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Paying back an IOU: Madelia alums come together in the aftermath of a hometown tragedy

Minnesota’s 5.5 million population is spread throughout the state and divided up by some 2,672 organized communities of all sizes. The average town’s population is 2,058, just a bit smaller than my hometown of Madelia, population 2,286.

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Chuck Slocum

I left Madelia a half century ago to go to college in the Twin Cities and remained there for work after graduating, moving around a bit and eventually settling in the suburbs. I have always regarded Madelia as my home base and have returned frequently for civic celebrations, connecting with family and long-time friends. 

Madelia in the news

Every town, large or small, has its own legacy. Madelia may be best remembered as the place where the three Younger brothers — Cole, Bob and Jim — were captured in September 1876 after the Jesse James gang tried unsuccessfully to rob the First National Bank of Northfield. This outlaw gang of Confederate bushwhackers had been active since the end of the Civil War.  Frank and Jesse escaped by taking another route back to Missouri, but all three Younger brothers were caught near Madelia and sentenced to life at the state prison in Stillwater.

They still talk about Madelia’s 1953 basketball team, which made it all the way to the then-single-class state tournament. Hopkins won for the second year in a row, but little Madelia was the talk of the tournament with star players named Paul Olson and Leroy German. 

Downtown fire

Madelia hit the public radar recently because of a fire in the early morning of Feb. 3. As we were several days into a week of being snowbirds in Arizona, I heard on social media about the tragedy almost immediately from a high-school classmate.

Between telephone calls, emails, texts, Facebook posts and searching the online Minnesota news, we learned of the devastation that destroyed much of Main Street on the north side of downtown.  Nine area fire departments, among them St. James, Lake Crystal and Truman, joined the Madelia volunteers in fighting the blaze for nearly 10 hours amid a whirling 10-inch snowstorm. I saw by pictures that my father’s one-time bank was untouched, located just across the street from the smoldering rubble.

The buildings destroyed represented one-third of the downtown, housing a floral shop where the blaze started, a popular Mexican restaurant and adjacent grocery store, and water softening, upholstery, dental, insurance and hair-salon businesses.

Gov. Mark Dayton came to town two days after the fire, bringing with him a number of crises response agency overseers and area policymakers, promising that support efforts would not disappear after the smoke cleared.

Hometown visit

A week after the fire, joined by several of my baby-boomer Class of 1965 friends, we gathered at the Sweet Indeed restaurant on the very same Main Street to discuss how we could collectively be most helpful. We visited the offices of the Madelia-Times Messenger newspaper and the bustling Chamber of Commerce, connecting with individuals who were helping to reshape a downtown with many urgent needs.

We learned of the tax deductile “Madelia Strong” fire recovery fund that is available to support the nearly three dozen workers whose places of businesses were destroyed. We decided to empty our alumni class account, came up with some match money and then challenged by email our 55 classmates to join together to contribute to an emergency fund to be administered by a special Chamber committee.

IOU Madelia

I owe Madelia a great deal. As I grew up in the 1950s-’60s in our modest family home on Second Street, driving a car was a rare privilege for me and the prevailing rule was that I walked, ran or biked anywhere I wanted until I went off to the big city, which was two days after high school graduation.

In my nostalgic mind, Madelia is very much like those Saturday Evening Post and Four Freedoms paintings by Norman Rockwell. It is the place where I camped with the Boy Scouts, could skate all day on the frigid grade-school pond with the pot belly woodstove warming us.  I played in band, was in school plays, and competed in all kinds of sports regardless of the time of year. I worked mowing lawns and at Booms Drive In. I got to be pretty good at chopping the cornstalks from the soybean fields and bailing hay for $1 an hour and then being able to buy just about anything at Zimmerman’s Five & Dime store.

Perhaps the finest orator I have ever heard — Colin Powell — gave a talk in Minneapolis a few years ago. Recalling his own upbringing, he said “the nice part of living in a close-knit community is that when you just don’t know what the heck you are doing, someone else is there to straighten you out.” That was certainly true for me in the Madelia in which I grew up.

Being a part of the many good things that can happen in the aftermath of a tragedy is a good thing.

Chuck Slocum [Chuck@WillistonGroup.Com] is president of The Williston Group, a Twin Cities based management consulting firm.

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