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1 in 3000: Denise Lillis keeps Perham’s drivers on the defensive

Driving instructor Denise Lillis poses for a portrait on Tuesday morning. Lillis has been a driving instructor since the '80s. (Carter Jones/FOCUS)
I am a city boy, born and raised in the suburbs of Minneapolis. My entire world changed when I took a job at the Perham Focus as the newspaper's main reporter in December. Now, I am here, in a town of just over 3,000 people, learning what small town living is all about. Perham started surprising me right from the start, and I quickly learned that I don't want to just report what's happening in Perham, I want to report on the people who make this town tick in the most inconspicuous of ways. Some people have a way of always attracting the spotlight, but my “focus” will be on those who quietly go about their day making this community a better place to live. And since this is my new journey, too, and my "city" eyes are fresh, I wanted to document the adventure of discovering what this "Perham pride" thing is all about. Everybody in Perham has a story, unique in their own way … 1 in 3,000.
Meeting Denise

Denise Lillis moved to Perham in 1970 after her dad retired from the military. After going to Concordia and marrying a “local boy” she moved back in the ’80s to be a paraprofessional at the high school.

After the long-time driver’s ed instructor stepped down, Lillis started the instruction, a spot she’s been in ever since.

Behind the wheel, everyday is a new day for Lillis. People always ask her if she’s always bored or scared teaching the latest crop of teen drivers.

“If I do six kids in one day, each one of those kids is different,” Lillis said. “They know different things, their personalities are different. You never know what to expect.”

Lillis says teaching youngsters to drive doesn’t begin with her, she’s just one piece of the puzzle.

“Kids don’t learn to drive when they’re 15, 16. They learn to drive when the parent turns their car seat around, because now they’re already watching,” she said. “They’re going to start mimicking behavior. They’re listening, they’re observing, so they follow through.”

Most of Lillis’ job is taking the student’s concept of what driving is, and putting it in a place where it needs to be.

“They get in the car and they think they know, they sit in that classroom for 30 hours, and they roll their eyes,” she said.

It doesn’t take her students long to realize how much more involved driving is.

When she’s not teaching new drivers, Lillis gives defensive driving refresher courses to drivers 55 and older.

The hardest part of teaching these classes is getting people out of their ingrained habits.

“I’ll say to these people in my defensive driving class, ‘how many of you stop at stop signs?’”

After they all say they do, Lillis responds “no, you don’t. What you think you’re doing is maybe what you think as a stop.”

Lillis says after driving for multiple decades people feel too safe, because nothing’s ever happened. She often reminds her students it only takes a second of not paying attention to get in a crash.

Cellphones have also become a major distraction now that everyone has one, according to Lillis. Cellphones are also competing with all the other technology in cars that is here to stay.

Lillis said people need to realize the level of distractions that are taking their mind off the road.

“People don’t realize that people are watching them. You’re in that car, but people think they’re invisible in a way, we see what you do, you’re driving is noticed,” she said. “It’s communicating to people.”