Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

An obituary that needs to be shared January 18, 2023

This is a partial photo of Mark DeWitte’s obit published in The Gaylord Hub. I intentionally focused on the information in column two, middle paragraph. (Minnesota Prairie Roots edited photo January 2023)

HE LIVED THE BEST LIFE POSSIBLE.

That statement in the obituary of a 52-year-old Gaylord man may not seem extraordinary. He died on December 21, 2022, of cancer. But nowhere in Mark DeWitte’s obit does it state that he died after a courageous battle with cancer as is commonly seen in death notices. The only references are to a recent diagnosis and a move home to be with his family while in hospice.

Rather, the health diagnosis which led to that living the best life possible assessment is schizophrenia. Mark was diagnosed at the age of 16, which means he lived with this awful, debilitating brain disorder for 36 years.

DISPELLING THE MYTHS

That Mark’s loving family chose to publicly reveal his schizophrenia in print speaks to the depth of their love, their support and their courage. The misunderstandings attached to this disease all too often create fear and stigma, adding to the challenges of what is already an overwhelming health condition. Visions of violence, split personalities and other negative behaviors too often color schizophrenia with untruths. The National Alliance on Mental Illness defines schizophrenia as “a serious mental illness that interferes with a person’s ability to think clearly, manage emotions, make decisions and relate to others. It is a complex and long-term medical illness.” (I encourage you to read more details about schizophrenia on the NAMI website by clicking here.)

It should be noted that schizophrenia manifests differently in individuals and, although incurable, can often be managed with medication, therapy and more. Managed. Not cured. It’s not easy, but it’s possible to live the best life possible. Mark clearly did that within the confines of his symptoms. But he didn’t do it alone. He had a family who loved him, a community that cared and professionals who supported him. For the past eight years, Mark lived at Aveyron Homes.

Mark’s obituary offers glimpses of what brought him joy: Music. Going out with his brother Mike for beer twice a week. But, most of all, his family brought him joy.

RIPPLING INTO THE FAMILY

Schizophrenia, like any other long-term health issue, affects the entire family. The DeWitte family acknowledges that, not in any specific statement but rather in their willingness to write about their loved one’s life-long disease. Too often, we fail to recognize or even acknowledge the challenges of a serious mental illness and how it affects those dealing with and touched by it. Generally, there are no meals delivered during a mental health crisis. No “how are you doing?” questions or offers of help. Minimal, if any, compassion. Rather, the reaction is often one of silence, as if not speaking about “it” negates the need to show care or attempt to understand. There are exceptions, of course, and we as a society are slowly shifting towards understanding and acknowledgment and reducing stigmas about mental illness. Still, mental illness remains mostly hidden.

BREAKING THE SILENCE

Mark’s family is breaking the silence via their openness about his schizophrenia. It’s clear from a follow-up public thank you published in their weekly newspaper, The Gaylord Hub, that the community supported them. Linda DeWitte (Mark’s mom) and Michael DeWitte thanked the community for food, cards, flowers, memorials and even for snow removal. I can only assume the community also supported them when Mark was alive.

That Mark lived the best life possible while living with a horrible horrible disease comforts me. His family may not have stated that he died after a courageous battle with schizophrenia. But in my eyes he did.

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FYI: I encourage you to visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness website (click here) to learn more about mental health issues like schizophrenia, bipolar, depression, anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder and more. NAMI offers information, support and help, including online and in-person support groups. Check your state’s NAMI organization for specifics. NAMI is a valuable resource that can grow knowledge, compassion and understanding.

© Copyright 2023 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Two friends, loss & resilience December 16, 2022

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Light, beautiful light, breaks through the grey as the sun sets. (Minnesota Prairie Roots edited & copyrighted file photo December 2017)

I READ A LOT. News. Books. Obituaries. And sometimes something touches me in a way that makes me want to cry at the cruelty of humanity. That happened this week when I read a tribute on an online obituary for a 45-year-old Faribault-born man.

I didn’t know Allen. I have no idea why he died. But he clearly was loved.

Yet, life wasn’t always easy for him, as his friend Rachel notes in her comment. She remembers the times they hung out on her front porch as teens “talking about nothing at all and everything.” I love the wordage of that remembrance. But then Rachel continues. “He always has (d) a smile and a kind word for everyone even though he was made fun (of) as much as I was.”

In that singular sentence, my heart simply broke. I know Rachel, enough to believe her truth. I admire her for writing that truth, not only about herself, but about the friend she says she will always miss.

Why were people mean to Allen and Rachel? And to me? I, too, was picked on as a child and pre-teen, sometimes even as an adult. Decades later the memories of those hurtful words still sting. Rachel’s comment reveals the same.

Yet, despite the teasing, Allen maintained a positive attitude with his always smile and kind words. That says something for his resilience, his ability to overcome, at least outwardly. He had a good friend in Rachel.

As I reflect on this, I follow the lead of these two friends. If you’ve endured meanness, I think you can go two ways—become just like the bullies or choose to be kind and empathetic. Allen, Rachel and I chose kindness. My compassion for those who are picked on/bullied/teased/made fun of, whether as children or adults, runs deep. In this moment of reading Rachel’s thoughts about Allen, my heart simultaneously breaks and swells with gratitude for these two friends who talked about nothing at all and everything.

THOUGHTS?

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Marcy’s memorable obituary from southwestern Minnesota March 14, 2022

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IN RECENT YEARS, I’VE TAKEN to reading obituaries printed in my local newspaper, the Faribault Daily News, and also online. That includes checking the obit listing on KLGR radio in Redwood Falls, the county seat of my hometown county. Extended family and many other people to whom I’m connected live in southwestern Minnesota.

I am of that age when the generation just ahead of me is passing at a rapid rate. That includes my mom, who died in January, and my father-in-law a year earlier. But young people also die, usually unexpectedly. That includes my cousin Randy, who died suddenly at the age of 50 just two days after my mom. And then a cousin’s 48-year-old stepson shortly thereafter.

It’s a lot, this death. And while death is difficult, it’s part of life and we will all some day face our earthly mortality. That’s reality.

Obituaries not only publicly inform us of deaths and funeral/burial details, but they also reveal information about the deceased. Most are written in a straightforward manner of factual life basics. Birth, marriage, education, occupation, interests, family. That sort of stuff.

Martha Schewe. (Photo source: Stephens Funeral Service)

But once in awhile I find a stand-out obit unlike any other. That would be the obituary of Martha Ann Schewe, 74, of Danube, who died March 4. “Marcy/Tractor Mimi/Pizza Grandma/Murphy” was, according to the record of her life, welcomed into heaven with a flyswatter and a hot plate of pierogi. And, yes, I had to Google pierogi, which is a Polish staple dumpling—dough wrapped around a savory or sweet filling and cooked in boiling water. That flyswatter and pierogi hook hooked me into reading the story of Marcy’s life.

And what a life it was. Pennsylvania-born, she eventually landed on a Minnesota farm with her native-born husband. Marcy met Jim at a dance in DC and they corresponded daily for 16 months while he was stationed overseas during the Vietnam War. He even mailed an engagement ring to her. That arrived on Friday the 13th. She waited a day to open the package.

I encourage you to click here and read Marcy’s obit in its entirety. It’s worth your time to read about this woman who was determined to leave rural life behind after a childhood of following “a heavily wooded, bear infested road to the bus stop, delivering milk from her parents’ dairy farm to the neighbors along the way.”

Love and life had a way with Marcy, who would grow to embrace farm life in southwestern Minnesota.

Details reveal a woman who loved family and life. But she disliked squirrels, even grumbled about them. There’s a whole lot more packed into her obituary. Please read it. Yes, I’m repeating that because you really need to read Marcy’s story (and the comments in her guestbook).

Marcy’s obit ends with this loving, humorous conclusion: Her fierce and vibrant spirit is carried on by her soulmate, her 5 children, 9 grandchildren, 5 great grandchildren, 7 siblings, a handful of hated squirrels, a menagerie of farm animals, and a whole wide world full of longtime friends, some of whom she hadn’t gotten around to meeting yet.

What a way to be remembered.

TELL ME: How would you like to be remembered? 

Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A strong message from a man who died of COVID-19 June 11, 2021

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Robert Tersteeg. Image from KLGR website.

HIS LAST NAME, Tersteeg, grabbed my attention as I scrolled through the local funeral announcements on the KLGR radio website. I occasionally check the site since I grew up near Redwood Falls.

Back when I lived in this region of southwestern Minnesota, I associated the surname Tersteeg with a grocery store in this Redwood County community. My mom shopped there and my siblings and I sometimes accompanied her.

But the obituary was for Robert Tersteeg, 46, of Minot, North Dakota, and a native of Bird Island. Not someone from my home county, but from neighboring Renville County. Still, I read the obituary given Robert’s young age and familiar name.

He died on June 3 at the University of Minnesota Hospital “after a fierce battle with COVID-19.”

Now that could be the end of the story. But Rob’s family—or more accurately Rob—wanted more to be shared about this “vicious virus.” The part that humanizes COVID-19, that reveals the regrets of a man who died from the virus:

Rob’s final wish was that his journey with COVID might save even just one more loving husband, son, father, uncle, friend. Rob regretted not being vaccinated and, immediately upon hospitalization, made Amy (his wife) promise to vaccinate the kids (Nikolai, Olivia, Kaylie).

Saturday morning those who loved Rob will gather for his funeral at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Bird Island. He is not just another number in the statistics of COVID deaths. He was a family man who loved and was loved. And now he is gone, too soon, leaving one final wish—a desire to save lives with his message to “get vaccinated.”

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NOTE: If you are anti-vaccine, please do not comment on this post. I won’t publish your comment on this, my personal blog. I feel grateful to Rob’s family for publicly sharing his final wish/message in a desire to save lives.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

In memory of little Lynnaya, words of grace December 15, 2016

lynnaya-espinoza-perrizoHOW DO YOU WRITE an obituary for an 8-year-old, especially a child who was the victim in an apparent murder-suicide?

With grace, dignity and joy.

I didn’t know Lynnaya Espinoza Perrizo (listed in a Faribault Police Department news release as Lynnaya Stoddard-Espinoza). But I feel now like I do because of the words penned in her just-published obit.

She was a girly girl, a creative and giving soul who loved to give gifts, sometimes toys from her toy box. She danced. She loved—her dogs, her cousins, her brother,…Jesus.

But there’s more to her story. Little Lynnaya, at age five, endured the loss of her godmother, Jodi Oborn Perrizo, who had legal custody of Lynnaya along with her husband, Ryan Perrizo. Jodi reportedly died of a heart attack in January 2014 at the age of 39.

Eight months later, nine days before Lynnaya’s sixth birthday, her birth mom, Sarah Matheny, died at age 27. Her obit does not list a cause of death.

That’s a lot of loss for a child.

Perhaps that’s why Lynnaya is called “a leader, intuitive, strong willed and independent, with a maternal nature beyond her years.”

How many of us as adults could handle that much loss in such a short time frame?

And how many of us could write an obituary that says Lynnaya was deeply loved by “Daddy Ry Ry,” the man who according to investigators took her life. Ryan is referenced several times. In a loving way. To write that takes a great deal of courage and forgiveness and sets the tone for others to deal with this tragedy. And perhaps that is the greatest tribute anyone can give Lynnaya, to honor her with words reflecting grace and forgiveness.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Image from the Boldt Funeral Home website

 

The death of a most generous soul, the candy store’s nonagenarian November 28, 2016

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I NEVER KNEW HIM. Only photographed him in early October. But I saw in him—in the curve of his spine, in his hands, in the flour on his pant leg—a man passionate about his work.

Herbert R. (Hippy) Wagner, 91, entrepreneur, businessman, and owner of Jim’s Apple Farm and Minnesota’s Largest Candy Store in Jordan, died on November 21 following a sudden illness. So says his obituary published in the Duluth News Tribune.

 

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I regret not introducing myself to this man while visiting the signature yellow candy store along US Highway 169. There I spotted Hippy behind the pie counter, rag in hand wiping the countertop where I presume pie crusts are rolled and/or pies assembled. I purchased a caramel apple pie, still warm from the oven and tastefully delicious.

 

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While waiting in line for that pie, I snapped these images. They are favorites from my candy store visit. I learned of Hippy’s death while researching to publish these photos.

Timing.

As I read his obituary, it wasn’t Herb’s successes in business—he also operated the family-owned Wagner’s Supper Club back in the day— or his many years of community involvement/service that most impressed me, but his generosity.

While a Merchant Marine walking through Antwerp, Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge, he gave away all of his rations to starving children.

That giving spirit, according to his obit, continued throughout Herb’s life:

He was extraordinarily generous in large and small ways, from baking home-made bread and personally delivering it to the home-bound, to lending money to people who were “down on their luck” and could not get a bank loan for a business or home.

But there’s more. Faith and family were of utmost importance. He was the father of ten and a devout Catholic. He loved classical music and sometimes awakened his children to the rousing marches of John Philip Sousa piped throughout the family’s house. And I know that he also loved polkas, the only music played at the candy store.

To be remembered in an obituary with such loving words and memories speaks volumes to Hippy’s character.

I would have liked him.

FYI: Click here to read my recent series on Minnesota’s Largest Candy Store. And please check back for one final post featuring my favorite photo from that visit.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

An obit: I didn’t know Jim, but now I do April 27, 2016

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A fence surrounds the Urland Lutheran Church Cemetery in the Sogn Valley area.

A fence surrounds the Urland Lutheran Church Cemetery in the Sogn Valley area. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2010 used here for illustration purposes only.

MORE AND MORE, I READ OBITUARIES. Probably because I am aging and more people I know are now dying.

I didn’t know Jim Mueller of Clearwater, though. Yet I still read his 22 column inch obit published April 21 in The Gaylord Hub, a small southern Minnesota weekly where I worked as a reporter for two years right out of college. The Hub arrives in my mailbox each week, a tangible reminder of my past and of the passage of time.

James Henry Mueller left his hometown of Gaylord in 1973, five years before I arrived. If he had still resided there, I likely would have interviewed him. He was that kind of guy. Socially active. A storyteller. A businessman. A character. He would have made for an interesting feature.

Consider this line from the beginning of his obit: Jimmy grew up doted on by his ma and arguing with his pa.

But it is the ninth and final paragraph of this lengthy obit which makes me wish I’d known this 88-year-old:

Jim’s many hats included: Veteran Navy Man, Well Driller, Grain Bin Mover, Beer Seller, Horse Wrangler, and Postmaster. He was a smooth dancer and an ace at bridge. He will fondly be remembered as a Teller of Tales, A Spinner of Yarns, and a Preacher of Sermons.

In addition, paragraph eight notes that Jim donated his body to science. Even in death, his story continues.

NOW IT’S YOUR TURN. How would you like to be remembered? What hats would others say you wore? What do you think of this trend to personalize obituaries with insights and commentary?

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Minnesota Faces: Rural community volunteers March 6, 2015

Portrait #10: Helen Newman and Cindy Packard

Helen Newman, left, and Cindy Packard work on a Morristown sesquicentennial scrapbook in June 2013.

Helen Newman, left, and Cindy Packard work on a Morristown sesquicentennial scrapbook in June 2013.

When I photographed life-long Morristown resident Helen Newman nearly two years ago clipping newspaper stories and taping them into her community’s sesquicentennial scrapbook, I knew I’d met a cherished volunteer.

She was settled behind a teacher’s desk with Cindy Packard, visiting her hometown from Colorado Springs, on the June afternoon I walked into the District #54 Schoolhouse Museum with my notebook and camera. My presence didn’t stop Helen from focusing on the task at hand. She understood the importance of saving documents.

But there was more than dedicated volunteerism that drew me to the then 87-year-old. Her friendliness and gentleness of spirit reminded me of my mom. I think, had they lived in the same rural area, they would have been friends.

Helen died on Monday. She was all I assessed her to be, and more.

Her obituary is a beautiful tribute to a woman who led a joyful life. She clearly worked hard, loved deeply and lived out her faith in God.

Her four surviving children wrote an especially heartfelt obit that includes this descriptive paragraph:

Our Mom was a kind and generous person who believed the best in all people. She was a wonderful friend. She believed in us and was our biggest cheerleader. Some of our favorite memories of our Mom are: Her wonderful smile that would light up a room; her love of dancing; her awesome full-body hugs; her boundless energy; her green thumb; and her canned beef and pork chop dinners.

What a wonderful way to be remembered—for believing in others, for kindness, for dancing…and for canned beef and pork chop dinners.

FYI: To read Helen’s full obituary, click here.

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This is part of a series, Minnesota Faces, featured every Friday on Minnesota Prairie Roots.

 

What to do with a chicken sandwich & 200 pounds of cheese September 15, 2013

Imprinted on a paver near the Lake Harriet Bandshell in Minneapolis. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Imprinted on a paver near the Lake Harriet Band Shell in Minneapolis. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

TYPICALLY I DON’T READ obituaries, unless I recognize the name of the deceased.

But perhaps I should.

This week, thanks to a Michigan blogger (click here), I learned about 85-year-old Mary A. “Pink” Mullaney of Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, who recently died. She left quite a legacy, as noted in her obituary.

For example, Pink advised going to church with a chicken sandwich tucked inside your purse. To feed the homeless.

Feed the hungry, kiss babies, visit those in nursing homes…the list of Pink’s empathy and care for others is lengthy.

She also offered practical advice on shoeing away possums (use a barbecue brush), reuse of panty hose (tie up the toilet flapper, for one) and a place to keep your car keys (under the front seat).

You simply must read Pink’s obit. Click here. I promise you will laugh and cry and reflect on how you live your life.

The second obituary to catch my attention, for Barry Corder, 58, of Cottonwood, Minnesota, was published in The Redwood Falls Gazette, the newspaper from my home county. He recently died unexpectedly.

When I read the paragraph about Barry making news at age 12 under the headline, “Local Boy’s Creation Responsible for Hundreds of People Reporting UFO Sightings,” I knew I was reading about an extraordinary man.

He was, like Pink, a generous person of faith, often bartering or giving away his family’s possessions, always helping others. You need only read the condolences to Barry’s family to understand the kind of man he was and the impact he made on others.

The obit paragraph that grabbed my attention, though, noted the problem of what to do with a 200-pound block of cheese that Barry made:

Survived by…his wife, Deanna, Cottonwood (who is trying to figure out what to do with 200 pounds of cheese), five sons, two daughters (who do not want the cheese) and four daughters-in-law: Antje, Nikki, Amanda and Susan (who cannot wait to sample said cheese), 16 grandchildren (who will end up eating much of the cheese) and numerous nephews and nieces (who will be getting cheese for Christmas).

In their grief, Barry’s family honors the husband/father/grandfather/uncle who made them laugh by sharing his wit in an obit laced with humor. What a suitable tribute.

You simply must read Barry’s obit. Click here. I promise you will laugh and cry and reflect on how you live your life.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling