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The top 20 stories of 2011

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The Wadena area saw its share of triumph and heartbreak in 2011. These are our choices for the top stories of the year.

1. WDC high school construction

When the June 17, 2010 tornado destroyed the Wadena-Deer Creek High School, it destroyed the memories of a lot of area residents and tore the heart out of the community. For many months, the rubble remained as a reminder of what happened. But this spring, ground was broken on a new facility, which is taking shape as 2011 closes out. In 2012, the community will have a brand new heart, as the school is set to open in the fall.

2. Hockey returns

Hockey is a hard enough sport, trying to make acrobatic passes while gliding along on a thin strip of metal as opponents try to knock you silly. But it's even harder when your home ice is destroyed, and "home" games consist of a long drive and small crowd. That was remedied in late 2011 as the hockey arena was erected over the old sheet of ice.

3. Wadena wins Outstanding Community Award

The Initiative Foundation must like Wadena. First, it dedicated an entire breathtaking issue of IQ magazine to the Wadena tornado recovery (Initiative Quarterly, summer 2011). Then it saw fit to recognize the entire community of Wadena with the 2011 Outstanding Community Award. The award was presented this fall and accepted on behalf of the community.

4. Jim Krause gets prestigious award

Speaking of awards, more than 40 years ago, he was a self-described mediocre C-student who had no plans for college at all. Then on July 21, 1971, an accident changed his life and his hometown of Wadena rallied around him. Now, Dr. James Krause is the recipient of the Medtronic National Courage Award for his research in health and longevity following a spinal cord injury. Wadena's Krause joined past recipients like Stephen Hawking, Bob Dole, Ed Roberts, Judith Heumann, Janet Reno, Joni Eareckson Tada, Max Cleland and Christopher Reeve.

5. First baby a tornado survivor

Every year, you can count on the local newspaper to take a photo and write a story on the New Year's baby. But this was no ordinary New Year's baby.

Skylar Schwab, born Jan. 1, 2011, will grow up hearing a fantastic story.

Skylar's mother, Samantha, was in the third month of her pregnancy when a twister roared over the Troy Manselle farm two miles southwest of Bluffton on the afternoon of June 17. Skylar's parents, Samantha and Gene, and Samantha's cousin, Manly Beach, were in the house when they saw the twister approaching. They rushed to the basement stairs but before they could reach the bottom the stairway collapsed. As they fell into the basement, the house above them disappeared.

Samantha took a blow to the head that rendered her unconscious. When she came around about a minute later she had another big surprise in store for her -- there was a calf lying across her legs. The calf, which belonged to Manselle, had been picked up by the tornado and dropped into the basement. It had some cuts and bruises, just as Samantha, Gene and Manly, but by some miracle they had all survived the terrifying ordeal.

6. Friends lost

Saying goodbye is always difficult. It's especially so when the people we have to say goodbye to mean so much in our lives, or have such a treasure trove of experience and wisdom that they can never leave enough of it behind with us.

We lost a lot of good people in Wadena in 2011 -- too many to name them all, of course. But two stick out: historian and hardware store owner Bob Zosel, who chronicled the history of our fair city; and musician and veterinarian Dr. Warren Hartman, who cared for our pets and had so many friends.

Here's to all of the great minds and great spirits we lost in 2011: we miss you already.

7. Wellness center in 2012?

To be honest, our staff argued whether this was a top 10 news story at all. On one hand, nothing was decided in 2011 -- we still don't know what will happen with our community center. Is a grand new facility in our future? Will we make do with something very, very modest?

In the end, we devoted barrels of ink to the discussion and our leaders devoted many frustrating hours to the discussion of what to do with the community center. That makes it our no. 7 story of the year.

8. Cemetery decorations cause uproar

Here's another story we debated whether it was a story at all, but there was definitely a backlash when St. Ann's Calvary Cemetery cleared all of the graveside decorations in June.

The caretakers said the policy has always been posted, and it needed to be done. But many people were outraged with both the notice given and the method with which loved ones' floral tributes were taken away. The controversy settled down after a few weeks, but emotions ran a little hot before that happened.

9. Great fall harvest; and Leaf River Ag rebuilds

Years ago, a North Dakota farmer won the lottery, and he was asked what he was going to do with the jackpot. "This'll keep me in farming for at least 20 more years," was his funny response. True, it's a labor of love, but rural people know our towns do as well as the farm economy does. So it was nice to see two very good signs in 2011: first, a record harvest in the fall, and second, the rebuilding of Leaf River Ag in the industrial park.

10. Three shocking sex abuse cases

Each was unsettling in its own right, but three sex abuse cases in Wadena County District Court got a lot of attention.

One involved a husband-and-wife who orchestrated sexual acts with children in the home. A second, similar case involved a man who threatened violence if a woman and kids didn't follow his requests. A third, while less gruesome, was shocking in that it alleged a drug and alcohol counselor who worked for Wadena County Social Services had sexual contact with young men he was counseling. Charges were filed in all three cases in 2011, and they await resolution.

11. Good signs in the economy

There were some "green shoots" in the Wadena economy in 2011. There were several new businesses in town, from restaurants to a dance/fitness studio and a truckload sale store in the old SuperOne. There was also good news at the close of 2011 when a study showed Wadena to have the third-highest retail shopping draw per capita in greater Minnesota. A rail spur expected to be constructed soon may also "spur" new business and more jobs in the Wadena industrial park.

12. Bad signs in the economy

It wasn't all good news. There were some business closings, including a long-time hardware store. The county was ranked second-to-last in how healthy we are, and was dead last in per-capita income. And the population shrank in Wadena city -- and that was even before the EF4 tornado in 2010 leveled many properties. There's definitely work to be done in 2012.

13. Charges of terrorism

A Wadena man was charged in January with terroristic threats after saying he planned to blow up government buildings, churches and main street businesses with gas bombs. Mark Allen Moe also praised the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona, and said the assassination of JFK was a "good idea." Moe served his time for the charges and was released in 2011.

14. A re-treed Wadena

It was a huge effort by volunteers to re-landscape the town with trees after thousands were lost in the 2010 tornado. The Trees for Wadena group pulled it off, and added a lot of green back to the city.

15. Blown down again

What are the odds? A building at the Wadena County Fairgrounds was knocked down by a powerful storm. No, this is not a repeat of the top stories of 2010. A building which was nearly finished just days before the 2011 Wadena County Fair -- which itself was being built to replace a destroyed building -- was blown down in a storm. The contractor pulled a miracle, though, and put it up a lucky third time, and it stood.

16. Verndale grad gains fame for beer trick

Can you saw the top of a beer can open with just your mouth? Jerry Kern, a 1997 Verndale High School grad, can do that, and the trick landed him on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno." Kern said his trick was posted on YouTube, which caught the eye of "Tonight Show" producers. (Please don't try this at home.)

17. Family chases down drunk driver

What do you call a man, his pregnant wife, and three young children driving in the car? "Worst nightmare" if you're a drunk driver is the correct answer.

Jason and Kelly Dykhoff and their children did a U-turn and followed a drunk driver who nearly hit them head-on south of Wadena. Kelly was 9 months pregnant and having contractions, but they still were able to follow the vehicle and get police on the phone to come and arrest the man.

18. Leaping for life

A Sebeka-area family had to leap to safety from the second floor of their home to avoid being consumed by flames that had consumed their home.

Around 9:16 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 22, a house fire was reported to the Wadena County Sheriff's Office. The home of Dereck and Kimberly Stockman and their three children was ablaze, and the children in the home woke the adults up and notified them of the fire. All five were in the house when the fire took hold, the sheriff's office said, and all five were able to get out of the home by jumping out of an upper-level window.

19. Lifeguard a life-saver

Around 6:05 p.m. on Sunday, July 24, Adrienne Nelson, a lifeguard at Spirit Lake Beach in Menahga, had just sat down when she noticed flailing arms and a child sputtering in the water.

Nelson ran out into the knee-deep water and carried the 4-year-old girl to shore.

"She was blue in the face and obviously choking, so I started [chest] compressions," Nelson said.

The girl lived, and Nelson was hailed as a teen-age hero.

20. Pet Expo dogfight leads to vet bill

A rescued pit bull from the Wadena County Humane Society bit another dog at a Pet Expo, and many in attendance described being traumatized by witnessing the violence of the incident. The owner of the dog wanted an apology and her vet bills paid, but the organizers described the incident as just dogs being dogs.