Shortly after graduating from Northfield High School in 1962, Janet Topp began her career as a bookkeeper at First National Bank in downtown Northfield.
The world was a much different place then: President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was serving his second year in office, the Civil Rights Act was two years from being signed, and Watergate would not take place until the 1970s.
Topp, who later transitioned into a lead teller role and witnessed many societal and technological changes throughout her 58-year career, retired in May. She was honored Aug. 19 in a socially distanced, drive-thru format east of Northfield that attracted more than 400 people to wish her well in retirement.
An early start
Topp remembered meeting with then- First National Bank President J.D. Nutting shortly after finishing high school.
“He had me add up a whole bunch of stuff … he asked me when I could start,” Topp said.
As a bookkeeper, Topp received across the board training, including helping customers as a teller. Topp was eventually promoted to lead teller, a role in which she worked on the teller line, helping her co-workers and responding to customer questions. By the end of her career, First National Bank had been acquired by Merchants Bank.
“Lots of things have changed,” she said of the progression of the banking industry over a nearly six-decade career, “Back when we used the typewriter … when we wrote in the ledgers of people’s accounts and stuff, and now it’s all electronic. I’ve always said these young ones could work amazing on the computers, but put them on a typewriter.”
Topp has overseen the bank’s Mainstreeters Club – a nearly 1,000-member social club for customers 55 years and older.
“Not only do I miss my fellow employees, but I miss all of the people that I’ve met over the years, all of my customers,” Topp said. “I miss the customers, I miss the employees. They’re like family.”
‘I felt it was my time’
Topp’s last day at the bank was in March due to COVID-19. She initially planned to return to work, but decided to retire May 15 at the age of 75 due to the well-known impact COVID-19 has on older people and those with underlying medical conditions.
“I just couldn’t imagine myself feeling comfortable going and then having to come home and disinfecting everything so that I wouldn’t bring any COVID home,” Topp said. “It was time. I am 75 years old. I think I can retire.”
Topp raised her family in Northfield. She and her husband, Jim have four children and six grandchildren. The couple recently bought a townhome near Northfield High School.
Now, Topp is looking forward to seeing her grandchildren participate in hockey, softball and other school activities. She’s heard others discuss meeting up with friends for coffee during the day but hasn’t known what that feeling was like.
Now, she can.
‘I’m going to miss her’
One of the reasons Topp opted to work for 58 years was the positive culture she believes was in place at First National Bank.
“One of the things I have to say is that First National was so family-oriented,” she said. “If you had to be gone for something, or you wanted to be gone for something, you could do it.”
Topp’s former supervisor, Merchants Bank Personal Banking Manager Kim Schweich, said she still relied on Topp for information based on her extensive knowledge accumulated throughout her career. Schweich, who has worked with Topp throughout her own 34-year tenure, applauded her empathetic approach to all she served.
“I’m going to miss her,” Schweich said. “She knew everybody.”
To kick off the new school year, St. Olaf College’s Institute for Freedom & Community has invited an entrepreneur and political commentator known for his outside-the-box thinking.
Former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang will headline the first of what’s slated to be six fall talks Sept. 1 around one central theme: “The Presidential Election and a Nation in Crisis: Polarization, Pandemic, Prejudice.” at 7 p.m. Sept. 1.
The Institute for Freedom & Community was founded at St. Olaf in 2014, with the goal of encouraging free inquiry and meaningful debate of important political and social issues. The institute regularly brings expert speakers to campus to explore these crucial ideas. Since 2016, the Institute has been chaired by Edmund Santurri. A professor of religion and philosophy at the college since 1980, Santurri said that the Institute plays an important role in promoting dialogue that has become more important amid the global pandemic and social/civil unrest.
“Our mission is to challenge presuppositions and foster civil dialogue among those with different points of view,” Santurri said. “Lots of different people have diverse perspectives on important issues, from the left to the center to the right.”
As with the other five discussions, Yang’s talk will be free of charge and exclusively online. St. Olaf students will have an opportunity to submit a question in advance to Yang, and community members will be able to contribute a question as well during the event.
Santurri said that whether you agree with it or not, Yang’s unique perspective and background has become more relevant than ever as the country faces simultaneous public health and economic crises as well as tense discussions of racial inequalities.
The son of Taiwanese immigrants, Yang was raised in New York. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Brown University and law degree from Columbia, and began his career as a corporate lawyer in New York City. Dissatisfied with his line of work, he instead entered the world of business, joining several startups before founding Venture for America, a nonprofit that trained young people to work for startup companies in cities like Detroit and Cleveland.
For his efforts to encourage entrepreneurship, Yang was recognized by former President Barack Obama’s administration. Nonetheless, when he announced in 2017 that he was running for president, he wasn’t well known to the country nor taken seriously by political commentators. Yang was ultimately forced to drop out after poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire. Nonetheless, he managed to do well enough to make it into nearly every debate while he was a candidate, enabling him to spread his unique message.
Almost immediately after leaving the campaign trail, he was hired as a political commentator by CNN. Soon after, he endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign and has since been in close contact with Biden’s team.
Warning that America was on the verge of massive job displacement due to automation, Yang ran for president on a distinctive platform that included the “Freedom Dividend,” a form of Universal Basic Income that would have seen the government send everyone $1,000 a month. His proposal didn’t catch on during the campaign, with many economists decrying it as too expensive. However, Santurri said that as the pandemic hit, the general concept of supporting the economy by sending people checks has caught on.
Santurri said that in addition to Yang’s introduction of Universal Basic Income into the national consciousness, his willingness to propose controversial ideas and fly in the face of conventional wisdom is another reason why inviting him as a guest speaker was so appealing to the Institute.
“He’s really tried to break the barriers of polarization, reach out to the other side and resist that tendency to attack,” Santurri said. “Sometimes it’s gotten him in trouble with his own supporters, who think he concedes too much to the other side.” Santurri noted that Yang received particular criticism for an editorial he wrote in April for the Washington Post in response to increased incidents of racial bias against Asian-Americans attributed to COVID-19’s origins in China.
Yang, who has said he suffered from anti-Asian racism growing up in a predominantly white New York suburb, argued that Asian-Americans should respond to racist attacks by striving to demonstrate their fundamental “Americanness.”
That argument was seen as tone-deaf by many, flying in the face of traditional liberal arguments with regard to discrimination and racial inequality. Santurri said that while he thinks Yang may have missed the mark slightly, his argument was in sync with a desire to move beyond unnecessary conflict.
“He meant to turn down the temperature, to reach out beyond the aisle,” Santurri said. “Even though he might have misspoken slightly, I think his intention was to get beyond ugly partisan conflict.”
St. Olaf College on Thursday announced the suspension of 17 students who participated in an off-campus party last week and didn’t wear masks as required.
In a message sent to students, college President David Anderson called the behavior “reckless,” adding that another 50 students need to quarantine for two weeks.
“We have since learned that too many people congregated in the space, masks were not worn, physical distancing was not observed and the predictable results ensured,” Anderson said. “This is the kind of reckless behavior that will put an end to our in-person semester, and it must stop. At least one of the students who attended the party was infected with COVID-19 and exposed several students. Others in attendance exposed innocent students, like roommates, who are now having to pay a costly price for others’ poor choices.”
Anderson noted that as of Thursday morning, eight students out of 3,055 students tested for COVID-19 have tested positive for the virus.
“A heartfelt thank you to all of you who exercised care for yourselves and for others this summer so that we could begin the academic year with such a low positivity rate,” Anderson said.
Students returned to campus this week, three weeks ahead of schedule and anticipate in-person classes will begin Sept. 1. College officials moved the semester up so students could finish before Thanksgiving and the heart of the typical flu season.
In June, Anderson said the college’s top priority was ensuring the health and safety of students and staff.
“Starting early provides the best opportunity to have a full semester of in-person classes before a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, should that occur in late fall,” read a statement issued in June by St. Olaf. “It also provides an opportunity to conclude the semester before flu season, which will help avoid confusion caused by flu symptoms spreading at the same time as the campus community is carefully monitoring COVID-19 symptoms.”
In order for students to return to campus, they needed sign a pledge agreeing to daily monitoring and COVID-19 prevention efforts. Students are also expected to wear face coverings, maintain physical distancing, and adhere to illness, isolation and quarantine protocols.
“Every single one of us has a responsibility to check the behavior of those around us,” Anderson wrote to students Thursday. “If you see someone not adhering to the Community Standards, remind them that this behavior endangers everyone and could jeopardize our ability to complete a full semester in person. Our systems are in place and our preparations are excellent. It is now up to all of us to act safely and to look out for each other’s health.”
Beginning Sept. 3, the college will post a daily COVID-19 alert level to inform the college community about the level of risk posed on campus by the COVID-19 virus. The levels are color coded and include an explanation of each designation. While the campus is still in quarantine status, Anderson says the goal is to “stay at the green alert level so that we can complete the semester in person.”
In the past few days alone, college students at schools in North Carolina, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Vermont, Kansas, Colorado and at the Air Force Academy have tested positive, creating a ripple effect that has put hundreds of other students into quarantine or isolation. The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill on its third day of the semester, moved all classes online after the positivity rate rise from 2.8% to 13.6% at Campus Health in a week.
The U.S. leads the world in the number of coronavirus cases, with 5.4 million cases reported as of Tuesday, and more than 170,000 confirmed dead, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
-The Associated Press contributed to this report.
The show, at least some of it, will go on.
Defeat of Jesse James Days organizers have announced that some outdoor events, including the much-loved parade, are still on the schedule.
According to the Defeat of Jesse James Committee, the annual Joseph Lee Heywood Graveside Memorial Service is still scheduled for noon Wednesday, Sept. 9 at Northfield Cemetery. The longtime festival’s kickoff honors Heywood, the First National Bank cashier who died protecting residents’ saving from the James-Younger Gang during the 1876 robbery of First National Bank. Social distancing rules still need to be followed.
A community parade is scheduled for noon Sept. 12. The parade format has been changed to include parts of the entire city to ensure social distancing.
The Horseshoe Hunt is still scheduled from Sept. 2-7.
At 4 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 12, the Sundowners Car Club plans a Classic Car Cruise starting at Northfield High School. The lineup for the event starts at 3 p.m. Immediately following the cruise, ducks will be dropped into the river from the Fourth Street Bridge. The first three sold ducks are expected to have cash prizes — first place is $1,000, second place is $300, and third is $150. Tickets are $5, and participants must be 18 years old to purchase. However, participants don’t have to be present to win. Tickets are available for purchase from Northfield Area Fire and Rescue Services personnel or at the Fire Station.
Every year, the Defeat of Jesse James Days brings at least 200,000 people to Northfield over the four-day celebration held the weekend after Labor Day. While organizers don’t have an estimate on the revenue the celebration generates for area bars, restaurants, convenience stores, grocery stores, food booths, retail shops, artists, craftspeople and nonprofits, the figure is substantial.
There will also be an in-person vintage DJJD button sale at Northfield Historical Society. The Historical Society has reportedly collected a number of duplicate DJJD buttons over the years, so it is offering extras to the public. Proceeds from the sale will go toward improving the Historical Society’s collection. The sale will take place during normal museum hours. Button prices will vary. Also on Sept. 12, the “Great Minnesota Take Out” will take place. Those who attend can eat at local food booths in Ames Park. Local restaurants are encouraged to offer specials or sidewalk service.
The Northfield Historical Society Bank site and museum will be open all weekend. Up to 10 people will be admitted into the museum every 25 minutes to view the new raid exhibit. Reservations are encouraged, and normal museum admission prices apply.
The festival is working on a limited budget, and organizers encourage $5 button purchases to support the event. Those buttons will be available at area businesses.
DJJD Committee Chair Galen Malecha said organizers didn’t initially think any activities could be in-person but later became aware of the possibility while following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. He noted organizers discussed the possibility with the city of Northfield and the Police Department.
“We certainly ask people to respect others’ space and respect wearing a mask and keeping their social distance,” Malecha said.