Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

One Minnesota family’s emotional story: Graduating during COVID-19 May 20, 2020

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo, May 2016.


FOR WEEKS, WE’VE HEARD and read news stories about the Class of 2020 and the disappointment students feel in missing out on so much of their senior year due to COVID-19. It is the tradition of the graduation ceremony, complete with caps, gowns, speeches and “Pomp and Circumstance,” that seems the greatest loss. And the gathering of family and friends afterward to celebrate.


Graduates toss their caps following a past graduation ceremony at Faribault High School. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


All of that said, schools are getting creative with their celebrations. Faribault High School is planning a Graduation Drive Thru to award diplomas. That includes inviting students, over the next two weeks, to walk across an outdoor stage and pose for photos with cut-outs of the school superintendent, principal and others. This will be pulled together in a video for a virtual graduation ceremony.


Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo from Westbrook-Walnut Grove High School graduation in 2010.


Down in the extreme southwestern corner of Minnesota, Worthington High School is also planning a virtual graduation ceremony followed by a car parade. One vehicle per graduate and family. Rural Nobles County is among the hardest hit in our state by COVID-19 following a virus outbreak in a meat-packing plant. In a county of just under 22,000, there have been 1,394 confirmed cases of the virus (as of Tuesday).

But this isn’t just another list of statistics. My friend Gretchen and her family live in Worthington. And eldest daughter, Katie, graduates this month as valedictorian of the WHS Class of 2020. She is heartbroken. Her mom also feels the emotional let-down of this long-anticipated day.

Gretchen is also an exceptional writer. When I asked her to write about graduation for the blogging ministry I lead at Warner Press, she quickly agreed. The result is a powerful post that tells her family’s story with uncut, raw emotion. I invite you to click here and read through the pain, the disappointment and then, the words of a high school grad wise beyond her years. I promise, you will feel moved by this family’s story. A story that personalizes the challenges for the Class of 2020 in a way you will remember.


A Tufts University graduate decorated her graduation hat in 2016. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo. There will be no high school or college graduation ceremonies like these this year.


I encourage you to leave a comment for Katie and Gretchen on the Warner Press blog post or on the Warner Press Facebook page in addition to here. I am grateful to my friend and her daughter for sharing their thoughts. It is stories like theirs that reveal how COVID-19 is affecting the Class of 2020 in a deeply heart-wrenching way.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Reflections on graduation & time passages June 11, 2015

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ON THE AFTERNOON MY HUSBAND and I dined at Teluwut in Lake Mills, Iowa, family and friends were filtering into Jayde Thompson’s graduation reception across the street at the Senior Citizen Center.


Lake Mills Iowa grad reception signs


The juxtaposition of that reception venue was not lost on me. Young and old. Beginnings and endings.

Not that senior citizen is an end. But it’s nearer ending than beginning. And although those of us who qualify for senior citizen status may sometimes feel young at heart, we no longer fit the physical definition of young.

All too many days now I wonder how the years vanished. I was once a Jayde Thompson, albeit not a cheerleader, embarking on life, eyes focused on the future. Today it’s not as much about the future as about yesterday. Or perhaps it’s that I think more now about my children’s futures.

May and June mark periods of transition for many families. Passage of time. Ceremony and applause and tears. Moving forward and standing still. Time gone. Youth beginning that all too quick movement of days, weeks, months and years that propel into the future, to wondering where yesterday went.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


A Minnesota high school graduation in snapshots June 4, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 9:42 AM
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Faribault High School graduates enter the gym for commencement Sunday afternoon as family and friends look on.

ALL ACROSS THE U.S., high school students are graduating or have graduated. Families and friends pack bleachers to witness commencement ceremonies, to listen to talk of the past and of the future.

It is a bittersweet time for parents.

For students, the day is one of of mixed emotions. Happiness. Sadness. Excitement. Perhaps a bit of trepidation about life ahead.

On Sunday afternoon, the youngest of my three children, my son, graduated from Faribault High School. I didn’t cry, didn’t get all emotional and introspective. I expect the tears will come later, when we drop him off at his North Dakota State University dorm nearly a five-hour drive away.

In the meantime, in these final two months, I will embrace each day I still have my boy home. For I know that not only will his life change, but so will mine.

The seven valedictorians, with GPAs of 4.0, speak at the graduation ceremony.

The class of 247 students toss their caps after diplomas are awarded.

My eldest daughter checks to see if her little brother’s diploma is signed.

The typical pose in front of the school photo, of my son.

The ever-changing/growing diversity of Faribault as seen in this post commencement gathering outside the school.

My family in our backyard after commencement.

Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


A graduation party nightmare June 3, 2012

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Myself, apparently.

I awakened Friday morning with a headache so pounding severe that I popped two Ibuprofen before even going to the bathroom. Yes, that bad.

It seems the stress I hadn’t been experiencing about my son’s high school graduation party morphed into a single, full-blown episode of tension. I blame it on my inability to fall asleep on Thursday night and the party nightmare that followed when I actually drifted into fitful unrest.

Before details of this dream tumble from my fingers onto the keyboard, you need to know that we live along a busy, arterial street in Faribault, as in it can take a good five minutes for traffic to clear enough to walk across the roadway.

So…, I dreamed that four children were playing with four balls and four balls rolled across the lawn and down the street followed by four running children. I swooped one teeny, tiny girl from the street. I then deposited all of the children with their partying parents and instructed them to watch their children. I then stashed away all the balls.

Reality is that I am setting out a coloring book and sidewalk chalk (to be used on the driveway) for the kiddos. The only balls will be attached to string in a ladder golf game.

Later in my dream, these same kids, accompanied by their mothers, traipsed into my living room, opened the front door and attempted to bring a bird into my living room. My mother said it was OK. No, mom, it is not OK to bring a robin into my house.

Weather, certainly, has been foremost on my mind given I am a Minnesotan and we obsess about weather. Although the weather forecasters are promising a beautiful Saturday, I apparently, subconsciously, do not believe them as I dreamed skies were stormy, black as night. Imagine that.

I also dreamed a certain unnamed relative arrived at the party as if he had been partying all night. BTW, only water and lemonade will be served at the real party. And that would be water in a thermos cooler, not bottled, per my graduate’s eco friendly request. (He dislikes bottled water.) A friend suggested simply hooking up the garden hose to be über eco friendly.

I dreamed that hordes of unwanted strangers showed up at the party.

Those extra guests probably explain why we ran out of food by 1:40 p.m. when the event began at 1:00 p.m. Doesn’t every party hostess worry whether there will be enough food?

I know, this nightmare is getting incredibly long, isn’t it? But just a few more scenes, and I’m done. I dreamed my oldest daughter’s boyfriend, whom I am meeting for the first time today, was bonked in the head by something. This stems from my real-life concern that he will bump his head on a doorway in our house which has only 7-foot high ceilings. The boyfriend is six-foot-five.

To my second daughter, I would request that you not wash t-shirts and hang them on the clothesline during the party. FYI, my clothesline, when in use, is strung across the patio.

There. That’s it. Can you understand why I woke up with a splitting headache on Friday morning, pre-party day?

P.S. I FAILED TO PUBLISH this post on Saturday as planned because I was a wee bit distracted by the graduation party we were hosting in the afternoon.

My nightmarish dream did not become reality. The weather was absolutely splendid. Sunshine and mid-70s with no humidity.

No kids ran in the street or brought birds into my house.

We ran out of nacho cheese sauce and had seven buns left.

A few uninvited guests showed up. But the oldest daughter invited them and they are her friends and they were nice and we’re good.

The boyfriend did not bump his head on any door archways and I like him very much, thank you.

And so that, dear readers, is how this dream ended, in a reality that was not at all nightmarish. Not at all.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Reflecting on hugs, green beans & the future on the final day of high school June 1, 2012

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My son graduates from kindergarten at Faribault Lutheran School in May 2000.

I DID NOT EXPECT melancholy to wash over me Thursday morning as I hugged my 18-year-old goodbye on his final day of high school.

But I suppose, now that I think about it, why wouldn’t I feel somewhat sad after 21 years of sending off-spring off to school.

I made it a point, with all three of my children, to send them out the door with a hug and a kiss and a “Have a good day at school.” Well, at least that was my intention. As the grade-schoolers became pre-teens and then teens, the kisses were often skipped. But not the hugs. No, not the hugs.

Thursday morning, on my son’s final day of classes, I embraced him in a lingering, vise grip hold. I expected him to resist such an emotional display of affection and pull away. But he didn’t. Instead, his lanky arms gripped tighter around me, both of us understanding this to be a bittersweet moment we wanted to remember, or at least that I wanted to remember.

Just the evening before, my son asked if I remembered his first day of kindergarten. I paused and then realized that, no, I did not recall that first day of sending him off to school.

But I did remember the day he got in trouble from his kindergarten teacher for stuffing green beans into his milk carton at lunch time. And I do recall the day he came home proclaiming he loved Mrs. K more than me. I’m pretty certain that was prior to the disappearing green beans trick.

Turns out he truly didn’t love Mrs. K more than me and he still doesn’t like green beans.

The disappearing part, though…how did the years between my son’s birth and age 18 disappear so quickly? Poof. Just like that he’s all grown up and ready to venture into the world without those morning hugs.

When my 18-year-old arrived home from his final day of classes Thursday afternoon, I welcomed him with a hug.

“That’s it,” he said.

He has no idea. It’s only the beginning.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


A mother’s thoughts on prepping for a third child’s grad party May 16, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 6:37 AM
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BY THIS TIME six years ago, and two years prior to that, I would have had everything planned. Right down to the last food and decorating detail.

But now, the third time around, I am less stressed about the high school graduation reception which my husband and I will host for our youngest in a few weeks.

I suppose you might say the third time’s a charm. Or you might say that by child number three, I’m more relaxed. That would be true. It’s not worth worrying about weather or if I’ll have enough food or all those other details that can stress a graduate’s mom. Everything will fall into place or what will be will be.

That said, recently I finally forced the graduating son to help me design and print invitations. We’re keeping it simple—black and white photo paired with a slip of paper upon which the party information has been printed.

The soon-to-be graduate also assisted me in setting up a system to print computer generated addresses upon labels. I know those labels fail to meet Miss Manners guidelines. But I am lazy with this third graduate and prefer easy and convenient over hours of hand-addressing envelopes.

I was spoiled with the previous two graduates, both daughters. They pitched in, designed their own photo display boards and were otherwise helpful in the party planning. My boy has no interest in any of this.

A photo display board of my boy through the years. The images kept falling off, until I attached them with photo corners.

So I was left to peruse photo albums, to choose photos of my son and then organize them onto a tri-fold display board.

I’ve e-mailed extended family and asked for kitchen help and pans of bars for the party. They’ve obliged. We help each other like that.

Nine hams, bought on sale before Easter, are stashed in the freezer as are three batches of cookies.

I did a trial test of the cheesy potatoes I planned to serve and have subsequently replaced that menu item with easier-to-prepare and less-costly baked beans.

My florist sister has potted flowers that will serve as centerpieces upon tables draped with vintage tablecloths. It is better if I don’t think about the pre-party ironing.

My husband replaces crumbled stones on a backyard limestone pathway.

The husband has redone a portion of the partially crumbling backyard limestone pathway. We can’t have guests tripping on rock. He just began cleaning the garage, which will center the reception along with several tents. We have a working man’s garage packed with two work benches, a tool box and equipment everywhere. Nothing pristine and bare or neat and orderly about our exposed-studs garage.

We’re not planning to paint rooms, shampoo carpet or otherwise upgrade our house. Except to use the bathroom, guests are supposed to stay outside.

But when they do venture indoors to use the facilities, I hope they won’t notice the section of cardboard-covered wall in the dining room where a brick chimney was removed 2 ½ years ago. Maybe they will appreciate that the bathroom faucet does not leak; the husband recently replaced it.

I hope the kitchen crew doesn’t twist off the leaky and worn kitchen faucet or wonder too much why I haven’t yet replaced the vintage brown kitchen sink or yellowing cupboards or the Formica countertops or the aged vinyl flooring. Perhaps several strategically-placed bottles of wine will keep them from focusing on the flaws…

© Copyright 2012 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.


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


Embracing diversity in small-town Minnesota June 7, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 3:21 PM
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THREE DECADES AGO, maybe even two decades ago, you never would have seen this in rural southwestern Minnesota.

But of the 54 seniors graduating from Westbrook Walnut Grove High School on Sunday afternoon, 15 students were Asian. That’s remarkable in an area originally settled by primarily Scandinavians and Germans.

Seeing those dark-haired, dark-eyed graduates with olive-toned skin among students with fairer complexions struck me more than any single aspect of the WWG high school graduation ceremony.

Hearing surnames like Yang and Vang among Jensen, Erickson and Schweim, simply put, pleased my ears.

Demographics on the Minnesota prairie certainly have changed in the 36 years since I graduated from nearby Wabasso High School. In my class of 89, all of us were Caucasian. Our only cultural exposure came through the foreign exchange students who attended our school.

Thankfully, that has changed, at least in some rural Minnesota communities like Walnut Grove and Westbrook. Walnut Grove, childhood home of author Laura Ingalls Wilder, is home to many Hmong families and boasts a Hmong grocery store. Jobs, primarily in nearby Marshall, and affordable housing apparently drew these immigrants to this rural area.

For young people like my blonde German-Norwegian niece, who graduated with the WWG class of 2010, cultural diversity has always been a natural part of life.

As I sat in the WWG gymnasium Sunday afternoon contemplating this, I watched a Hmong man across the aisle from me videotaping the ceremony. I wondered about his background. Had he fled a war-torn country? What had he endured? Did he feel accepted here? Was this the first generation of his family to graduate from high school? Did he miss his homeland?

A Hmong man videotapes the Westbrook Walnut Grove High School graduation ceremony Sunday afternoo.

Later, when slides of the graduates flashed upon a big screen at the front of the auditorium, I noticed several photos of students in traditional Hmong attire. They are a people proud of their heritage.

When I listened to the WWG High School Choir sing “We Are the World,” I appreciated the appropriateness of the song and pondered how this mixed ethnic group really is the future of our world.

I don’t know how the folks of Westbrook and Walnut Grove welcomed the Hmong. I expect initial adjustments were not always easy for long-time residents or for the newcomers. I expect there are still occasional clashes.

In Faribault, where I live, we still have much to learn as Somali, Sudanese and Hispanic people integrate into the community. Certainly, strides have been taken to bridge differences through efforts like those of the Faribault Diversity Coalition.

But I’ve heard all too many derogatory remarks about minority populations—about the Somali men who hang out on downtown sidewalks, about the Hispanics involved in drug crimes, about the gangs, even about the bright green color painted on a Mexican bakery (which, at the urging of some local businessmen, has since been repainted a subtler green to better fit the historic downtown).

Perhaps if we had, like the WWG class of 2010, grown up together, we would be more accepting of each other.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling