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Minnesota town receives personal letter from Obama for time capsule

The small north woods community of Ely, population 3,460, received some national exposure Monday as NBC's Today show aired a segment focusing on unique aspects of the city on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Ely finds itself in the news cycle of today's presidential inauguration, thanks to a handwritten letter President Obama recently sent community members in hopes that it would be included in a time capsule to be encased for the next 50 years in a brick wall of the Fine Arts Building at Vermilion Community College, where it will take its place this spring.

Gerry Snyder of Ely wrote to the president last March, asking for a personal contribution to the local time capsule, and said that after several months of waiting he had held out little hope of a reply from the Oval Office.

He was taken aback to finally receive a handwritten two-page note from the president on White House stationery in September.

In the note, Obama wrote of his aspirations of stewardship for the area, saying: "Fifty years from now, I hope we have managed the balance between our energy needs and our need to preserve the planet so that the wilderness surrounding Ely remains as spectacular as you describe."

Snyder said his community was pleased and honored to receive such a unique and personal response from a sitting president. Snyder said he's been told administration staffers are highly selective of what mail actually makes it directly to the president's desk.

"I was very surprised my letter made it, because they didn't know me from Adam," he said.

Snyder was equally surprised when he was contacted by a Today show production worker from New York, expressing interest in paying a visit to Ely.

On Tuesday, a Today crew arrived in town to interview Snyder and to paint a picture of his community. Snyder, 78, has owned a summer home in Ely for 20 years and decided to make the city his full-time residence a couple of years ago.

The television crew called on the Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge, where owner Paul Schurke arranged to have cameramen shadow 18-year-old local dogsled guide Greg Ott on a wilderness outing.

"They came out here to see what was so special about Ely, and we showed them," Schurke said.

For a bit more local color, the TV team also visited the local radio station, WELY, which is still often used by locals to deliver personal messages to one another or to ask for favors in remote areas, where phone coverage remains unreliable. The station once was owned by the late Charles Kuralt, a longtime CBS newsman who hosted the popular "On the Road" segment and featured Ely in a book, "Charles Kuralt's America."

"They wanted to know what it is about this remote, small town that makes people pull together during tough times," Schurke said.

To get a sense of that, the Today crew interviewed Dan Armstrong, a local man whom community members rallied to support when medical expenses threatened his financial ruin.

Schurke said he'll be curious to see how much of the footage makes it onto the air.

Regardless, he said the presidential letter and national attention it has generated has been the talk of the town.

"The letter was a precious gift that the whole community is taking pride in," Schurke said.

The Ely segment aired during the 8 a.m. hour of Monday's show.