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A busy, sometimes noisy, year at M State-Wadena

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Monty Johnson saw the stars align over Wadena this summer.

M State-Wadena's dean of students had been looking at storm clouds out his window all day June 17 and had been part of the decision to delay the Summer of Fun parade that evening when the sirens went off in Wadena. Like many others, Johnson headed for the safety of the basement in his home on Seventh Street -- one block west of the campus.

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When Johnson emerged from his basement shortly after 5 p.m., he found he was standing at Ground Zero. His home, like many of his neighbors' homes, had been destroyed by the EF4 twister that struck Wadena. The tornado had slammed directly into Wadena-Deer Creek High School just across Colfax Avenue and the 45-year-old brick building was in ruins. In one of nature's strange caprices, 49-year-old M State-Wadena was left standing.

The Johnsons took an elderly neighbor who had been injured to M State for safety and later made sure she reached the hospital for treatment. In the days that followed Johnson had to deal not only with the loss of his own home but the need to transfer classes to Detroit Lakes because of $5 million worth of damage to M State.

Johnson found himself in the middle of something else, too. Wadena was suddenly thrust into the spotlight and aid poured in from all over the state. Volunteers lined up to pitch in and help. Media coverage gave a face to the disaster and in the days that followed Wadena started on the path to recovery. Johnson was receiving help from neighbors and even from people he did not know.

One of the biggest contributions was made by Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System Chancellor Jim McCormick when he made the timely announcement that M State-Wadena would remain open. McCormick was wrestling with a $93 million shortfall in state funding but he lifted many hearts when he announced that M State-Wadena would be offering classes in the fall. One of those hearts belonged to Johnson, who had been worried about the future of 90 local instructors, who were every bit as important to him as the 600 students the college serves.

Johnson was just one of many in Wadena who realized that other people had problems as big or bigger than his own. He still had a college to run. Those neighbors of his on the north side of Colfax had nowhere to go. Johnson offered District 2155 16 rooms for WDC's top four grades and the district gratefully signed a lease. The decision to co-habit with the high school had been born. M State-Wadena had offered college accredited classes to WDC students for years but moving into the same building meant an even tighter bond had to be forged.

"That's what education is about," Johnson said.

No one can say the integration of two schools into one facility has gone without a snag but classes for both the college and the high school opened on time. Johnson and WDC principal Tyler Church made the scheduling of classes for both school's work with amazingly little effort.

"The early conversations and all of the planning we did, I think that was the key," Johnson said. "We were fairly confident we could make it happen."

The rest has been up to the faculty and the students.

High school instructors have had to get used to taking their materials with them when they leave a room. That is an inconvenience they did not suffer in their old building.

College students have had to put up with more noise.

"The only thing that really bothers me is that it's really loud during lunch," radiological technician student Emily Mikkelson said.

There is a general agreement that the decibel and energy level at M State-Wadena has shown a marked increase. Some WDC students yell during lunch and when they return to their own wing they are not too fussy about the mess they leave behind them.

"They're sloppy and they're loud," M State-Wadena student Mark Koone said, but since he does not any classes in the same part of the building he does not regard them as stumbling block. Koone agrees with construction electric classmate Seth Connell that the administrations of both schools are doing a good job of making the arrangement work.

Special education paraprofessional Kristi Ice sees the loud lunch breaks from a different point of view. She remembers much more hectic lunch breaks at WDC High.

"We think it's kind of calm," Ice said.

The cosmetology department is located in the same wing as the high school class rooms so instructor Rory Wgeishofski has received a good dose of high school behavior.

"I think it's been a benefit to the college," Wgeishofski said. "I think it's been a great thing to bring that energy onto campus."

Not all of his students would immediately agree with Wgeihofski.

"Their Homecoming week was bad," cosmetology student Becca Curtis said. The problem at the time mainly stemmed from the fact that WDC students wanted to celebrate one day and M State-Wadena students were there to learn. There has also been a certain amount of resentment because one group is receiving a free education while the other is not.

Curtis called the first days of the merger "hectic" but she has seen progress since that time thanks to efforts on both sides.

Johnson is the last person that expected all problems to quickly be resolved. He can relate to the sense of loss that WDC High School students have felt. Their new high school will not be ready for them until the fall of 2013 and until then, like it or not, M State-Wadena is their home.

"We haven't completed the job," Johnson said. "Every day is going to give us a new look."

Johnson also likes the future possibilities that rebuilding Wadena is going to offer. Not only does he see the community benefitting, he also sees some big rewards for the college.

"We've brought the college into the community and the community into our college," Johnson said.

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