Many commuters in Cottonwood know Ione Hazelton, even though they may not know her name. She is “the walking lady,” and that’s how she likes it.
“I just love to walk and do my errands, but early in the morning before it gets hot,” the 86-year-old said.
Hazelton was born in Philadelphia and “came up” during the Great Depression of the 1930s, along with three brothers. Unfortunately, early in those years, her mother died and so did one of her brothers.
“My father lost everything — his house, his wife and one of his sons — so we went to Florida, leaving my two older brothers behind. My father was a carpenter and he did jobs along the way to earn money,” Hazelton said.
Her father, John Niehenke, raised her, and she loved living the outdoors life she had with him.
“He was stern and you minded him; but he was a good father,” she said.
From Florida, father and daughter traveled throughout the Southeast, living in several communities and attending 11 schools while growing up.
As the two settled into a community, Hazelton located the nearest church and joined their choir, regardless of denomination.
“I loved to sing, but I don’t much any more,” Hazelton said.
In Washington, D.C., she sang in the Holy Comforter Episcopal Church. She heard a group of them were going to gather at the cathedral.
“I joined and we sang a concert there in the 1940s. They’re still there and singing,” Hazelton said.
At the Zion Lutheran Church in Wilmington, Del., Hazelton took a group of choir members to the mental hospital in town and sang a well-received concert.
In Hartsville, S.C., she joined the choir at St. Bartholomew’s Church.
“That was during segregation, and the blacks had to sit in the balcony. I prayed so hard that they could sit where they wanted. Then Selma [Ala.] happened and Congress passed the Civil Rights, and I said, ‘Thank you, Lord,’” she said, placing her hands together and looking up.
One job Hazelton had before she married was as a telephone operator. That was when the operators connected one chord to another on a huge switchboard.
Once married, Hazelton stayed home for 30 years, raising her two daughters: Linda, who is married to Tom Swanson, and Sandra, whose husband is Reginald Yande.
Yet, nothing kept this woman down. When her daughters were gone on their own, Hazelton went to work at the “Star Tribune” in Minneapolis. She was the newspaper’s librarian for 13 years.
She became known as the Candy Lady. She always had some on hand at her desk, and the reporters would stop by — several times a day — to raid her supply.
“She became like a mother to the reporters. Even the publisher came down to get candy from her jar,” son-in-law Tom Swanson said.
Hazelton’s love of nature came out in the form of a rescue one day while in Minneapolis. She saw a mother duck come out of a graveyard with her six babies and head for the highway. Well, Hazelton stopped the traffic so they could cross.
The ducks headed down an alley and Hazelton followed them to another roadway. Again she stopped the traffic for them. Then she saw a police car and waived him down.
“I asked him if somebody could gather up the ducks and take them to a lake where they’d be safe,” she said.
Unfortunately she couldn’t recall if the deed was done, but she hopes it was.
While she was at the paper, the union decided to strike against the bosses. The strike lasted 27 days in 1980 and, as the librarian, Hazelton recorded everything that happened and every article written about the strike. Her work is part of the historical record.
Since retiring from the newspaper, Hazelton has enjoyed her grandchildren and many of the activities they enjoyed — even ice fishing.
“I went with my grandson, Michael, to a lake in Minnesota, and sat on a bucket for six hours in the cold on the ice,” Hazelton said and laughed. It was the first and last time she went ice fishing.
Not long ago, Hazelton moved to San Diego where the Swansons live. According to Swanson, his mother-in-law used to hang out at the McDonald’s downtown. People would come and sit down with her and ask for advice.
“There’s just something about her. People are drawn to her. She’s an absolutely giving person. In San Diego she’d give away her umbrella or $1 if a person needed one,” he said.
Hazelton and the Swansons moved to Cottonwood in 2005. She likes it here.
“I have lived in 10 states, and I’m glad I lived in 10 states so I can see the different cultures. Cottonwood is the kindest place on earth. People offer me rides, but I tell them, ‘No thanks; I’m a walker,’” she said.
Although she is 86, in her spirit she is 16 going on 17, she said with a coy smile behind her bright eyes.
As an aside, Hazelton commented on this year’s presidential race.
“Historically speaking, having a black man running for president and an old person running for president, and a woman in the race, I think is wonderful. People are going to look back at this and say we were OK,” she said.
Hazelton can be seen nearly every morning making her way down the street, a little hunched at the shoulders and always wearing a hat and coat. People wave or honk, and always say, “hello” as they pass her by — even if they don’t know her name.