Anne Carlsen was born in Grantsburg, Wis., on Nov. 4, 1915 without forearms or lower legs. Her parents, four brothers, and older sister nurtured her and as she grew it was quickly apparent that her mind was keen and she used every opportunity to educate herself. Her family members were her biggest advocates, doing all they could to encourage her education. Her father once told her, “Anne, two arms and two legs missing aren’t as important as one head that’s present. The best way to make that head help is to get it educated.” And educate, she did.
She learned to swim, play baseball and every other game her friends played. She walked or ran with the help of her kiddie car. She learned to attend to all sorts of tasks by using her arm stubs including writing and feeding herself. As an adult, she learned to drive a car. In 1964 she took a carload of daring friends to the World’s Fair in New York City! Once she started her formal schooling at age eight, she breezed through, often completing two grade levels in one year. “My brothers would carry me to and from school. When there was snow on the ground, they would strap me to a sled and pull me to school,” she said. “I had tremendous support from my family and friends. “She graduated from eighth grade at age 12, and despite a long hospitalization for surgery and therapy while in high school, she graduated from St. Paul Luther Academy at age 16. She then learned to use artificial legs.
With a burning desire to become a teacher, she went on to college, graduating cum laude from the University of Minnesota in 1936. Despite her excellent references and transcript, Anne had difficulty getting a job during the Depression era and encountered discrimination along the way. An avid reader and writer, for a short time she considered pursuing a journalism career. Instead she accepted a job in 1938 at Fargo’s Good Samaritan School for Crippled Children, which moved to Jamestown in 1941. “I bought myself a new dress and hat and a Greyhound bus ticket and headed west to Fargo. I had never been to North Dakota. I was offered $25 a month, plus room and board. I thought I was at the peak of my career,” she said.
After the School moved to Jamestown, Anne spent four summers at the University of Colorado in Greeley completing her master’s degree. She then took a leave of absence from the School to complete her doctorate in education at the University of Minnesota. She returned to Jamestown and became the School’s principal, only to be named its administrator in 1950. She held the position until her retirement in 1981. She served as a consultant to the school and a mentor to its students until her death. “It was built on love and operated on faith,” she says of the School. “It provides children with empowerment. Empowerment is going from dependence to independence. “Throughout her career, Dr. Anne was propelled to national prominence as a disabilities advocate. In 1958 she received the prestigious President’s Trophy as Handicapped American of the Year, an award presented annually by the President’s Committee on Employment of the Physically Handicapped.
“I was so thrilled when I receive the (award). Richard Nixon (then vice-president) put his arm around me and said ‘Dr. Anne, would you like to go into politics?’ I looked at him and said, ‘Maybe, someday.’”
“Getting a job is the most desired goal for many handicapped people,” she once said. “An individual with a disability can’t be ruled out of a job just because of their disability. “
Dr. Anne’s lifelong work with the Anne Carlsen Center was a labor of love. She continued to keep in touch with many of the students who graduated from the Center and she kept an office at the Center where she spent much of her free time corresponding with former students, family and friends.
In 1985, the Center made Dr. Anne a lifetime fixture when a bronze statue of her with a young child was dedicated at the Center’s front entrance. Dr. Anne’s strong national voice helped propel efforts through the years to advance the status of physically and developmentally disabled individuals.
“Handicapped children and adults are no longer second-class citizens,” she said in a 1979 book “Dr. Anne” (Augsburg Publishing House).
“If I have helped in any way to bring this about, then my work here at Jamestown has had a purpose.”
Dr. Anne Carlsen’s life story is an inspiration for anyone who has ever had a physical disability or who has known someone with a physical impairment. Her triumph over her own physical handicap to become a world-renowned disabilities advocate has inspired countless people.
Anne passed away Dec. 22, 2002 at the age of 87. During her 60-year career she received numerous awards and honors, but her greatest satisfactions as an educator and mentor, she said in a 1981 interview, were the graduates of the Center.