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The Owatonna girls hockey competed in the Schmitz Holiday Classic in Farmington during the holiday break. The Huskies recorded wins over New Prague and Chisago Lakes, while losing to Farmington. (file photo/

Owatonna Girls Hockey SHC

Owatonna’s 1st baby of new year born in Northfield

A new year means new beginnings, and inside one local home, it means starting 2023 with one more family member.

Despite being born in Northfield, Zeke Elliot Chalmers is Owatonna’s Baby New Year, born Sunday, Jan. 1. (Photo courtesy of NH+C)

Zeke Elliot Chalmers is Owatonna’s New Year’s baby, born on Sunday, Jan. 1, at 7:37 pm at the Birth Center at Northfield Hospital. According to hospital staff, he was born 7 lbs. 13 oz. and 20.5 inches long.

“Every birth is special, and there’s something really energizing about starting a new year by celebrating new life,” said Betsy Spethmann, director of communications at Northfield Hospital and Clinics. “There were 544 babies born in our Birth Center in 2022. That’s a lot of joy! It’s a privilege to welcome all these little ones, and to care for their families.”

Zeke is born to Amber Riley and Zach Chalmers, along with big brother Axel, who live in Owatonna.

Zeke Elliot with his parents, Zach Chalmers and Amber Riley, of Owatonna. Zeke was born on New Years Day at the Northfield Hospital. (Photo courtesy of NH+C)

While it’s exciting to have a Baby New Year in the family, the parents had originally calculated Zeke’s due date as Dec. 31.

“Then at our first prenatal appointment, we were told Jan. 15,” Zach said, adding that when Zeke was ready, he was ready. “Once he was ready to come out, it was like 13 minutes; he was raring and ready to go.”

“We kept joking about it,” Amber laughed. “He’s the one who knew when to come.”

There was a brief moment where the couple weren’t sure if Zeke would be Baby New Year, as they first went to the hospital at about 6 a.m. that day. Zach said because they were waiting around for so long, he was certain another expecting mother would come in and have the first baby of 2023. But alas, it was meant to be Zeke all along.

Spunky like his father and brother, it’s no surprise to Zach that Zeke was born on what is already a season of celebration.

“It’s going to be interesting to have Christmas and immediately start decorating for a birthday party,” he said.

Big Brother Axel beams as he finally gets to meet his baby brother, Zeke, born on New Year’s Day. (Photo courtesy of Amber Riley)

Perhaps no one is as excited for baby Zeke than big brother Axel, who is only a few months shy of his third birthday.

“He says he’s going to help change diapers and feed him,” Amber said. Zach echoed his fiancée, saying Axel has already found small ways to help with a new baby at home.

“There is a bit of adjusting for an almost 3-year-old who found his voice in the last year and likes to express how much his lungs can let out,” Zach laughed. “There’s a little bit of a learning curve there needing to be quieter with the baby home.”

Both Zeke and Axel were born at Northfield Hospital, but their experiences couldn’t be any more different. Axel was born in April 2020, at the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I was barely allowed in for Axel,” Zach said, recalling the stringent restrictions in place at the beginning of the pandemic. “We were completely confined to the room with our first kid, and my mother who is a pretty big part of our lives wasn’t able to come to the hospital at all.”

The pandemic took a toll on the couples’ experience of becoming parents outside of the hospital visit, too. Prior to the birth, the baby shower for Axel had to be canceled, resulting in a “porch drop off” for any gifts. When Axel was born and back home, the unknowns of the pandemic made the couple extra cautious, so those who wanted to meet the new baby had to do so by means of FaceTime or through a window.

Despite the obstacles in place because of COVID-19, Amber said the couple had such a good experience with Axel’s birth they decided to go back to the Northfield Hospital for baby number two. And the experience this time was just as positive.

“We were able to go out and get food or even go outside if we wanted to,” Zach said, adding that his mother, Jennifer Chalmers of Elko, and his grandfather were able to come by for a bit.

Baby Zeke is now home in Owatonna with brother Axel and parents Amber Riley and Zach Chalmers. (Photo courtesy of Amber Riley)

Though the pandemic has calmed considerable, the family is still being cautious with too much happening around the new baby due to the current RSV scare. However, more family has been able to meet the baby in person this time around, and Zach said he expects that will continue in the upcoming days and weeks.

“He’ll be a popular little boy for the next couple weeks,” Zach said. “All the family want to come see him.”

Most importantly, Zach made it known that everyone is nice and healthy, ready to tackle 2023 together.

Julie Fiske, along with her husband Chris, are both integral parts of the Growing Hope Foundation. They are now working towards building local partnerships to expand and grow the foundation. (Photo courtesy of Julie Fiske)

The week of Nov. 28 through Dec. 2 was proclaimed DECA Week in Owatonna, and DECA officers attended the City Council meeting for the proclamation with Mayor Tom Kuntz.(Photo courtesy of Owatonna Public Schools)

New year kicks off with 'thunder snow,' closing schools

No, you’re not imagining things — you really did hear thunder while it was snowing and showering Steele County with ice on Tuesday.

Emily Kahnke / By EMILY KAHNKE 

Ice falls from the sky Tuesday during a “thunder snow” event that canceled Steele County schools. Though the sound of thunder may be alarming in January, the National Weather Service says it happens roughly five times a winter in southern Minnesota. (Emily Kahnke/

According to Melissa Dye, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Chanhassen, “thunder snow” or “thunder sleet” occurs anywhere from four to five times a year in the region.

“We don’t need warm weather to get thunderstorms; with the right conditions in place it’s possible any time,” Dye said Tuesday morning. “Because we have had decent moisture and a lot of lift as the low pressure moves northeast, and we have a little instability in the atmosphere, we’re able to get these thunderstorms.”

The thunder came Tuesday morning while much of southern Minnesota — including Steele, Waseca and Freeborn counties — were in an ice storm warning that began at midnight and was scheduled to last through 6 p.m. on Wednesday. With the storm warning, which was issued early Monday, significant icing and snow up to three inches was expected to accumulate, accompanied by winds gusting as high as 35 mph.

As a result, Superintendent Jeff Elstad canceled school for Tuesday, declaring the first snow day of the New Year and the second for the 2022-23 calendar year.

“We would love to have our kids in session today,” Elstad said, noting bad weather seldom takes a school calendar into consideration. “Old Man Winter just is not cooperating very well.”

The second snow day extended what has already been a longer-than-planned winter break for Owatonna students. The first snow day of the school year came on Dec. 22, the day prior to the start of winter break, when a nearly statewide blizzard warning was in effect.

“The average snow day count on a given school year is three, and we identified that the very first two snow day calls or weather cancellations we have will be typical snow days,” Elstad said. “We are not asking our students to do anything but enjoy the snow day.”

Pre-pandemic, too many snow days in a given school day weren’t as fun as it might same as it typically meant cutting into the upcoming summer break. Since the pandemic, however, when schools across the nation were forced into distance learning, Elstad said they no longer have to worry about cutting into any scheduled breaks or extending school years.

“At our next opportunity of a weather-related cancellation, we can deploy our e-learning mechanisms to preserve our calendar year without the angst about whether or not we have to make that day up,” he explained. Ultimately, however, Elstad said the district always prefers to see students at school for in-person learning.

While there is little concern about having to alter the school calendar, thanks to e-learning, Elstad recognized there will be a bit of stress for teachers at Owatonna High School as they prepare to end the first semester in just a couple weeks. Due to the block schedule the school runs on, eliminating two instruction days before and after the winter break has that much more of an impact on the amount of time left to get through all the necessary course material before the final exams.

“Hopefully we won’t have anymore changes due to weather patterns,” Elstad said. “But kudos to the National Weather Service … They keep us very up-to-date and with the latest technology we are able to make those calls the night before, which can help a lot of families with planning.”

Dye said the good news is things are appearing to “quiet down” on the weather front for awhile, with above-average temperatures coming at the middle of the month and less precipitation for the next week. Regardless, this winter season in Owatonna is proving to be “wetter” than average, Dye said, with Owatonna seeing 20.5 inches of snow falling through the month of December compared to a normal 11.2 inches.

“Hopefully we will get a little bit of a break after this is done,” Dye said of the Tuesday storm.