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Bingo night raises money for fire department

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Despite attending the annual fireman's fundraiser since the '40s, Mary Brown has never been able to shout "Bingo!" for a free turkey.

"I don't think I've missed one year," said the retired school teacher, who counts many firemen as former students, before sighing deeply as yet another person besides herself won a bird. "I'm lucky in life but not in bingo."

Even with rotten luck, it's still fun to spend time with friends and raise money for a worthy cause, said Martha Simmons, Brown's also-winless bingo buddy.

"You never know when you're gonna need them," Simmons said of Wadena's on-call volunteer fire crew.

Brown and Simmons were among about 330 people of all ages who gathered at the WDC elementary gym Friday night for the fire department relief association's largest fundraiser of the year. Not only does the event raise money, it also provides an opportunity for positive community interaction, said firefighter Brent Johnson, relief association secretary. "They're seeing us when something bad isn't happening, which is a good thing."

Money raised at last year's event paid $3,000 toward a jaws-of-life rescue tool and to fund the fire department's annual open house, which focuses on educating children about fire prevention, Johnson said. This year's money will go to the open house and to purchasing additional extraction equipment.

Johnson, who volunteered for a department in southern Minnesota before joining Wadena's 20-member force three years ago, praised his colleagues. "This is a great group of guys. everybody has a skill and each individual contributes to be part of the whole."

"They don't enjoy it for the thrill," he said. "They enjoy helping people."

Fire Chief Dean Uselman said the event is "a fun night out," while being huge for the department's bottom line.

"With the tight budgets we're seeing in small cities like Wadena, money just isn't there, so we're doing several fundraisers to try to raise money for equipment and fire prevention," he said. "It's been just a real outpouring of support for the fire department, especially since the tornado."

For $10, attendees could play 50 games of bingo. They could also buy raffle tickets for a chance to win half of the proceeds - the winner got $751 - and a camouflage backpack. Of the 92 frozen turkeys on hand, 20 remained after two hours of bingo. They were donated the the Wadena food shelf.

For most of her life, Brooke Umland was out of town for hockey on fireman's bingo night. On Friday, she held out hope she would snag a free Jennie-O premium basted prime young turkey during her first event.

"It's more fun to win the turkey than to buy the turkey," she said.

Minutes later, Lisa Opelia burst with delight. "Bingo! Woo hoo!," she exclaimed, before being presented a frozen bird. The turkey will taste better because it's free, she reckoned.

"OK, you don't need to play anymore," Opelia's daughter, WDC 11th-grader Ashley Peters told her mother, seizing the remaining game sheets with fingers stained blue from a bingo blotter.

Eight-year-old Phillip Ross had more than his share of luck Friday night, winning two turkeys.

"I think two's enough," he said.

A few seats down, Brown continued her nearly seven-decade drought.

Grinning, she pointed to Simmons and said, "I think we're the turkeys."