Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

There are only two things certain in life, death & taxes, but not always October 15, 2015

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FOR A FLEETING MOMENT I thought I’d made an error.

You know that moment—when you think your luck has shifted and your day is about to become very good.

That happened last Friday when I received a letter from the Rice County Auditor-Treasurer’s office. Inside I found my check for payment of my second half property taxes. The check was being returned, the correspondence noted, because all taxes were already paid.

What? Had I made an error? I checked my records. No, no mistake. For a moment I considered that perhaps an anonymous philanthropist had paid my taxes.

Within the hour, I was at the Auditor-Treasurer’s office inquiring. Computer problems, the employee explained, resulted in the erroneous check return. I still owed $311 and could expect a follow-up letter.

Sure enough, the next day a letter arrived:

A snippet of the letter I received with identifying info cropped.

A snippet of the letter I received with identifying info cropped.

Rats.

How many other Rice County property owners received the first letter and momentarily celebrated? Legally, would a property owner need to pay his/her taxes if he/she received a “paid in full” notice like I got?

Why wasn’t the error caught before the initial letter was mailed? Are “issues with our computers” truly “issues with our computers?” Or can issues be traced to a human?

And, yes, I got a receipt from the county employee after my office visit. Proof that I’d paid my taxes. In full.

If you haven’t yet paid your property taxes and live in Minnesota, your second half payment is due today, October 15. Unless, of course, a mysterious benefactor has secretly paid on your behalf.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Marking the anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination & reflecting on a Presidential quote November 22, 2013

Dallas, Texas, 12:30 P.M. November 22, 1963: The President has been shot!

American flag edited

TODAY, ON THE 50TH ANNIVERSARY of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, we’ll be swamped with news coverage and memories recalled. Where were you when you heard the news?

I was inside a classroom at Vesta Elementary School in rural southwestern Minnesota. That’s it. I don’t remember my reaction or that of my teacher or my parents. But I had only recently turned seven, old enough to understand, but young enough that details did not imprint upon my memory.

My husband, though, remembers the phone ringing in the one-room country school he attended in North Dakota and the teacher’s announcement that the President had been shot.

On the day of Kennedy’s funeral, the Helbling family relocated to central Minnesota. I expect that for a 7-year-old, moving hundreds of miles away from extended family and friends was more emotionally gripping than the death of the President.

So, if I don’t have better memories than that to share, why am I writing anything at all today? Well, listening to the radio this morning, I heard this famous Kennedy quote: Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.

That got me thinking.

And then I read Bob Collins’ online NewsCut column over at Minnesota Public Radio (you really ought to read this daily if you don’t already). Collins also featured that quote in his morning 5×8 list.

That got me thinking even more.

It seems to me that today we expect our country to do too much for us. I don’t want to get into a heated political discussion here. But just consider how government, more and more, is intruding into our lives on so many levels with this law and that law, this government program and that government program. Frankly, it scares me.

Given the erosion of self-sufficiency in our society, it might do all of us some good to reflect today on Kennedy’s words and ask: What can I do for my country (or my community, church, neighbor, a stranger)?

I suppose that seems contrary to self-sufficiency. Allow me to clarify. I’m not anti-government or anti helping others. We need government assistance programs and laws that protect the vulnerable and those in need. We need nonprofits and charities and individuals to assist others.

But there seems to be a pervasive attitude, even expectation, among many Americans that government should solve all of our problems. And that just does not sit right with me.

Thoughts?

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Finally, a woman on the Steele County Board April 4, 2012

CONGRATULATIONS, STEELE COUNTY, Minnesota. You’ve finally elected a woman to serve on the County Board of Commissioners. It’s about time.

I could hardly believe the news when I heard it this morning on an Owatonna radio station. It wasn’t the election of a female that surprised me. It was the fact that it’s taken this long.

For the first time in its history, this southeastern Minnesota county will have a woman serving on its county governing board. She is Nina Huntington, a dental hygienist from Owatonna, who beat out opponent Doug Hughes in a special election on Tuesday to represent the Fifth Commissioner District.

Huntington won with 250 votes, or 60 percent, compared to Hughes’ 164 votes, according to an article in the Owatonna People’s Press. Only 10.25 percent of the district’s registered voters cast ballots.

Interestingly enough, Steele County also made headlines on Tuesday as Minnesota’s healthiest county in ratings released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. That study considers mortality, morbidity, health behaviors, clinical care, social and economic factors, and physical environment. Click here to read those study results.

So there you have it—Minnesota’s healthiest county now has a woman helping to govern it.

Huntington’s election in Steele County leads me to wonder this:

How many other Minnesota counties have never had a female serve on the county board of commissioners? If you have the answer or can direct me to that information, I’d like to hear. I would guess that number to be quite high.

Also, what do you think a woman can bring to county government that a man may not?

CLICK HERE to read an interview with Huntington published in the Owatonna People’s Press after she filed for office.

CLICK HERE to read the election results story in the OPP.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

An unlikely solution to the Minnesota government shutdown July 5, 2011

MY EXTENDED FAMILY likes to have fun, so we plotted this weekend to overthrow the Minnesota state government. Not to worry. We are all talk and no action.

But we definitely have ideas about who could run the state given the current legislature and governor can’t seem to handle the task of agreeing on a budget. That would be us. (Yes, the general feeling was a definite frustration with the current state government shutdown.)

Therefore, in a discussion that spiraled into hilarity, we overthrew the governor and put all of our people in place, most of us choosing to head up a state department based on our interests and experiences.

We also agreed that one of our first subversive, defiant acts would be to clamber onto the golden horses atop the state Capitol.

The golden horses and chariot atop the Minnesota State Capitol.

I’m heading up communications, a job I’m uncertain I can handle because I’ve been instructed to deliver only a positive spin on every bit of state government news.

The educators in the family were appointed to the Department of Education, the daycare provider to the Department of Health and Human Services. My eldest brother, by age default, became the new governor.

The outdoor-loving summer parks worker now manages the Department of Natural Resources. He’s always wanted to hunt alligators, so he’s bringing alligators to Minnesota.

Then the newly-appointed finance director, a family member pursuing an accounting degree, suggested that rather than return the alligators to Florida in the winter, we move them into the sewer system. We readily embraced that idea.

We didn’t debate the cost of an alligator hunting license.

But there may have been an unspoken agreement to lock current Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton and the legislators in a room with a contingent of angry, jaw-snapping alligators Minnesotans.

DISCLAIMER: The above story represents my version of the family political discussion and may not be representative of all family members. However, I am the Director of Communications here at Minnesota Prairie Roots. Therefore I am free to spin this story however I wish.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A look back at a 1951 graduation speech about communism June 5, 2011

I recently attended this graduation reception for my niece Hillary, who graduated from Wabasso High School.

A soon-to-be 2010 graduate of Westbrook-Walnut Grove High.

IF YOU’RE LIKE ME, you’ve received invitations to numerous high school graduation receptions. You’ll make the rounds, shaking hands with the new graduates, inquiring about their future plans, congratulating their parents and then grabbing something to eat (pacing your food intake) before moving on to the next reception.

If you’re like me, you also have not attended a single graduation ceremony, unless your child is graduating or you are invited to a small-town high school where seating is not limited to four spaces per graduating senior’s family.

Therefore, you probably have not heard a student commencement speech in some time.

About a week ago my niece graduated as valedictorian of  Wabasso High School, my alma mater, and gave a graduation speech, of which I’ve received a copy. Hillary spoke about the past and how it weaves into the future. “As we become the people we are meant to be, we can hold onto the memories of yesteryear and the hopes of tomorrow,” she said in part. “The one thing that will always remain constant is the change in our lives.”

Now compare that to the speech (see below) given by Hillary’s grandmother, my mother, at Wabasso High School 60 years ago. Class of 1951 valedictorian Arlene Bode spoke about “Our Part in the Fight Against Communism.”

When my mom first told me the title of her speech, I laughed. “Who gives a graduation speech about communism?” I asked, and laughed again.

An old fallout shelter sign on a building in downtown Pemberton in southern Minnesota.

Then my 79-year-old mother reminded me of the time period—the Cold War, the fear of the Soviet Union, the Korean War, fallout shelters—and I understood. She doesn’t recall whether she chose the topic or whether the subject was assigned. But the content gives some youthful, historical insight into the world six decades ago:

My father, a Korean War veteran, in Korea in 1953.

“WE, THE GRADUATING SENIORS, wish to take this opportunity to express our sincere gratitude to our parents, teachers, and all others who have helped us obtain our education.

OUR PART IN THE FIGHT AGAINST COMMUNISM

Communism is threatening the peace and security of our country. This is being brought more and more to our attention each day by the governmental leaders of the United States. We are sending our boys to Korea. We are conducting investigations to reveal any communist workers who may be in our government. We are sending Voice of America broadcasts behind the Iron Curtain to inform the people of how democracy works. But this is not enough. The tide of communism is moving ever forward. Most of Europe is communistic and it is spreading rapidly in Asia. This has happened just in the last few years. We must stop this tide before it is too late. It behooves us as graduating seniors to help in the fight against communism while there is still time.

Of course we must know what we are fighting against. The mere word communism is not enough. We must know what it means. The word communism is derived from the Latin word communis meaning common. It is said that communism is the distribution of income to each according to his need. They believe that all natural resources and most businesses should be owned by the government. They also believe in community ownership of property. This is the true meaning of communism, but it has an even greater meaning here in the United States. Senate hearings have shown that it is a politically controlled conspiracy, promoted by a foreign nation, for the overthrow of our government. If they should accomplish this overthrow it would be a decisive step toward placing the entire world under communistic government. According to Kenneth Goff, author of “Confessions of Stalin’s Agent,” the communist party has six main points in its program: Abolition of all governments, inheritance, private property, patriotism, family, and religion.

The communists strike first at the poorer class of people and at those who are not satisfied with present day conditions. They promise these people that under communism they will have all they want, such as rest, leisure, and social security paid by the State. But this is far from what really happens. What really happens is that these people lose their personal freedom and whatever they do is for the benefit of the communist party.

If we have an understanding of what communism means and how it works we can fight against it. Here are some of the things we can do.

Patriotism displayed on a rural Minnesota home.

We must at all times practice democracy. Democracy means a sharing of respect, a sharing of power, and respect for the dignity of man. Democracy is promoted by a balanced economic distribution and an enlightenment of the people. We should see that parliamentary procedure is used in all organizations to which we belong such as, church organizations, community organizations, and women’s clubs. It is important to secure the wishes of the majority of the people without wasting time.

We must set a good example by being democratic in our every day life and in our dealings with others by working toward a definite goal in life, setting up ideals to follow, being a neighbor to all people regardless of their race, color, or religion, showing good judgment in all we do.

In a few years we will have a voice in our government and we must do our best to keep communists out of it. We can do this by voting at each election, which is one of the privileges of living in a democracy and one which we must never lose. But just casting a vote is not enough. We should know who we are voting for by studying the policies of each candidate to see what he stands for.

If each and every one of us practices democracy wherever we are we have done our part in the constant fight against communism. The part we play may seem small, but every little bit counts if we are to win over communism.”

AFTER READING MY MOM’S SPEECH several times, I wondered how often we as Americans pause to consider the freedoms we likely take too much for granted.

“We must at all times practice democracy. Democracy means a sharing of respect, a sharing of power, and respect for the dignity of man.”

WHAT’S YOUR TAKE on this 1951 graduation speech? Are any of her comments relevant today? What particularly struck you about this speech? I’d like to hear your specific reactions.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Graduation speech © Copyright 1951 Arlene Bode Kletscher (Except for corrected errors in spelling, this speech is published here as originally written.)

2011 graduation speech excerpts © Copyright 2011 Hillary Kletscher

 

All things Civil War at the Minnesota Capitol May 17, 2011

IN NOVEMBER OF 2009, I met Brandon Peeters. He’s an extraordinary kid. Tomorrow he’ll be at the Minnesota State Capitol, leading the Pledge of Allegiance as our state celebrates Civil War Sesquicentennial Day.

That’s quite an honor for this seventh grader from Owatonna who has a passion for the Civil War. He teaches Owatonna students and others about the war, has visited many Civil War battlefields and belongs to the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment re-enactment group and the Cannon Valley Civil War Roundtable.

Brandon Peeters, front center, marches with Civil War re-enactors.

When Brandon discovered while working on a third grade family history project that his great-great-great grandfather, Valentine Katzung, served with the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment from 1861-1864, fought at Gettysburg and was shot in the left heel, he was hooked on history.

“Brandon is so excited and very honored to be included in the program,” says his mom, Cindy Hokanson. “Needless to say, Brandon’s passion for the Civil War has only gotten stronger. He actually has applied to be one of the nine citizen members of the Governor’s Civil War Commemoration Task Force.” He’ll learn in June whether he has been selected to serve on that board.

Civil War buffs aplenty will gather at the Capitol on Wednesday to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Events begin at 10 a.m. and continue until 2 p.m. with a noon program in the rotunda that will include speakers (Governor Mark Dayton, former Governor Al Quie and others) during dedication of the 2011-2012 Minnesota Legislative Manual, aka the “Blue Book.” This year’s edition is packed with Minnesota-related Civil War history and trivia.

Several members of the Faribault-based Cannon Valley Civil War Roundtable will participate in a Civil War Information Fair in the Capitol basement Great Hall. “We will have Civil War memorabilia, books, brochures and a Civil War band poster,” says CVCWR member Dan Peterson of Faribault. “It should be fun sharing with the public, other roundtables and some re-enactors.”

Several roundtables, authors, historical organizations and others will present educational materials and information to attendees. Some will dress as Civil War re-enactors.

Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Paul H. Anderson will dress in period costume during a presentation in court chambers. Civil War Capitol tours are also available at 10 a.m., 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.

Three Civil War cannons given to the First Minnesota Infantry Regiment in 1862 by Major-General A. H. Sanford, the American Ambassador to Belgium, are sure to be a hit with Capitol visitors on Wednesday.

It is the first time in decades that the trio of cannons—kept at Camp Ripley, the Minnesota Military Museum at Camp Ripley and in Montevideo—will be showcased in one location, according to information from the Minnesota Secretary of State’s Office. Two will be displayed in the rotunda and the third on the upper mall in front of the Capitol.

I’m certain tomorrow’s event will pack the Capitol with Minnesotans interested in the Civil War. Having attended one Cannon Valley Roundtable meeting and a recent Civil War event in Faribault, I know the passion people possess for this time in our nation’s history. I have yet to meet a young person more interested in the Civil War than Brandon Peeters. If anyone deserves to serve on the Governor’s Civil War Commemoration Task Force, it would be this self-proclaimed history freak.

If you’re at the Capitol tomorrow, look for Brandon. I expect he’ll be in his Civil War costume and sporting a smile a mile wide.

© Capitol photo copyright 2009 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Brandon Peeters photo courtesy of Cindy Hokanson

 

WARNING: Proposal would erode Minnesota’s Freedom to Breathe Act April 11, 2011

WARNING: Cigarettes are addictive.

WARNING: Tobacco smoke can harm your children.

WARNING: Cigarettes cause fatal lung disease.

WARNING: Cigarettes cause cancer.

WARNING: Cigarettes cause strokes and heart disease.

WARNING: Smoking during pregnancy can harm your baby.

WARNING: Smoking can kill you.

WARNING: Tobacco smoke causes fatal lung disease in nonsmokers.

WARNING: Quitting smoking now greatly reduces serious risks to your health.

 

I didn't need to search long or hard to find these cigarette butts. Two were tossed into one of my flowerbeds by a neighbor. I found the third in the street by my house.

Just as Minnesota legislators are considering proposed changes to the state’s Freedom to Breathe law, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is finalizing plans to modify warnings on cigarette packaging and advertising.

Following requirements of The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, the FDA has proposed that cigarette packaging and ads bear one of the above nine warnings along with a matching colorful graphic.

The shock value of the proposed graphics—like a toe-tagged corpse and a mother blowing smoke into her baby’s face—are an effort to make a powerful impact on the smoking public. Enough to make a smoker stop smoking.

The final graphics will be selected by June 22 and the warnings must be in place on all cigarette packages sold in the U.S. and in cigarette ads by October 2012.

As a nonsmoker, I’m all for this move to prevent, reduce or stop smoking.

However, I don’t support proposed legislation in Minnesota that would once again allow smoking in bars under specific conditions. Not that I frequent bars, but bars and restaurants are often interconnected, so this matters to me.

The plan basically would allow smoking in bars if a ventilation system is installed to remove the smoke. In bars connected to restaurants, the bar must be walled off with a door separating the bar and restaurant.

Come on. A door will not keep smoke from filtering into a restaurant. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t need smoke served with my meal.

I make no apologies for my strong stand against smoking and my intense dislike of cigarette smoke.

I’m also honest enough to admit that, in my youth, I tried tobacco products on several occasions, enough to realize smoking wasn’t for me.

My dad became addicted to cigarettes when he was in the military, serving on the front lines during the Korean Conflict. He preferred Camel cigarettes. Sometimes he also rolled his own.

My dad, a smoker for many years, first exposed me to cigarettes. Once he even let me puff on his Camel. Now before you start calling him an irresponsible parent, consider this.  He knew I’d cough and sputter and spit and never want to touch a cigarette again. He was right. Eventually he gave up smoking but never quit chewing snuff.

Although I never took up smoking, I was addicted to candy cigarettes as a kid. But candy cigarettes were as popular as Bazooka bubble gum back in the 1960s and no one thought anything of subtly encouraging kids to smoke via those chalky white sticks with the red tips.

As for the few Swisher cigars I smoked in my mid-20s, I offer no excuse except my ignorant, youthful stupidity. I bet many smokers who are now habitual tobacco users wish they’d never started.

If you’re a smoker and want to smoke in the privacy of your home, then go ahead. Just don’t invite me over because, physically, I can’t tolerate cigarette smoke.  I’ve had numerous bad experiences with cigarette smoke.

Back in the early 1980s, I worked for a southern Minnesota daily newspaper that allowed smoking in the office. I came home every night smelling like I’d been in a bar all day. My clothes reeked. My skin reeked. My hair reeked. I remember complaining, with several other nonsmokers in the office, about the smoking. Nothing changed, because the news editor smoked. She didn’t care. So what if the copy editor sat outside the conference room during the weekly staff meeting because he couldn’t tolerate the smoke? I wish I had joined him instead of breathing the toxic air. So what if the news editor should have been more considerate given the Minnesota Clean Indoor Air Act passed in 1975? None of that mattered.

My second worst experience with smoking occurred several years ago at a Winona hotel. The manager tried to pass off a smoking room as a nonsmoking room. The instant I walked into the room, I smelled cigarette smoke. The mobile air purifier that was running on high and the lack of a sign on the door stating that this was a nonsmoking room confirmed my suspicions. When I went to the front desk and demanded a nonsmoking room, the manager denied that he had given me a smoking room. I didn’t believe him. My nose and lungs don’t lie.

My other notable smoke experience also involves a hotel, this one at a southwestern Minnesota casino. I was there attending a cousin’s wedding reception. Although the hotel room my family booked was supposedly smoke-free, the odor of cigarette smoke filtered from the smoke-filled hotel lobby, halls and casino into our room. I barely slept that night because of the tightness in my chest caused by the smoke.

So, Minnesota legislators, listen up. Listen to representatives of The American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association and Clearway Minnesota, all of whom have been at the State Capitol opposing the proposed changes to Minnesota’s Freedom to Breathe Act.

Consider the 83.9 percent of adult Minnesotans (according to results of the 2010 Minnesota Adult Tobacco Survey) who do not smoke. Please keep our Freedom to Breathe Act intact and smoke-free.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling