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By Emily Hartley and Amy Dalrymple, Forum staff writers, Published June 20 2010

School reunion shifts gears

WADENA, Minn. – Siblings Bob and Jean Zosel returned to their hometown on Thursday for the all-school reunion at Wadena-Deer Creek High School, but the focus of their trip shifted soon after arriving at their parents’ Wadena home.

“We got here, went in the house, went downstairs, and 20 minutes later, it was all over,” said Bob Zosel, who traveled from Jackson Beach, Fla.

They, like many of the more than 1,500 other past graduates registered for the reunion, found themselves in the middle of a tornado that swept through the town late Thursday afternoon, leaving the high school and much of the town extensively damaged.

With the town moving into cleanup mode, organizers were forced to cancel the reunion, which was scheduled to kick off Thursday evening.

But many reunion-goers are sticking around to help with the cleanup.

Jean Zosel said, “We’ve just been going around the neighborhood helping.” Her parents’ home was not damaged.

She said people who originally were not returning for the reunion are now planning to come back to aid in recovery efforts as well.

Carol Taggart, one of the two organizers for the event, said it was disappointing not to be able to hold the reunion they had planned for two years.

“It’s a letdown, but you look around the rest of the town, and the all-school reunion gets to be a minor thing,” Taggart said.

This was supposed to be the first all-school reunion since 1981, with a parade scheduled for Thursday night and daily tours of the school and auditorium. Some classes tried to make the best of the situation with their own impromptu get-togethers, and a few milestone graduating years held class gatherings Friday night that were cut short by the town’s new 11 p.m. curfew.

“The whole weekend was planned for this all-school reunion,” said Jeane Zosel, Bob and Jean’s mother.

“We shifted gears just like that,” added Jean, who came for the reunion from Missoula, Mont.

Superintendent Virginia Dahlstrom said there were about 15 people in the high school when the tornado struck, including many associated with the reunion. They sought shelter in the boys’ locker room in the basement.

Close call

Some workers from Leaf River Ag Service haven’t been able to sleep yet, still haunted by their close call with Thursday’s tornado and an anhydrous ammonia leak that followed.

Five workers in a building near Wadena’s high school sought shelter in a cement walk-in safe, with two men holding the door against the suction of the tornado, said manager Scott Dau, getting teary- eyed Saturday as he told the story.

Office worker Rita Boehland said the sound of debris going overhead was deafening.

“It was just so loud we had to plug our ears,” said the Verndale woman.

The only part of the building not destroyed by the tornado was the cement safe.

But surviving the tornado was only part of the experience for those five workers. They then began to smell anhydrous ammonia, pried the door open far enough to squeeze out and ran through the darkness and the rain away from the chemical cloud.

“Thank God he watched over all of us,” Boehland said.

Day care, businesses trying to bounce back

Gail Johnson just needs a place to relocate her day care.

The Wadena woman has been a child-care provider for 25 years, but the tornado that ransacked much of the town Thursday left her garage and two cars destroyed and her home filled with glass from broken windows.

She asked at a public meeting at St. Ann’s Catholic Church on Saturday afternoon if she could move her business to the basement of the Pizza Ranch at 106 Jefferson St. S. in Wadena.

“I have the equipment. I just need a place,” Johnson said. “I’m self-employed. You have to be an advocate for yourself.”

Johnson contacted her day care licensure, who planned to speak with the Department of Homeland Security about licensing policies for disaster areas.

Wadena Economic Development Director Dean Uselman said four separate businesses contacted him Saturday about finding temporary locations.

“People are just today after 48 hours starting to realize ‘I need to do something about this,’ ” he said.

Buildings with empty space have been identified, including the Homecrest Outdoor Living building in Wadena, and a few businesses have already found temporary homes.

As for Johnson’s day care, Uselman said, Pizza Ranch “may not be the optimal location, but in a situation like this, you gotta pull together and do what you can.”

Tornado doesn’t stop wedding

The tornado added some extra stress for a couple who got married Saturday in Wadena, but it didn’t stop the ceremony.

Nicole and Ben Dahmes planned to get married in Nicole’s home church of Immanuel Lutheran.

Mothers of the bride and groom were nervous Thursday night when they heard about the tornado and ­didn’t know if it hit the church, said Cassandra Dahmes, a bridesmaid and sister of the groom.

Fortunately, the church was not touched by the tornado.

However, they did have to change some plans, including moving to a different hotel after theirs was closed due to tornado damage.

The hairstylist also had to come to them because the shop wasn’t accessible.


Readers can reach Forum reporters Emily Hartley at (701) 241-7311 and Amy Dalrymple at (701) 241-5590