The proud image shows a Korean War veteran, bent at the waist, unable to stand fully upright and wearing his American Legion hat. He still proudly saluted the U.S. flag, a poignant picture the family had no idea was being taken at the time.
It was Veterans Day and Delmer “Stuffy” Steffens of Fairmount had no intention of sitting down when the flag passed.
“It was really important for him to stand up and salute. I said, ‘Dad, I think it’s OK that you sit down.’ He said, ‘no, I have to salute the flag,’” said Lori Miller, rural Fairmount, who is Steffens’ daughter. She stood beside her dad and steadied him so he could honor the flag.
Steffens, 90, has been a fixture in Fairmount his entire life. Quick witted and ready with a smile, he worked during the day at Steffens Insurance Agency, which is run by his son Kirby. Stuffy Steffens answered the phones, collected the mail and did countless tasks to keep himself busy. He also organized the monthly Fairmount American Legion breakfasts for the past 31 years. The Dec. 1 breakfast is the first time in years he will not be in attendance since he is at Bethany Homes on University in Fargo, slowly recovering from a bacterial infection in the left hip he had replaced years ago, Miller said.
How quickly things can change
This illness struck quickly. One day Steffens seemed fine, and practically the next he was taken to CHI St. Francis Health in Breckenridge, Minnesota. Doctors ran tests and discovered he had an infarcted appendage that twisted and was causing problems. It was thought the diseased material was removed and area cleansed during the surgery, she said.
Steffens was getting better — at first —until he started going downhill, Miller said. He was taken by ambulance to Essentia Health at Fargo after turning septic. “They told me after the fact, but he was minutes from dying,” Miller said.
His family was told he wouldn’t live longer than two weeks. He has five children — Miller, Kirby Steffens of Fairmount, Monty Steffens of Randall, Minnesota, and Marty Steffens of Fargo. His son Randy Steffens has passed away. That was a shock to the family who went from not having to worry about their dad’s health to hearing he would soon die, she said.
In fact, he didn’t die. Today Steffens is slowly regaining his strength. Miller said it isn’t known if he will resume an independent life at Fairmount. It depends on how well he regains strength, she said. The lack of agencies that supply 24-hour nursing care in rural areas is another factor limiting his return home.
“We’re not saying never. We tell him to get stronger. He asks, ‘what am I supposed to be doing?’ He was always doing something so this is hard. ‘You are to try and get stronger so maybe you can come home,’” Miller said.
On his 90th birthday, which was Oct. 24, school children and teachers at Fairmount Public School made a big poster and signed it, then brought a balloon and card. Miller said he had tears in his eyes when she pointed out the card was just from the children who rode his bus. Steffens was a long-time school bus driver, starting in 1946 and driving off and on until 2016. That poster is on the wall of his nursing home room so he can see it.
Steffens spends a lot of time sleeping, and his conversations with family are short, much shorter than what used to come from their vocal dad, but as Miller pointed out, his days are the same — waking up and sitting in a wheelchair because he cannot walk unassisted. That is basically it.
One mystery about Steffens remains to this day. How did he become known as Stuffy? He is known by this nickname more than the Delmer found on his birth certificate. Miller said he has had the nickname since the first grade.
“He can’t remember how he got it, or who gave it to him. They had a group of boys and all of them had a nickname — his happened to be Stuffy,” she said.