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 Around the World in 83 years

UMD Alumnus Shares Life Story

frank and berdie
Berdie and Frank Antilla

Frank Antilla has experienced his fair share of life-altering events. He said his “strong will, perseverance, and deep faith” has guided him through his challenging life.

From riding the rails to Washington State, to the European Theatre of World War II with the Merchant Marines, to a job in the mining industry, a bachelor’s degree from UMD was a small chapter in Frank’s story.

Yes, he’s written a book. It’s called, “Left Home at 16” and it isn’t published yet, but knowing Frank’s determination, it will be soon.

Frank Antilla’s life story began in North Dakota in 1927 as the youngest of 15 children. Survival was unimaginably tough and by the time he was five, Frank had lost his father and moved to Minnesota with his mother and three of his older siblings.

His mother eventually got a job in a hotel in Bovey but before that, she and Frank had many adventures. There was lots of moving. They started their Minnesota life in a woodsy log cabin as part of a Finnish community. The older siblings moved on leaving Frank and his mother to find a house at Lawrence Lake. Life on a lake and living off the land for a year meant Frank learned to swim really well. He’d swim across the lake and back every day the weather allowed, and he ate a lot of fish.

When Frank was 16, he attended the ninth grade for two weeks before quitting school and working at the local mine in Bovey, Minn. “You had to be 18 to work in the mines, so I told them I was 23, said Frank. “I was very deceptive, or in other words, I was a liar.”

The company wanted him to produce some sort of identification. Frank evaded them as long as he could and enjoyed the thrill of a man’s wages and security for his mother. When he couldn’t stay there anymore, he packed up and headed west.

“I hitchhiked and rode the rails until I got to Spokane, Wash. where I got a job as a bus boy at the Davenport Hotel,” he said.

Frank saw men walking down the street in uniforms that he didn’t recognize. They were Merchant Marines. Frank lied about his age again and signed up to join the Merchant Marines. He needed his mother’s signature.

“I went into a bar and asked the bar maid there to pretend to be my mother and she said ‘Sure, sonny, where do you want me to sign?’”

Just one 10-day training session later, Frank was an “ordinary seaman” on the M.G. Zalinski during World War II. He’s got dozens of stories about travels on various ships to the Aleutian Islands, Belgium, Scotland, England, France, and Japan. He saw ships go down and lived through hurricanes.

When the Allies invaded France in 1944, the work began for Frank and his crewmates. They towed barges, cranes, and floating platforms across the English Channel.

While his ship, the LT 363, was docked to unload a British crane, Frank watched about 50 planes each hour fly overhead. It was December 29, 1944 at 3:15 pm. He said, “As I was staring into the sky, a rocket was over the ship, and the engine stopped.” He ran to the mess hall to alert his crewmates and then made it onto the dock. The V-1 exploded only 50 feet from Frank and sent him airborne.

He was taken to a hospital to be checked out. He was suffering from cold, shock, and fear, but was otherwise unharmed. The ship however, “looked like it had been through several wars and lost them all.” The bomb had flattened the wheelhouse.

Frank continued in the Merchant Marines for a time but after the war and his discharge in 1947, a chance meeting impacted the rest of Frank’s life. He met Berdie Wivell at a dance in Pengilly, Minn.

“I had never been to that town before. I grew up in Cloverdale, and my friends and I just decided to go to a dance that night,” said Berdie. “I was meant to be there.”

Frank didn’t stay in Minnesota long that time, but he did stay in touch with Berdie. He and a friend ended up in Washington and got jobs as loggers. Afterward, Frank got a job as a wheelsman on ships on the Great Lakes.

When Frank was in port in Duluth and Two Harbors he could visit Berdie, and they got married in 1951. Frank settled down with Berdie in Little Marais, Minn.

After three years working in construction on the taconite plant in Silver Bay, Minn., Frank landed a permanent job with Reserve Mining Company. He worked for them for 27 years, first in the maintenance department, later in the industrial engineering department. He and Berdie raised three boys.

Frank Antilla's book


The change in departments at Reserve Mining meant that Frank, a high school drop out, had to go back to school. With the convenience of UMD just over an hour’s drive away from home, Frank, along with other Reserve employees, went to work during the day and attended night classes at UMD.

“It was always a fun trip to UMD,” Antilla said. “We would go to work, hop in the car, and head to Duluth. After class we would go back home, sleep for a bit, and repeat the process all over again.”

Because Frank didn’t graduate from high school, he had to take an equivalency test to get into UMD.

“I remember asking the administrator, ‘Do you think I can cut the mustard at UMD?’” Frank passed and enrolled in night classes. He also took summer classes and earned his bachelor’s degree in English literature in seven years. He graduated in 1977.

Despite the busy days of working in the mines, going to school and studying, and then driving home late at night, Frank and his coworkers made time for celebration after the semester.

“After finals there was always an occasion to celebrate with the guys, so we would do that and get home a bit later,” said Frank.

While Frank was still working at Reserve Mining, he and Berdie started their own gift shop business on the North Shore of Lake Superior. They called it Antilla’s Gifts and filled it with high-end “beautiful gifts” that Berdie and Frank gathered on their buying trips through Scandinavia.

Five or six years ago, both Frank and Berdie, decided to come back to UMD and enroll in University for Seniors classes. While Frank takes an interest in history and Berdie an interest in art, they both take a few classes together each semester.

Through writing his book, Frank is taking a long look at the past. “I’ve had a life of gratitude, hope, and true fulfillment,” he said. Knowing his background, it is safe to say, Frank’s adventures aren’t over.

Written by Samantha Lefebvre; edited by Cheryl Reitan

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