Jeff Williams distinctly remembers the genetics lesson he was giving his students. Kristen Andrix vividly recalls the look her husband gave her through the door of her math classroom.
Both remember how it felt to be in the same Owatonna High School rooms they still teach in today when historic attacks on America left them — and their students — in quiet shock that Tuesday morning.
“I had 30 kids in my class, and we just kind of … watched,” said Williams, as he recalls seeing smoke come out of one of the World Trade Centers in New York on Sept. 11, 2001. “There was just so much uncertainty, and as a teacher, you’re left trying to talk to the kids about this unknown, but then the second strike happened. The second tower was hit by a second plane. And it all became very clear — America was under assault.”
Williams said he has thought a lot about that day as the 20 anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks creeped closer. Over the last couple months, one of the students that sat in Williams’ science class that morning corresponded with him via email, as they recalled what that day was like. Williams said it felt like being in a paradigm, as a teacher, to be in charge of a classroom without having any answers.
“We’re kind of used to, as teachers, having some sort of answer, but as we’re watching this all unfold, there are no answers,” Williams said. “So we just were watching and learning together with our students — that was really humbling.”
Andrix echoed her coworker, stating she also was left speechless during the first hours of that day. Still a young teacher at the time, she said it had never been harder to find that “balance” of being the adult in a room with teenagers who weren’t, in reality, that much younger than her.
“I remember having to question, as the adult, ‘How much of this should I let them continue seeing?’” Andrix said. “I remember trying to balance my reaction to make sure the kids felt safe, but at only 26, I was still trying to figure things out myself. But in these moments, you have to turn off your own emotions and take the mindset of being a role model and a caretaker — you have to be the adult.”
Processing the day
Andrix and Williams admit that the day of the terrorist attacks felt cold, somber and extremely long. When Andrix returned home, she said she and her husband, social studies teacher Todd Andrix, continued to sit in silence and process the never-ending news cycle.
Williams went home and held his 5-month-old son.
“We had a job to do during the day, and we weren’t the ones under attack,” Williams said about waiting until the school day was over to process his own feelings. “America was honestly under attack, and for a day, we had no idea how big it was going to get. That was difficult, but we had to talk the kids through it, make sure they knew that, not only were we going to figure this out, but that we were going to stand strong against the people who did this.”
Though there are many parts of that day that still bring pain to both teachers — watching people jump from the World Trade Center buildings before they collapsed, seeing buildings that Williams said “seemed to go up forever” fall straight down — Andrix fondly recalls one specific thing from that day.
“I had never felt such a strong, unified sense of patriotism,” she said. “It is the most impactful part of that day for me — our country hasn’t felt that patriotic since, but it was truly a ‘come together’ moment that I felt on the big, grand scale. We were just kids — me and my students — but that day we were a part of the bigger picture.”
A new world
For days, weeks, months and even years following the terrorist attacks, Williams and Andrix said the world changed as a direct result of that one day. The attacks led to massive changes in security procedures and protocols around the nation, from security checkpoints in airports to the immigration and deportation process.
Less than a month after 9/11, U.S. troops invaded Afghanistan in an attempt to dismantle al-Qaeda — the terrorist group that claimed responsibility for the attacks that day. The invasion became a key part of America’s “War on Terror,” under the leaders of President George. W. Bush.
America’s military involvement in Afghanistan – which just ended in August and was immediately proceeded with the Taliban reclaiming control of the country – was the longest war in American history.
Now, when the two longtime, beloved Owatonna teachers walk into those same rooms they stood in 20 years ago, they are met with faces of children who were seemingly untouched by the events of that day.
“They may not have been alive when the attacks happened, but they are living in a world that is a direct result of that day,” said Andrix.
Though the world has been forever changed and today’s high school students may not be completely aware of just how much, Williams said that change was the only thing that was perfectly clear about 9/11.
“I think we all understood there was going to be a different world than the one we grew up in,” Williams said. “The students that day knew they were in a historic moment, a moment that would change the way we look at the world from this point moving forward … we could all really feel it at that time.”
Carol Dischinger, of Owatonna, has been named as this year’s honorary chair for the Steele County Relay for Life.
Mary Boettger, one of the organizers for the relay, said that a former chair recommended Dischinger for the position.
“The former chair said (Dischinger) is very passionate and willing to share her story and has shared with other groups,” Boettger said. “We felt that made her a good fit for the position this year.”
Dischinger was visiting her children in Idaho in 2019 when her son asked if she had leukemia. Dischinger, tired and bruised, brushed the question off, saying she simply bruised easily and it was nothing to be concerned about.
After returning home from her two-week trip, she started having persistent headaches to the point she wasn’t able to go to work. After two days of that, Dischinger went to urgent care and found that, along with the bruising on her arms and legs, she had blood blisters in her mouth and on her chest.
After some tests were completed, she was instructed to go to Rochester right away, as it was discovered the cause of her headaches was a series of brain bleeds. She was admitted to St. Mary’s Hospital in Rochester and was informed the following day that she did, in fact, have Leukemia, as her son suspected.
“I was shocked,” Dischinger recalled. “It felt like I didn’t have time to process, because I was sent to Methodist Hospital to begin a 44-day treatment on the Oncology floor.”
For the next eight months, Dischinger would follow a treatment plan involving being admitted for three weeks of treatment and then discharged for two weeks. During her time admitted and receiving treatment, she’d undergone several biopsies, spinal taps and chemo therapy treatments.
“Some people don’t understand what cancer can do to you mentally,” Dischinger said. “I constantly had to keep myself busy, so I wouldn’t fall into a depression. I knew I had to stay positive and pray to get through it.”
Dischinger said being admitted to the hospital during the holidays was the hardest. However, she made the most of it by making crafts to decorate her room with. The nurses and other patients on the floor loved them so much that they asked her to make snowflakes, chains, and trees for their rooms as well.
“I was delighted. The nurses and other hospital staff tracked down construction paper, tape and glue for me so I could keep crafting for everyone,” Dischinger said.
As of her last check-up appointment in July, Dischinger is nearly cancer free. She does have to take a daily medication to keep the cancer at bay, and will have to continue to take the medication for the rest of her life. She said that taking a pill with mild side effects is an even trade off.
“I am very thankful to have my health, despite the cancer,” Dischinger said. “I felt unlucky, but I don’t feel unlucky now.”
She is looking forward to celebrating an upcoming birthday with her son in Idaho and will continue to share her story of hope and perseverance, with an aim to help other people and families affected by cancer not feel so alone. As honorary chair this year, Dischinger will share her story during the event.
Anyone is welcome to attend this year on Saturday, Sept 18. Boettger said masks are not required but recommended. The location will be at the Four Seasons Building at the Steele County Fairgrounds with the silent auction and other activities taking place in the beer gardens.
New to the relay this year is the offering of a meal deal — pork sandwiches, beans, chips and water for a free will donation. The Signery from Waseca will also be there with several designs available to create a DIY sign project. There will also be bouncy houses for kids to play and plenty more.
The VFW will be hosting a pancake breakfast on Sunday, Sept. 19.
Boettger can be contacted by phone to purchase tickets and luminary bags at 507-390-5760. Additional information on the local Relay for Life can be found at SteeleCountyRelay.org.
The Steele County Free Fair prides itself in many things: being big, being fun and being safe.
During the fair board meeting Thursday night, a member of local law enforcement was thanked and recognized for ensuring that the fair upheld that latter mission for one specific person in crisis.
On the Saturday of the 2021 fair, Steele County Sheriff’s Deputy Sean Robbins leaped to action when a fairgoer was choking in Fair Square. Robbins was able to dislodge the food from the person’s throat within seconds of being alerted the person was in danger.
“He saved that person’s life,” said Steele County Sheriff Lon Thiele. During the Thursday night meeting, Thiele awarded Robbins with the lifesaver award, which is awarded to peace officers who distinguish themselves by an act that contributes to the saving of a person’s life.
Robbins received a standing ovation by the fair board and gratitude from Fair Board President Dan Deml and Fair Manager Scott Kozelka. Kozelka praised Robbins’ for being a perfect example of what makes the Steele County fair stand out from the rest.
“Without people like you making our fair safer, we wouldn’t be the place we are,” Kozelka said.
Also during the board meeting, the group discussed the attendance of the Steele County Free Fair, which is down 6% from the 2019 fair. The estimated attendance, which is calculated by vendor sales, beer tickets, grandstand tickets, ATM transactions, and a variety of other indicators, came in at 303,091 — almost 20,000 people less than the last fair in 2019.
There was no Steele County Free Fair in 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite attendance being down, Kozelka said the dollars spent at the fair were up. Invoices are still coming in, but Board Vice President and Publicity Director Wayne Steele said in a news release earlier this week that they saw “record gross receipts.”
The fair saw one “major hiccup” in 2021 with the cancellation of the Friday night grandstand concert, featuring country music star Craig Morgan. Treasurer Tim Arlt said they are currently in the process of filing an insurance claim for the canceled show, for which they refunded the money to those who purchased tickets.
The Sunday Demo Derby, however, was completely sold out. Board member Jim Abbe said that after ticket sales were closed at the grandstand, they allowed people to pay for admission with cash that is to be donated to the United Way of Steele County and Community Pathways of Steele County at a later date.
Volunteers with the United Way worked the grandstand each day of the fair.
Thiele told the fair board the overall calls for service at the Sheriff’s Office were down to the lowest they have been in nine years. The calls of service, which include lost persons, trespass notices, property inquiries and other information calls, totaled 339 calls in 2021. In 2019, there were 510 calls.
A full breakdown of the revenue and attendance will be presented at the Steele County Agriculture Society meeting at 7 p.m. Nov. 4. The location is yet to be determined.