Prairie Lights: A remarkable woman’s amazing life story

I met Marion Dozier in 1996 or 1997, when I was working as a reporter and wanted to do a story about efforts to clean up some of the most blighted properties in Billings.

Marion, who was a city code enforcement officer at the time, filled me in on some of their efforts, but then she had a better idea. We hopped in a city vehicle and she gave me a guided tour of a handful of the worst eyesores in the city, complete with a running commentary on the city’s history with each property, and some pointed comments on the property owners in question.

It was vintage Marion, I would come to find out: direct, hands-on, no holds or opinions barred.

I would write many more stories involving Marion over the years, including stories about the South Side Task Force, of which she was a founding member, and about Over, Under and Around, a group she also helped found in hopes of doing something about the railroad traffic that regularly bedeviled motorists and pedestrians in downtown Billings.

She fought to save Garfield School, she railed against what she thought was an underhanded method of creating a citywide park district — essentially a large, new property tax — and she resisted efforts to make the South Side what she called a dumping ground for corrections and addiction treatment facilities.

Buy a copy of the book

For a copy of Marion Dozier’s self-published memoir ($16, plus postage), write to her at mldBLOCKHEAD@vcn.com.

She hounded the Police Department to do something about the drug dealers who seemed to operate with impunity in her part of town, and she became a prolific writer of letters to the editor, offering up helpings of criticism, suggestions for improvement and no-nonsense opinions.

I knew all that, and I knew that she had been a two-term member of the City Council, a life-skills attendant at a minimum-security women’s correctional center in Lockwood and a YWCA Salute to Women honoree in 1992.

What I didn’t know was how she became the amazing and rather formidable woman she still is. Now I know, at least to some extent, because Marion has written a memoir titled simply “Blockhead,” covering the first 19 years of her life. If anything, the memoir only makes the woman she became more amazing still.

Born in 1941 on an isolated farm in Wisconsin, Marion had a grim, loveless childhood. She and her three sisters were raised by parents who never showed them any real affection, and who generally spoke to them only to give them orders, usually tacking on a phrase like “you stupid sons of bitches” or “you damn dumb asses.”

Her father was a harsh disciplinarian with a hair-trigger temper, which meant Marion and her sisters (one of them Marion’s twin) spent their childhoods on pins and needles, always afraid of setting him off. Her mother wasn’t as mean, but she was a city girl who had married a dirt-poor farmer, and life on the farm apparently robbed her of whatever affection she might once have had.

Marion tells the heartbreaking story of being hospitalized with appendicitis when she was in the fourth grade. Her mother visited her in the hospital and brought her some gifts and goodies — an unheard of act of kindness, and then kissed her on the cheek before leaving.

“It was the first kiss I can ever remember getting,” Marion writes. “I turned my head to the wall with tears running down my face. It hit me for the very first time in my life. Ma must love me. I thought I would never wash that side of my face again.”

But her mother, when she saw that Marion had been crying, shattered the moment by asking her, “Now what the hell is the matter with you?”

And so it goes, time after time: Marion always hoping for some fleeting indication of affection, or, barring that, an acknowledgment that she has done something well, something admirable or useful. But the affection never does come, nor a single word of praise or encouragement.

To make matters worse, when the four sisters suddenly find themselves with a little brother, this odd thing with a “tail,” their parents shower him with love, and with toys and treats and gifts of all kinds. The “tail-less” girls figure that’s just how the world works, another tough break in lives full to the brim with them.

And yet somehow Marion’s life story is not unrelievedly grim. She makes her peace with the parents she can’t understand and whose good traits she recognizes and appreciates, and she makes the best of her life anyway. She is close to her sisters and makes close friends at school.

She clings greedily to Mrs. Tobias, the cook at their two-room school, who always has a smile for Marion and thanks her profusely for any help she gives her. Marion even takes to riding her horse to Mrs. Tobias’ house, ostensibly to visit her daughter, Margie, but feeling happy when the daughter was away.

“Mrs. Tobias didn’t know that I never came to see Margie,” Marion writes. “It was her kind words and good feelings I came to soak up.”

Marion also finds a kind of salvation in her dog, Puddles, and her horse, Ginger. Her father was always cruel to animals, kicking any dog or cat that got in his way, breaking the tails of ornery cows and beating his horses and mules — including one mule he beat to death.

That was Marion’s revenge, in a way, to be selfless in situations when her father would be cruel, to bring relief and love in situations where her father would be his narrow, heedless self.

And despite all the disappointments and heartbreaks and sunken hopes, Marion has dozens of happy stories to tell and pleasant memories to relate. Since she couldn’t hope to please her parents, she learned to please herself, working hard in school and on the farm, saving money and spending it wisely, coming up with ingenious ways to get chores done.

The book ends on a happy note, too. Marion, who has never been 100 miles from home, somehow ends up landing a job as a cafeteria worker in Yellowstone National Park. On April 27, her 19th birthday, in Minneapolis, she boards a train for the first time in her life, bound for Livingston, Montana.

Marion told me she is working on the sequel, on the story of her new life in Montana and in Billings, where she raised her own family and has lived in the same house on the South Side for 53 years.

I look forward to Vol. II, and I would recommend her book to anyone who knows Marion, or knows of her and all that she has done for Billings. It’s a book younger people should read, too, to understand what difficult, cramped lives people lived not very many years ago and yet still managed to make themselves into good, caring adults, into the kind of citizens we could use a lot more of these days.

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