Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Discovering the magic of Santa in a small Minnesota town in March March 25, 2015

PEEF, THE MULTI-COLORED TEDDY BEAR created from the imagination of writer Tom Hegg and brought to visual life by artist Warren Hanson, has always held a special place in my heart. Because of my boy, who is no longer a boy but a young adult.

For his eighth birthday, Caleb's sisters created a PEEF cake for their brother.

For his eighth birthday, Caleb’s sisters created a PEEF cake for their brother.

Caleb loved his Beanie Baby-sized PEEF. Slept with the bear. Hugged him. Pressed his patchwork tummy over and over so the bear would squeak.

And then one day PEEF disappeared. Lost. Perhaps fallen from the van on a trip to Grandma’s house. Perhaps… I really have no idea what happened to this fur-roughened-by-little-boy-hands bear.

Somewhere, though, the first two PEEF children’s picture books are tucked away in a box in my house. Autographed during an author visit to Faribault in which Caleb posed for a picture with an over-sized patchwork bear. The location of that photo also eludes me.

PEEF The Christmas Bear reveals how the colorful bear came to be and how he also became Santa’s helper and friend.

This sign shows the artwork for the first PEEF book's cover with local Chad Winsell  as the Santa model.

This sign shows the artwork for the first PEEF book’s cover with local Chad Winsell as the Santa model.

Not until this past Saturday did I learn, though, that the model for that first PEEF book hails from West Concord, a rural southeastern Minnesota community of nearly 800. A sign attached to a chain link fence outside the town’s former school, now turned West Concord Historical Society and Community Center, identifies this town as the home of PEEF’s Santa, Chad Winsell.

Historical Society Director Janis Ray, who seems a reliable go-to source for all things West Concord, explained that Chad was friends with PEEF’s creators, thus became the inspiration for Santa. Chad definitely has that Santa look, that sparkle in his eyes.

Michael "Chad" Winsell. Photo from obituary published by Michaelson Funeral Home.

Michael “Chad” Winsell. Photo from obituary published by Michaelson Funeral Home.

On November 18, 2014, Chad, whose real name was Michael, died after living with a brain tumor for 14 years. He was only 64. When I read his obituary, I understood that this man was more than a model for a book. He modeled the spirit of goodness and kindness and generosity that defines Santa. And for a community to recognize that serves to remind all of us that no matter where you live, who you are, you are valued.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Photo of Michael “Chad” Winsell from the Michaelson Funeral Home website


You could be a model, James June 13, 2011

James and his Ford Ranger pick-up truck.

“JAMES, HAS ANYONE ever told you that you could be a model?” I asked as he leaned against the bed of his Ford Ranger pick-up truck for a quick photo shoot by me.

He didn’t really answer, which I’m to take as a “yes.”

With his all-American boy good looks, this fresh-faced Minnesota farm kid (adult, actually) could easily grace the pages of a fashion magazine, a print ad or even a television commercial.

His personality matches his boy-next-door appearance. James, not Jim or Jimmy, is down-to-earth, quiet, maybe even shy, with a playful smile and spirit.

Not that I know James all that well. He’s my niece Hillary’s boyfriend. But since my niece lives 2 ½ hours away, I haven’t spent much time with her significant other.

It was James’ Ford Ranger that caught my eye as he came barreling onto the home place (aka the farm where I grew up) during Hillary’s recent high school graduation reception. You can’t miss his truck with the stove-pipe-size exhaust pipes jutting out of the pick-up bed.

Impressed with the duo stacks, I moved in closer to check out James’ wheels. And then I discovered the redneck streak in this seemingly demure South Dakota State University agricultural engineering student.

Check out these bumper stickers:

As good an explanation as any for a dirty vehicle.

This bumper sticker doesn't reflect on James' driving skills, only his sense of humor. Don't take the message seriously, please.

Farm youth like James are typically quite adept at all things mechanical.

What do these tell you about James? Obviously he possesses a sense of humor. He’s also capable of keeping a vehicle running and confident enough to tell you.

But, wait, there’s more. His pick-up hood sports a tiger head, as in the mascot of Marshall High School, James’ alma mater. James also owns school spirit.

The tiger, Marshall High's mascot, defines the pick-up hood.

I really don’t have anything more to say about this southwestern Minnesota farm boy or his wheels, except to re-emphasize that I think James could be a model, maybe for Ford or John Deere. I wouldn’t want him to get into anything too Californian or New Yorkish so as to change his appealing rural charm.

What’s your opinion? Could/should James give modeling a shot to fund his college education? This idea is mine, not his, just to be clear.

One last shot of James' Ford Ranger pick-up truck, parked on the farm where I grew up just outside of Vesta in southwestern Minnesota.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling