in the young woman’s life.
In 2011, Reader’s Digest featured Leota as the “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” and lauded her for the many things she has done for the town of Dubois. After it published, she received a letter from a man who is now a police officer in Chicago. He had come to the Lazy L&B for camp when he was a youth. He wrote, “I might have been on the wrong side of the law had I not had you for a camp mother.”
Caring for others and providing are two things that Leota continues to do to this day. Soon to be 89-years-old in mid-September, she is still a force to be reckoned with in her small town of just under 1,000.
Since moving to town upon the sale of both ranches, Leota has poured much time and effort into enriching the lives and the opportunities available in the fairly isolated community. She has been a major catalyst and contributor to over 11 projects that have had a huge impact on Dubois, and probably many, many more that Leota keeps to herself.
She continues to give and invest in the lives of others – especially young people – because once, two men and a little university located in northeast Iowa invested in her life and the lives of her sisters.
In probably one of the first concepts of a work study program, Upper Iowa University developed an idea to assist the daughters of farm families in the surrounding area to earn a college education, thus providing them with valuable skills and knowledge to forge their own paths.
Collaborating on the idea was Bill Edgar, then superintendent of the Stanley School District. “He was concerned that there were so many families that had girls that were not likely to run the farms, and he wanted to see to it that they would get to go to college,” said Leota.
So, Edgar drove his car out to the field to see Leota’s father, Bill Morgan, who was working behind his team of horses. Bill Morgan was also a member of the Stanley School Board of Education. At the time, the Morgans’ second oldest daughter, Helen, was graduating from high school.
“He told dad that he had managed a double-gift kind of thing for Helen at Upper Iowa,” said Leota. “One, she could borrow the first semester. Then, the second semester, she could work as a secretary for one of the teachers. She did that for four years.”
Brother Clyde decided he would stay home and take over the farm once he finished high school, so that left Leota, and later, sister Wilma, to attend Upper Iowa University under the same special arrangement. Oldest sister, Mona, attended Gates Business School, while youngest, Mary, went to State Teachers College.
Leota majored in primary education, which only required her to attend college for two years before earning her degree in 1943 to teach first grade. While at Upper Iowa, she worked one semester as secretary for the president and borrowed money to finance the rest of her education. “The cost was $80 a semester,” she recalled. “So, I paid it back when I was teaching.”
Leota well remembers the University for making it possible for families like hers to send their daughters to college. In turn, she has given back to Upper Iowa, and is proud to speak about her alma mater and how she came to be a college graduate.
Leota and Bernard retired from dude ranching after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in the early 1980s. He passed away in 2003 while they were wintering in Arizona. Bernard was head pastor for First Presbyterian Church from 1960-1988, and spearheaded the construction of the church’s cathedral-style sanctuary from 1962-63.
The couple was known not just for the mission camps at the ranch, but they also spent a lot of time traveling on missions to Cancun and Mexico where they helped support many small Presbyterian Churches. Leota ran the kitchen for congregational meals at First Presbyterian and was a “fantastic hostess,” according to the church’s current secretary.
While living in Dubois, Leota became a member of St. Thomas Episcopal Church, and made it every Sunday with campers in tow. After moving to town, Leota became even more involved in the church, and even more in touch with the community’s needs.
When the idea of opening a shop in the town to provide affordable clothing and funds for community grants was discussed, Leota immediately jumped on board. Just north of the church, and on a corner, was an old gas station. Leota purchased it and gave it to St. Thomas Episcopal. The Opportunity Shop opened in 2006, and today raises enough funds to give back $8,000-10,000 each year to enrich community programs.
Directly across the street is DVI Corner, or Dubois Volunteers Incorporated. Where once a ghastly, neglected building stood, there is now a rustic one-story office building and landscaped memorial garden featuring two commissioned bronzes that commemorate the town’s heritage.
Leota was also one of the first supporters of Dubois Youth Activities (DYA), which started in 2008. A group of concerned parents and community members had gathered to discuss a need for an after-school enrichment program for youth. “We realized that a number of our students were falling through the cracks,” said Janet Glaeser, co-founder and vice president for what is now called the Boys & Girls Club of Dubois. “They were getting involved in drugs and alcohol and not doing well in school. Leota was there. She let us share our thoughts and ideas, and she was very supportive in helping us get the program started.
“In fact, Leota continues to be especially supportive of our young people in Dubois. Every year, she sits in the front row at graduation.”
Leota didn’t just support the group financially; she was involved in program development and was instrumental in its longevity. Just last year, the group became affiliated with the national Boys & Girls Club organization. The Dubois Chapter boasts just under 100 members, which is more than a fair share of Dubois youth when you consider that the 2013 Dubois High School graduating class had only 13 members.
When asked about which project she is most proud of, Leota’s first reply is the creation of the youth group, and the second is the resurrection of the Dennison Lodge.
The Dennison Ranch was located near the Lazy L&B. It was a common stop along their horseback excursions through the area. In fact, in its heyday it was a vacation destination for actor Clark Gable. The abandoned ranch eventually became the property of Wyoming’s Game & Fisheries Department.
It was rumored that “Game & Fish,” as the entity is known in Wyoming, was going to burn down the long forgotten lodge with its massive walk-in fireplace. Leota wouldn’t hear of it. She came up with the idea of moving the large cabin structure to Dubois, renovating it and making the former lodge into a community gathering place for weddings, musical events, wildlife lectures and various activities.
The process was not easy. En route the cabin broke into three pieces and the original fireplace collapsed. However, one would not know the ordeal the building endured – the lodge is properly furnished, the fireplace rebuilt and features a new impressive kitchen. It is aptly dubbed, “Leota’s Kitchen,” – it says so right on the wall!
Leota was also a supporter of a new library building, which features a reading nook named for Bernard. She is involved in the Headwaters Arts & Conference Center, a conference facility which also holds a major cache of area artworks, and is a supporter of the Dubois Medical Clinic and National Big Horn Museum.
She was the catalyst in starting a weekly rodeo, where local wranglers show off their roping and bronc-busting skills. The event also boosts commerce in the community and helps drive local tourist attractions. Leota is a frequenter of the Tuesday night square dances at Rustic Pine Tavern, although now she basically runs the door in lieu of kicking up her heels and do-si-do-ing around the dance floor.
Leota’s latest project was development of the Dubois Assisted Living facility. She and other members of the community saw the need to create a place for the area’s aging population to live when they can no longer safely reside in their homes. The facility opened this summer.
Leota (Morgan) Didier ’43 has devoted her life to serving others. Where once Upper Iowa University invested in her and the lives of other farm children, Leota continues to invest in the future of the Dubois community and its youth. Like Heath says, “If more people were like Leota, the world would be a better place.”
I was one of those original young people invited to prepare the rundown Ranch for gentle guests in 1970. My sisters and brother followed and we all felt Leota was not so much a second mother as a tougher, more intense, more demanding figure who loved you but would get the best out of you or wither you with a look. One thing I took away is a good boss lady will never ask you to do something she wouldn’t do herself. And THAT included a lot of things. Most impressive woman I’ve probably ever met. Yet, chatting with Leota 30 years later, I finally realized that under the tough exterior and distinctive gravelly voice she’s got a sweet, soft soul.
I read this with tears in my eyes as today we return to First Presbyterian Church in Deerfield to place my husband’s ashes in the Columbarium. Our family is more than grateful to Leota and Bernard for their love and care and influence on our lives! We have come full circle and now we have found our final resting place and home here in Deerfield! I am now 83 and now know where our family will be reunited when the times comes, not only in heaven but here on God’s beautiful earth! With much love, Marjorie Johnson. April 23, 2017
Here again for a second time! Celebrating Thanksgiving with Doug and family and reminiscing of our family times together at First Pres in Deerfield and the Lazy L & B! Sweet memories to last a lifetime! November 25, 2017. Marge Johnson, 6438 Old Hunters Run, Rockford, Illinois 61114