MINNEAPOLIS — Winona High School senior swimmer Griffin Wolner wrapped up his decorated high school career by winnings his third, fourth and fifth career state champion medals at the MSHSL Boys Swimming State Championships on Saturday at the University of Minnesota Jean K. Freeman Aquatic Center.
He won his second-consecutive 200-yard freestyle state championship and was a member of state champion teams in the 200 and 400 freestyle relays. And just to top it off he was second in the 500 free.
And he did it all while recovering from mononucleosis.
“I feel incredible. I’m head over heels right now,” Wolner said. “We have gone through so much. It’s been tough on me especially. It’s been tough to stay healthy. I took a blood test during Christmas break and found out I had mono and I’ve had it since October. So bouncing back from that has been really tough.”
Sophomore Jack Herczeg, also a member of the 200 and 400 relay teams, matched Wolner’s three state championships, adding a title in 100 freestyle.
With four state titles, a second-place, and three third-place finishes, the Winhawks finished second as a team with 224 points. They were behind only state power Breck/Blake with only six swimmers scoring.
“I think the biggest point out of all of it is the numbers — how many people St. Thomas brought, how many people Breck brought,” Winona coach Chris Mayer said. “We had six guys scoring today in a second-place finish. That is incredible. It’s nothing short of incredible.”
Wolner led from the start and never gave it back up as he won the 200 freestyle in 1:40.57. He finished almost two seconds in front of second place finisher Spencer Pruett of Breck/Blake (142.27).
And he finished second in the 500 freestyle, finishing in 4:39.54. Wolner stayed close to Breck/Blake’s Spencer Pruett through the first half of the race, but Pruett pulled away in the second half of the race, finishing in 4:36.66.
“I knew I had to go lights out in the 200 because I knew those guys would be chasing me by the end,” Wolner said. “I usually run out of energy towards that last 50 and I just had to hold on.”
“(In the 500) I just didn’t have the gas to stay with Spencer. Even though I was sick, he had a faster time, so he deserves the win.”
The 200 and 400 free relay teams — each of which won state championship — both consisted of Griffin Wolner, Grant Wolner, Tanner Lozenski, and Herczeg. They finished the 200 in 1:25.82 and the 400 in 3:08.86. Both relay teams finished with times good enough for All-America consideration.
“I was so excited to win that 100, but honestly those relays were probably more exciting because it’s a whole big team thing,” Herczeg said. “It was Griffin’s last swim of his high school career and I wanted to make sure that it was as good as it could be for him. I knew he would do his part and do it well. I just wanted to do what I could for him.”
Herczeg won the 100 freestyle in 46.58 seconds, half a second faster than second place. Mankato West’s Henry Simpson finished in 46.58. And he was third in the 50 freestyle in 21.40 seconds.
“I wasn’t really disappointed with the placing (in the 50 freestyle) because I knew it was a crazy fast field,” Herczeg said. “To be in it was exciting. I was a little disappointed by the time. But my goals for that race were really high. I feel like I swam a very good race there. With that field, I’m happy for a third place.”
Coach Mayer said that he is impressed with Herczeg’s progression as a swimmer to win a state championship as a sophomore.
“Jack is just a gem,” Mayer said. “He’s come out of basically nowhere. Two years ago, he’s a little eighth grader that starts swimming with us. And all of a sudden he makes sections, makes section finals — oh we’ve got something here. Last year, he made state consols in both events and alright we’ll see what he can prove. Throughout this season, he’s just been a standout sprinter for us and willing to try every other event.”
Winona sophomore Grant Wolner finished third in the 200 individual medley (1:54.52) and was also third in the 100 breaststroke (0:58.06).
“The biggest thing for (Grant Wolner) today was that 4x50 free relay and then the 4x100,” Mayer said. “Yes his individuals look great, but he really wanted to shine in those relays. One of the tough decisions for us was putting him in the 4x100. It was a tough decision, but he came to us this week. I gave them a chance to say what they wanted to compete in. And he came up to me and said he wanted to be on that relay to win it for and with his brother. And I said that’s probably the most compelling reason I’ve heard.”
Tanner Lozenski was seventh in the 200 freestyle (1:46.22), Alex Jorgenson was fifth in the 500 freestyle (4:49.69), and Sam Serleth was 10th in diving (351.80).
MINNEISKA — When it comes to finding rural bars that serve as a town’s community center, Buck’s Bar may be the golden standard.
At first glance, it may just appear to be a regular bar and grill — a space for residents to rent for birthday parties and family gatherings.
But it’s also a place that opens early specifically for retired folks to drink coffee and play cards.
And it’s the town’s bomb shelter.
And the recycling center.
And even where the city council meets for official government meetings.
“Talk about community center,” Buck’s Bar owner Jeanne Benike laughed. “The city board has no where else to meet.”
Up on the wall next to a lottery ticket dispenser is a number of public notices — like the approved tax rate and the city’s financial report for the town of about 100.
“It’s definitely a place for the community,” Cheryl Nymann said, a minister for a number of area churches. “The rural people come in. It’s kind of like a corral.”
And it seems that almost everyone who steps into the bar knows each other or is somehow related.
On a cloudy, cold Tuesday morning after a recent snowstorm, Nymann weaved her way through tables full of silver-haired card players who were well into their games of Sheepshead or Schafkopf and found an open seat next to her dad.
Everett Johnson, 84 years old, was grinning from ear to ear as he laid down a card and then grabbed the pile in the middle of the table with a big sweeping motion. Johnson said he’s been coming to the bar to play cards for about 10 years — although that was immediately disputed. His sister and daughter stepped forward with a laugh saying it’s been closer to 30.
By 1:30 p.m., the tabled area inside the bar was packed with people, but not everyone was playing cards. Some stood behind players peeking at cards and others stood in small circles laughing as they conversed with whoever was standing nearby.
After finishing a game and letting someone else take a turn, 69-year-old Gary Johnson got up to stretch his legs. Johnson said if the bar wasn’t there, the group of card players would likely scatter and he wouldn’t have the chance to pursue one of his favorite hobbies — all while seeing his family. Just as he said that, more people walked through the door.
“Every one of them that walked in I’m related to,” he said with a laugh.
Benike said it’s become an important part of people’s lives to come and play cards. It’s given them a community and place to connect with others.
“These people will show up no matter the weather,” she said. “This is what they structure their week around.”
It’s not profitable to open just for coffee, cards, and a few lunch orders, but Benike said it’s not about the money.
“Everything I do, I do for the community,” she said.
Beyond hosting cards and town services like recycling and council meetings, Buck’s Bar also hosts yearly Christmas parties, Valentine’s Day parties and other gatherings. Acting almost like a proud mother showing off her kids, Benike disappeared from behind the bar and reappeared a few moments later with about a three-inch stack of photos of the community that the bar has helped foster. Flipping through photos filled with gleaming faces, Benike reminisced about the parties. One of her favorites is the Valentine’s Day parties. Benike hands every woman a rose and takes their picture. The next time she sees them, Benike gives them a printed copy of the photo.
“Our family even does our gatherings here,” she said in her fast-paced voice. “We do Thanksgiving here. And if anybody comes in we just feed them, too.”
Benike said she’s passionate about giving the rural residents fun things to do close to their home. It’s a job she has fun with and knows makes a difference.
“Rural bars are what keep communities together,” she said. “No one is ever a stranger here.”
Brother Thomas Houde loves the movies, loves the dimming of lights and the flash on the screen.
A longtime theater professor who last taught at Saint Mary’s University, he has seen nearly 20 new releases in the past two months, his addiction enabled by a movie pass he got for Christmas.
But this time last year, the scene that was playing on a loop in Houde’s mind was that of his death, from kidney disease, which had left him unable to go to the movies, to do anything else he loved. It seemed an imminent fate for a man who had grown so weak, he could take only a few steps before having to sink back down into his wheelchair.
“I was beginning to give away my prized possessions — books, movies,” said Houde, 72. “My life was nothing at that point. I was dying. I was giving up.”
Enter Winona Health’s Kidney Care Team.
For the past year, Houde has met monthly with a dietician, social worker and nurse practitioner who monitor his numbers and offer advice to keep him on track. Three days a week, every week, he goes to Winona Health for hemodialysis, getting his blood cleaned by a machine now that his kidneys can no longer do the job.
He says he looks forward to it, knowing that he’s in good company, knowing that he’s doing his body some good.
“He looks like a totally different person,” said Emilie Volkman, coordinator of Winona Health’s dialysis department. “It’s been so encouraging. I’ve seen a huge change.”
Now, Houde walks up and down the halls of Callista Court assisted living without having to stop to rest, without losing his breath.
He no longer spends all day in a recliner in the middle of his room, where his wheelchair is now parked, as if forgotten, in a corner.
And after torturous months of being essentially homebound, he can once again go out to the movies.
“I’m seeing one tonight and one on Wednesday — I just love movies,” Houde said the other day, his eyes bright and voice breaking a little. “Now, I can walk again. Without a wheelchair, without a walker, without a cane. Being able to go visit friends again, to walk around this building — it’s like I have a whole new life. I really treasure that.”
Houde was teaching at Bethlehem University in Palestine when doctors first noticed that something was wrong. He returned to his native Minnesota in 2000, so he could receive treatment at Mayo Clinic, and took the job at Saint Mary’s.
Kidney disease is characterized by extreme weight gain — not of fat, but of fluid. As kidneys weaken, they become less and less effective at processing fluids, and that watery weight is left with no option but to stay on the person in question. Houde gained 80 pounds of fluid weight.
“My legs were just massive,” said Houde, who couldn’t make the 10-foot walk to his bathroom without the help of a nurse. “I was gaining and gaining and getting really concerned. I started to eat less.
“I had all of this extra weight, and dialysis has taken it completely off me. It gave me my life back.”
Winona Health’s kidney team officially came together in January — a local alternative, according to Volkman, for patients who currently drive to Mayo Clinic.
It’s not until dialysis that many patients begin regular meetings with a dietician, social worker and nurse practitioner, but this new program brings those services to a more accessible clinic setting.
Patients can learn about kidney disease, and how to slow its progression, before their condition reaches an advanced and debilitating stage.
“Some people just need a little coaching on diet, and some people, if they’re in a later stage, might have anxiety about what dialysis will look like,” she said. “There’s not a cookie-cutter way to do this. We just try to get to know people as well as we can during their clinic visits, and then provide the best support possible.”
Houde has hardly a complaint in the world, though he could certainly come up with his share. He has diabetes. He has nerve damage in his hands and feet. And his kidneys are operating at just 3 percent of their old ability.
But that’s no matter, especially to a man who, a year ago, figured he might be dead by now.
As his health got better and better, Houde began to consider a kidney transplant. There’s no reversing the damage to his current kidneys, and a new kidney has the potential to extend his life — perhaps by several years.
He decided against it for two reasons.
One, he would have to live at Callista Court even after the transplant, since his other health problems require frequent attention from nurses.
Two, dialysis is going smoothly — more smoothly than Houde ever thought it would — and he fears what would happen if he messed with a good thing.
“I’m enjoying my life again,” he said. “I can do all the things I love to do.”
ST. PAUL — Winona senior wrestler Jack Vaselaar’s high school career didn’t have the fairytale ending he’d have hoped for, but he did get to finish it off with his hand raised as placed fifth at 138 pounds at the MSHSL State Wrestling Tournament on Saturday at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
“It’s obviously not what I wanted to do — get a fifth place,” he said. “But it’s good to finish with a win in my last match of my career.”
Vaselaar closed out his season with victory over a familiar face. He defeated Faribault’s Cain Van Ryn 5-1, to defeat him for the fourth time this season.
“I wrestled him last week at sections so I know him really well,” Vaselaar said. “It went basically the exact same as it did at sections. We were 0-0 at the end of the first and I took him down in the second, he got an escape. He took me down, I got an escape.”
With his high school career wrapped up, Winona coach Joe Hoialmen says the team will miss the presence of the two-time state placewinner.
“He’s been a staple of Winona wrestling for years and now in an instant, he’s gone,” Hoialmen said of Vaselaar, who finished third as a junior. “It’s a sad day — bittersweet. It put a little tear in my eye knowing this is going to be the last day I ever coach Jack Vaselaar.”
The weekend didn’t go quite as planned for sophomore 106-pounder Ryan Henningson, either. He finished third by defeating Wayzata’s Cael Swensen 7-4 in the third-place match. He trailed 4-2 early in the third round, but racked up five points as he got Swensen on his back in the final 20 seconds.
“I was really hoping to be a state champion,” Henningson said. “But third’s pretty good.”
Henningson started his day by falling to Shakopee’s Paxton Creese in overtime in the semifinal match, sending him into the consolation bracket. He had defeated Creese earlier this season, the Shakopee wrestler had his number on Saturday.
“This time I couldn’t get to his legs and get a takedown,” Henningson said. “He defended it really well. I just couldn’t finish shots and that was the difference.”
Henningson says coming up short this year is going to motivate him to do whatever it takes to chase down a state title in the future, and his coach has no shortage of confidence he will accomplish that.
“Mark my words,” Hoialmen said. “He’ll be back here next year, he’ll be back here when he’s a senior and he’s going to take third, first and first. He’ll be a two-time state champ.”
BURINGA SECOND: St. Charles junior 132-pounder Mark Buringa’s trophy case got a little more overcrowded on Saturday as he added a second-place medal to the two thirds and a fifth he had previously earned state tournaments.
He was tied 6-6 in the third period of his state championship match with Pipestone Area’s Hunter Burnett, but the two-time state champion caught him on his back and racked up points late to win 12-6 and claim his third state title.
Earlier in the day, Buringa defeated Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa’s Tyler Bents 6-3 in a state semifinal match.
JONSGAARD FOURTH: Lewiston-Altura/Rushford-Peterson’s Carter Jonsgaard finished fourth at 113 pounds in Class A. In the third-place match, he lost to Windom/Mt. Lake’s Brett Willaby for the second time of the state tournament, falling by 13-4 major decision. He also lost to Willaby in the quarterfinal.
Jonsgaard defeated New York Mills’ Gabe Geiser 5-0 in the first consolation match and defeated Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City’s Jake Mortensen 3-1 by sudden victory in the second.
In the consolation semifinal, Jonsgaard pinned Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa’s Blaine Fischer in 4:01.
A drove of students, teachers and community members pushed back Thursday against a proposal to cut parts of the music and theater programs at Winona Area Public Schools.
“To me, music is a program that’s just as important as math, science and social studies,” said Andrew Miller, who’s studying music education at Winona State University. Miller urged the school board to reconsider plans that would, among other things, result in the elimination of two or three WAPS staff positions related to music.
“You can’t offer a high-quality education,” he said, “without a high-quality music program.”
The district last week rescinded a proposal to cut all music lessons at Winona Middle School, saying the move was too severe.
It also amended a proposal to cut the three-act play at the high school. The new proposal offers either a musical or two three-act plays each school year.
But cuts to the arts remain on the table.
In addition to the music staff reductions, the district has proposed the elimination of fourth grade orchestra — a source of worry for people who believe one cut to WAPS art programs is one too many.
“Music has impacted my life beyond belief,” said high school senior Lexy DeLano, who added that she didn’t plan to attend college until she started taking music lessons at WAPS. Now, she intends to go on to Augsburg University and become a music therapist.
“Without music,” she told the school board, “I don’t know what I’d do with myself.”
Elementary school closures, which are the largest and most talked-about items on the list of proposals, garnered considerably more support from the budget reduction committee.
Twenty-five members supported the closure of Madison Elementary School.
Twenty-one supported the closure of Rollingstone Elementary School.
And 19 supported the closure of both.
Those numbers reinforce the work of the district’s now-defunct Facilities Task Force, which recommended two consolidation plans to the school board in December 2016 — neither of which included Madison or Rollingstone.
This year’s budget committee also backed the closure of Central Elementary School, which has housed district offices and programs since it was closed as a school in 2011.
Winona Area Public Schools’ budget reduction committee issued recommendations on everything from school closures to staff reductions Tuesday ahead of the school district’s impending round of budget cuts.
Each member of the committee developed his or her own plan for cutting $1.7 million from the district’s budget — a challenging but necessary task for a district whose enrollment has plummeted and whose savings has all but dried up.
“I tried to share the burden equally among students and families in the district, so no one group would be hit disproportionately” said Lindsy O’Shea, a committee member and a mother of three students.
O’Shea has supported perhaps the district’s most controversial proposal — consolidating elementary schools — as a way of weeding out unfairness in the system, like inconsistent class sizes.
“It’s not the preservation of a school that will help a student going forward,” she said. “It’s more equitable class sizes and more equal opportunities.”
Committee member Joel Bruels, who teaches science at the Winona Area Learning Center, said he also approached Tuesday’s meeting with the goal of minimizing the impact on students.
Among other things, he suggested vacating and selling Central Elementary School, which houses some of the district’s programs and offices — but no students.
“It felt like there was some rightsizing of cuts that needed to be done, things that weren’t cut in the past,” Bruels said. “You try to keep cuts out of the classroom as much as possible.”
Randall Sullivan, a father of two students and an incoming kindergartner, said he supported cuts to administration and a scaling back of the district’s music program.
He does not, however, support the closure of either Madison or Rollingstone elementary school, especially the latter.
“I feel the schools they’re going after aren’t the right ones,” said Sullivan, who pointed out that Rollingstone is one of the district’s newest buildings, and that it requires relatively few deferred maintenance dollars. “It has a lot of acreage with a pond. It has a garden. When kids go from a smaller setting into the city, it’s like they’re just a number.”
Superintendent Rich Dahman said he will heavily weigh feedback from the 30 committee members before he makes his recommendations to the school board March 22.
A week later, board members are expected to make the $1.7 million in cuts, which might well include school closures. The board decided last year to keep all of the elementary schools open, in hopes of first developing a more comprehensive facilities plan.
“That can has been kicked down the road ... and it’s come at a considerable expense to students in our other schools,” Dahman said Tuesday. “There are wonderful things going on in Madison and Rollingstone. I see them every time I visit those schools. It’s a difficult decision, but it may be one that it’s time to make.”
Conflicting views still linger among school board members, however, making it difficult to predict how the board will vote March 29.
Tina Lehnertz, one of two board members who sat on the budget committee, said she supported the closure of Madison but not the closure of Rollingstone.
Lehnertz, whose district includes the towns of Rollingstone and Goodview, said the interests of rural communities have too often been ignored by School District 861. It doesn’t make sense to close a school, she said, that sits on a large parcel of land and in a community that’s likely to grow.
“I know I’m deemed as the school board member who wants to save Rollingstone because I’m from that area,” she said. “I also ran on the platform that I would do what’s best for the district as a whole, and I don’t think closing Rollingstone is what’s best for the district.
“If, in the future, we get our financial house in order and there’s growth outward into that part of the district, we’re going to regret closing that school. As a farmer, the one thing you don’t sell is your land.”
Ben Baratto, the board’s other representative on the budget committee, is open to closing both Madison and Rollingstone.
The closures represent a big chunk of savings — $732,000 — and would bring the district’s elementary square footage into a range that’s more compatible with enrollment, he said.
“I think perhaps we have a little too much capacity,” he said. “We have to reduce spending somehow.”
Baratto added that he could still change his mind. He won’t make a final decision, he said, until he’s heard from residents at two public hearings March 19, and until he’s seen the results of a community survey recently commissioned by the district.
“I don’t know what the final outcome will be,” he said. “But if we do close schools, that’s only the first step. We’ll also have to improve the schools we decide to keep.”
Winona’s Planning Commission on Monday found a proposed downtown development to be consistent with the city’s comprehensive plan.
The commission unanimously approved that the overall concept for Main Square Community, a $25 million project which includes a Montessori school and a mix of two- or three- and four-story apartment buildings in addition to commercial space, was fitting despite the fact that plans haven’t been finalized.
The project, bankrolled by Fastenal founder Bob Kierlin and Main Square Development, will use the lot, which currently includes parking and a shuttered Hardee’s.
According to preliminary plans, a Montessori school for toddlers and preschoolers will occupy the northwest part of the lot at the corner of West Fourth and Johnson streets. Along Main Street, developers envision a mix apartment buildings with plans to include commercial space in the bottom floor of the central building, with parking both below ground and in the center of the lot.
The plan’s commercial aspects were subject to scrutiny by commissioners, because the preliminary form doesn’t show ground-floor, street-side commercial space in the residential buildings, which is required by the recently redone development code.
Commissioner Peter Shortridge said that could be a troubling way to start using the code’s standards, if the first large project obtained a variance to get around a key component. But, in all, he liked the project.
“It’s a great project,” Shortridge said. “I’m really excited to see this.”
Others pointed out that because the plans were only just being formed and not final in the details, there was room for adjustment. Also, in large, complicated projects it is usual for there to be variances.
“We have someone who wants to make a considerable investment in a key area,” commissioner Dale Boettcher said.
Further plans or a request for a variance would have to come back for approval before several city government entities, including the Port Authority next week.
The sale of the land will be the subject of a public hearing March 8 before the Port Authority.
If approved, developers would pay around $1.9 million for the land, which is about what the Port Authority paid for it.
The first phase of the construction is expected to include 60 units of housing with one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments, commercial space and the school.
According to the project’s timeline, the design work will continue throughout the spring, with construction beginning in summer 2018. The first phase is expected to be completed in 2019.
Kierlin’s Hiawatha Education Foundation is negotiating with Cotter Schools to operate the school.
Pete Schwab of Winona’s Schwab LLC is working as the developer, and said the apartments will be a mix of upscale and market rate apartments, which would be viable housing options for a number of different groups.
Schwab told the Planning Commission that it would open up a viable option for people who want higher-end housing downtown.
“This is a start of bringing some people downtown, particularly professionals and empty nesters,” Schwab said.
It was an afternoon with plenty of failure for kids at St. Stanislaus Elementary School.
But failure in a good way.
The fourth- through sixth-grade students who filled the school’s gym Wednesday created Rube Goldberg machines which use chain reactions to complete a goal — like sending a marble down a tube to hit a lever to raise a flag. Much of the time, the machines didn’t work so well.
But math teacher David Jewison, who led the initiative, said that was part of the learning process. Each project and each group has had to learn how to fail and then figure out how to troubleshoot through it as a team — something that they will practice in real life, he added.
“The creativity has just blown me away,” Jewison said, his eyes gleaming as he looked out over the crowd of about 100 students and parents. “This has been tremendous.”
Rube Goldberg was a Pulitzer Priz-winning cartoonist best known for his zany invention cartoons. Competitions started popping up around the country in the late 1980s; this is the second year Jewison held one at St. Stan’s.
In a gym full of cardboard tubes, tape, makeshift platforms and plenty of laughter, at least one kid at each machine stared at the project pondering what went wrong and how to fix it. The students have been working on the projects since September and have put countless hours of teamwork into it, Jewison and parents said.
Near the entrance of the gym, a group of adults and kids gathered around a project made by the STEM Sisters, which consisted of sixth graders Coco Costello, Emma McRaith, Sophia Carlson and Kate Grebin. As parents watched with cell phones out and observing kids paused in anticipation, a marble traveled down a maze of slides and knocked over a line of small logs stacked like dominoes, which then triggered another marble to head down a network of slides under a table and land on a conveyor belt, which carried the marble up a ramp and dropped it onto another slide. Then something triggered by the marble caused small metal balls to scatter everywhere. At the unintended scattering, the girls sprang into action trying to fix what went wrong and keep the momentum going for the machine to succeed.
But it didn’t.
They looked at each other, and without missing a beat began to set the whole things back up again. While one of the girls tended to the part that went wrong, the others used delicate, slow fingers to stack logs, replace the metal balls, and occasionally look around at the crowd with a smile.
“Now pieces are just flying off,” Costello said with a laugh, adding that it worked at the beginning of the day and at least succeeded once while they were being judged.
Jewison said when the kids started the projects at the beginning of the school year, they were given no list of supplies, no directions, no pictures, or step-by-step instructions. The main goal was to create five sections of a machine that eventually made a flag lift in the air. But how they reached that goal was vastly different from one another. Jewison said kids would approach him throughout the day asking for help in brainstorming how to “have this happen, how could we do this, how do we make this connect in this way.” The end results were machines that were purely created from imagination and ingenuity rather than projects made from a kit, he said.
As Jewison talked about the projects, a small crowd behind him erupted in applause.
“That’s the other thing is seeing the joy on their faces when it finally succeeds,” Jewison with bounds of energy that he expressed through his hands. “It’s fantastic.”
One of the parents in the applauding crowd was Kristin Biesanz who had watched her daughter and teammates try over and over through successes and failures to keep the machine going.
“I am so proud of them,” she said.
They’ve gotten through disagreements, troubleshooted their project and have learned to function as a team, she said.
“It’s teaching them more about life than the project,” she said. “It’s really good for them.”
After all the projects had been judged and thoroughly checked out by the mass of parents and kids, the gym came to a standstill. It was time to announce the award winning teams — of which there were quite a few.
But in a final moment of excited silence, the final Goldberg award was given to the STEM Sisters. The gym burst with applause.
With a smile that reached from ear to ear, Grebin said, “It feels so good that all that work paid off.”
Every weekday of the school year, 68-year-old Dean Wendler gets up at 4:30 a.m., drinks his coffee, eats some breakfast, and is soon off to pick up the first kid on his bus route through Nodine, Pickwick and Ridgeway — a journey that can sometimes stretch up to 190 miles a day.
It’s a job he’s been doing for 13 years. And it’s one he thoroughly enjoys.
“For me, it gives me a reason to get up in the morning,” he said. “The kids become your extended family.”
Wendler is one of First Student’s 56 bus drivers who serve the Winona area. The Daily News talked with Wendler in recognition of Wednesday being proclaimed School Bus Driver Appreciation Day in Minnesota by Gov. Mark Dayton.
For Wendler, getting to know the kids, the families — even the family dog — is a fulfilling part of the job.
“I’ve seen (some of) them grow up, graduate, get married and have kids,” he said with a laugh. “You get invited to their graduation parties. They’re just like my grandkids.”
His care and connection for them can also make the hardest part of the job all the more stressful.
“The hardest part is when you have, like this year, all the ice,” he said bluntly, adding that road conditions along his route can become pretty nerve-racking. “You realize that you have the most precious cargo in the world.”
But overall, the positives outweigh the hardships.
There’s the fun moments he gets to experience.
“(The kids) are so fun,” he said. “Especially if you have kindergartners or first-graders. They sit right next to you and they ask you all kinds of questions.”
Then there’s the sentimental moments. Like when a kindergartner gets on the bus for the first day of school.
“The moms start crying and then (the kids) start crying,” Wendler said, adding that it gets easier every time after that.
There’s the straight up beautiful moments.
“I get to see sights that you folks who sleep in don’t,” he chuckled. “The sunrise, the wildlife, the deer, the eagles.”
Like last week after an ice storm.
“The sun came up and it just sparkled,” Wendler said. “It was just amazing.”
And then there’s the meaningful moments where he knows he made a difference, like when he told a high schooler that her personality would be great for going into the medical field. And that’s exactly what she pursued after high school.
“You can influence them like teachers do,” he said. “We’re on that bus together for anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour a day, so there’s time to spend together.”
It’s a job he cherishes through and through.
“They’re really good kids,” he said fondly. “You do the very best you can and make sure you’re as safe as you can be.”
Winona’s one of the latest communities to accommodate Lyft’s ridesharing business.
Since it first arrived in Winona about a month ago, the app-based service has been creating a niche for itself in the city’s transit landscape.
The region was officially added last year in February, when Lyft announced expansions into La Crosse, along with Rochester and the communities of Eau Claire, Janesville and Fond du Lac in Wisconsin.
The app is free to download and uses credit card or debit card payments which go through Lyft, not the driver, though the payment is verified with them as well. No cash is needed.
When hailing a ride, the app can automatically detect your location or you can put in one of your own. Then you add your destination, as well as any stops you want to make along the way.
The base fare for a ride is $1, with an extra $1.10 added per mile and 15 cents added per minute. There’s also a $1.55 service fee. The minimum fare is $4.85.
There’s also an option to schedule a ride in advance rather than hailing one through the app.
Local Lyft driver Jordan Mitchell was among the first drivers to sign up when the opportunity came as a way of making money when he was between jobs.
He said it makes for a convenient way to make money on the side, and he may do it on the weekdays or whenever his schedule allows on the weekends.
Mitchell said there were a number of reasons the business was appealing for both the customer and the driver.
On the customer end, there’s convenience, app-based payment, and the ability to bring the car right to you without knowing the address.
He also noted that the company’s guidelines for safety — a 2000 model car or newer and intensive safety inspection — and driver background checks appealed to customers.
“They thoroughly go through everybody,” Mitchell said.
Other standards include that vehicles be sedans with working doors that lock and open from both the outside and inside.
On the driver’s side, there is the convenience of choosing your hours and making extra income.
He estimated that while there was not a constant number during the weekdays, maybe two or three, the number of drivers could go up to five or more on busier weekend times.
“You can do it on your own time,” Mitchell said.
So far he said the customers have been similar to other taxi services — late night trips to and from bars at night, people going to grocery stores and other places during the day. All seemed happy to have yet another option for transport around Winona.