James Lynch Wento was unreachable the bitter January evening his mother called.
Born in Le Sueur and raised in Ray, Minnesota, Wento was respected and admired throughout his life for his extraordinary compassion for others, whether it was making time for his family, lifting the spirits of his fellow soldiers or organizing charitable efforts for the less fortunate. Even though he had recently been stationed in South Korea, a 15 hour timezone difference, he was always available to take a call from his mother Mary Kay Wento. He was always there when he was needed.
But when Mary sat on her spot for their regular call Jan. 7, there was no answer. She knew why; she just didn’t want to believe it.
Wento was killed two days earlier overseas, while serving as a staff sergeant, headquarters platoon sergeant and wheeled mechanic in the 2-2 Assault Helicopter Battalion stationed at Camp Humphreys in Yongsan, South Korea. While leading a convoy in live fire exercises, his vehicle hit the ice and flipped over. His first sergeant survived, but Wento lost his life at 34 years of age.
“It’s not fair; it’s not right but I know that he did what he was supposed to do and he was proud of the job that he had,” said his sister, Katy Wento. “He was proud to be a United States Army soldier. My brother died a true hero. His job was to protect and that’s what he died doing.”
Through his years of service, Wento was no stranger to putting his life on the line for the aid of others. He was a fourth generation service member, preceded by his father TR Wento, his grandfather and his great grandfather. After three years as a Security Forces officer in the Air National Guard out of Duluth, Wento transitioned into the Army and served two combat tours in Afghanistan. His bravery overseas saved the lives of his fellow soldiers, earning him the Combat Action Badge and Army Commendation Medal with two bronze oak leaf clusters.
“I always told him I was so proud of him when he wore his uniform, because his chest was so full of ribbons, and I didn’t even know half of them what they meant,” said Mary Kay. “And when I did find out, now I know why I’m so proud. He had a couple for heroism, outstanding man, marksmanship. The list is unbelievably long.”
Wento was as accomplished as he was humble. His family said they had no idea just how much of an impact he had made overseas until after his death, when they were flooded with letters of support and stories from service members.
“When it came to his military career, he kept it very close to his heart. He didn’t let too many people know everything,” said Katy. “But the things that I have heard, it blows my mind away that this man didn’t want us to know everything, because he thought ‘I don’t want to brag about this,’ or ‘I could have done better.’ He was always trying to better himself. He had this drive about him.”
“We found out that he saved a couple lives, we did not know,” Mary Kay added. “There are some that he couldn’t save and I think that’s what hurt him the most.”
But Wento made a name for himself on more than just the battlefield. He held close relationships with his soldiers and strived to foster a warm environment. He organized and paid for holiday dinners, put together sporting tournaments for breast cancer awareness, arranged fundraisers for Toys for Tots and served as a mentor in the Big Brother program.
Even a month after his death, the Wento family still gets letters from what James called his military family. One soldier wrote to the family describing James as a father figure.
“I’ve never lost a family member before,” wrote the letter. “James Wento was a father figure to me in Korea. He helped me out so much through all the good and bad times. I love Wento for everything he did for me. He taught me about life itself. He was my role model, my father figure and my best friend. I had never been closer to anybody in my life than James Wento.”
In his honor, the soldiers of Camp Humphreys have begun organizing softball tournaments, James Wento’s trademark sport. The proceeds will be donated to a scholarship for the students of Littlefork-Big Falls High School, where Wento graduated from in 2005. Called the Glove, the scholarship arranged by the Wento family recognizes his lifelong love of softball.
Though he was humble in service, Wento was a fierce and cocky competitor on the field. His love of softball was inherited from his mother, who played and coached for 25 years. It was during his time on Mary Kay’s little league team that she realized her son had an arm for pitching.
“He loved to pitch,” said Mary Kay. “They all would say that about him. Since he was playing sports when he was little. I watched him numerous times playing softball, and it was amazing.”
In addition to softball, Wento was an avid hunter, fisherman and motorcyclist with a mischievous side to boot. His sister Katy recalled a time when Wento was just a toddler and learned from his father that cats always land on their feet. The young Wento decided to put this to the test, tying a Kleenex to the tail of his sister’s kitten and climbing a ladder to the roof of the cabin.
“He wanted to make sure dad wasn’t lying and that she landed on her feet,” said Katy. “There was never a ladder leaning up against the cabin or the house again because we just didn’t know what he would do at that age. You look back at it and shake your head, how did we survive this?”
Though he was a risk-taker, a daredevil and a bit of a prankster, with Wento’s strength came compassion. He took care of his family, his daughter Jaelyn, his soldiers and others, even if he might be judged for it.
“Out on the football field, if it was Mother’s Day, he would run out in the field and give his mom a great big hug,” said Mary Kay. “He didn’t care what other people said. When kids were bullied in school, he sat with them and told them things would be OK. We found that out, too. We didn’t know. And he protected them.”
“He made time for anybody who needed him, and as mom has pointed out to me, he would have given me the moon if he could have,” said Katy. “He was just so giving and had a huge heart and his smile could light up a room. He had these beautiful long eyelashes. He could bat those eyelashes and smile and you couldn’t stay mad at him.”
Even today, the Wento family is reassured that James is still looking out for them.
“The day we buried my son, the boys ran to me and were calling to me ‘Mama Bear, Mama Bear.’ They had seen a couple cardinals on one tree,” said Mary Kay. “And all of a sudden, the cardinal came up right beside me, three feet in front of me. It fluttered and flew off. I guess that was my son. The cardinal came, and he said it was OK.”
Drill rigs and MNDOT workers have come to perform soil boring on Hwy. 93, as the transportation agency assembles plans to raise the road above flood waters.
Construction on Hwy. 93 isn’t expected for another two years, but Project Manager Todd Young said the samples collected through the soil boring will give the agency necessary information on the materials before they construct a design for a new road lift.
“When we raise the road up eight feet, we have to reestablish our ditches,” said Young.
“Which means we need to go out further into the Minnesota River Valley from the floodplain towards the east and we want to make sure the soils that we’re putting on top of is able to accommodate that additional weight and additional load.”
The road lift aims to give drivers a way to travel in and out of the city of Henderson when the Rush River overflows. Flooding has been a regular nuisance for Henderson, but high water levels have become more and more frequent in the last few years. In 2019, both Hwy. 93 and Hwy. 19 closed for a total of 61 days between March 16 and July 5 and for 22 days in 2020 over a series of five flooding events.
The excessive flooding put Henderson on MNDOT’s radar back in 2016, when the city initiated a transportation flood feasibility study on Hwy. 93, Hwy. 19 and Sibley County Road 6 to figure out what improvements were needed to minimize road closures during high water events.
Young said MNDOT began pursuing a design for Henderson since 2017, but it wasn’t until 2020 that the agency received the funding to put those plans into action. The $1.9 billion bonding bill passed by the Minnesota Legislature last fall included $23 million in funding for the road lift on Hwy. 93 and an additional $1.8 million to Henderson to improve the flood wall so that the road can run over it.
Hwy. 93, Hwy. 19 and Sibley County Road 6 all lead out of Henderson, but Hwy. 93 was chosen for improvements based on its utility and cost effectiveness. The roadway sees the second highest level of traffic of the three and is the quickest route for Le Sueur-Henderson students to travel to Le Sueur. While Hwy. 19 hosts the most traffic, it was more costly in comparison.
“Hwy. 19, going east out of Henderson, served the most traffic, but in order to construct that to a point that it does not cause additional flooding in the Minnesota River Valley, the cost would have been $40 million in 2017,” said Young. “Compared to Hwy. 93, which serves the second most traffic and has a good connection route to the city of Le Sueur where the school district resides.”
The potential for additional flooding remains a concern for MNDOT. Water levels could rise in the Minnesota River if construction pushes more material into the water. That could lead to a backup past Hwy. 169.
To counteract the potential flooding, MNDOT will work to flatten Hwy. 19. Young said this would not lower the road, nor increase the frequency of flooding. Instead, during flooding events, the water would be distributed over a greater surface area of the road.
In addition to 8-foot lifts to the roadway, MNDOT plans to reconstruct the Rush River bridge and add an additional overflow bridge 1,000 feet to the north to allow for high water marks from the Rush River. The agency will also be replacing culverts and adding guardrails at more sensitive areas.
A finalized design for the project will come together between spring 2021 and 2022, with construction taking place in the summer of 2023 through 2024.
Two finalists have been selected for the position of Le Sueur-Henderson superintendent.
On Thursday, Feb. 4, the Le Sueur-Henderson School Board unanimously advanced Johnson County Superintendent Jim Wagner and Howard-Winneshiek Superintendent Ted Ihns for a second round of interviews.
School Board evaluations of Wagner and Ihns placed them well above the four other candidates that were interviewed earlier in the day. The first round interviews were held by a community committee made up of residents Jackie Fahey and David Pfarr, teachers Colleen Winters, Eric Lewis, Courtney Shoemaker and Megan Schwarz, and an administrative team made up of the three school principals Brian Thorstad, Christine McDonald and Amanda Feterl.
The superintendent search was launched in partnership with South Central Service Cooperative, which has recruited candidates for the district and developed the interview process.
On feedback forms, members of the community committee and administrative team gave their impressions — positive, neutral or negative — and rated candidates based on individual qualities such as financial knowledge and strategic planning.
School Board Director Gretchen Rehm backed Wagner and Ihns, believing that they were best suited to help the School Board pass a facilities referendum and manage district finances.
“There’s two things I think we need the most help in as a leader, and that’s passing this referendum and making sure our finances are in order,” said Rehm. “To me, the top two were between Jim and Ted. They had the most experience in those two areas, and for me, who do we feel comfortable with? We need farmers’ help, we need businesses’ help, we need families, we need retirees. Who do we feel is strongest when bringing people together for our overall goal? That’s what I’m looking for.”
School Board Director Matt Hathaway further emphasized the need for the School Board to find the right fit for the district, someone whose personality would mesh with Le Sueur-Henderson.
“These are all talented candidates and well-educated people and competent in what they’ve done so far in their careers,” said Hathawy. “They’ll all be successful someplace. Having the right fit is the most important piece because they’ll all learn what they need to learn.”
A final round of interviews will be held on Feb. 10-11 between the finalists, the school principals and a second interview team made up school staff, including Athletic Director Jeff Christ, Grounds Supervisor Todd Virklan, Business Manager Ky Battern, Food Service Director Justin Craig, Administrative Assistant Juanita Flores, Transportation Directo Kris Stivers, Community Education COordinator Nathan Warden and Tech Coordinator Alexis Frischmon.
Current Superintendent Marlene Johnson is leaving the school district on June 30, having announced last summer that she would not renew her contract with the district at the end of the school year. The district hopes to have a new superintendent in the spring.