Tragedy often inspires art. The St. Peter community has an example in its midst with the unveiling May 26 of a mural honoring Landon Gran.
Gran was 18 and entering his senior year of high school when he was killed in a farm accident in August 2019. A beloved son, friend and co-worker, Gran’s friends sought a way to memorialize his life. The result is the 10-x-12-foot mural that now hangs on the north side of the 3rd Street Tavern.
Kept under wraps until Tuesday, Gran’s parents, Michele and David Gran, were the first to see the mural in a private showing.
It is the fruit of numerous conversations, hours of hands-on work and likely many displays of emotion among the young man’s friends and family in the nine months since his death.
Gran impressed people both inside and outside his peer group. Angie Fogal had known Gran and his family since the days when her sons, Kyle and Nathan, were in youth baseball with Gran and his brother James. Fogal and the Gran brothers renewed their acquaintance as co-workers at 3rd Street Tavern.
The kitchen is like a family, she said: “We’re in the trenches together Friday or Saturday night when it’s mayhem.”
Learning about Gran’s death was surreal for Fogal. As time passed, she observed Michele’s ongoing sorrow.
“My friend is still grieving. Dang it. I’m trying to take away the pain and it’s not working,” Fogal said. She felt powerless to help. But she realized that what she could do was assure Gran’s parents that he would never be forgotten and the idea of the mural was born.
Fogal tapped Nick Richards, an artist and fellow 3rd Street co-worker, as well as a large group of Gran’s friends, to design the mural. As they talked about Gran, Richards and Fogal captured the stories and images that emerged.
“They told me about the things he loved and the things that were important to him, such as his truck, his new pup and the gazebo that he and his friends would hang out at all the time,” Richards said.
Superimposed on a landscape of his family home and farm, these items paint a picture of a typical teen but one who Richards describes as anything but typical.
“Landon was one hell of a kid,” Richards said. He pushed Gran, the positive, hard-working dishwasher, to take on roles outside the kitchen, “because I knew he was much more than a dish boy and people would enjoy his personality.”
Richards continued, “It’s hard not to. The level of respect and sincerity he projected was unmatched. In many ways I yearn to be more like Landon.”
Gran’s classmate and friend Andrew Guimond got the vision immediately.
“When Angie approached me with the idea of doing a mural I was on board instantly,” he said. “I began thinking about how so many people in our friend group had different plans for after college, and how something like this would provide a great place for people to come together with the feeling that Landon is there with us.”
Kayla Soderlund had an enormous task keeping the project under wraps.
“The main reason I decided to be a part of this project was because of how much Landon meant to me and to everyone in our community,” Soderlund said. “He had such a big heart and that is what I miss the most.”
As a classmate of Gran’s and the girlfriend of his younger brother, James, the loss was personal. The Grans made her feel like a member of the family, she said. “This mural has brought some closure.”
Bennett DeBlieck, another classmate and friend, was tasked with providing the canvas for the mural. One-inch by four-inch cedar boards protect the brick building from the plywood on which Richards applied exterior house paint.
“Landon was one of my best friends and above anything else I just want this to mean something to the people that cared about him,” DeBlieck said.
With the creative process underway, Fogal also addressed logistics. 3rd Street Tavern is located in the Konsbruck Hotel building, which is part of the city’s Historic Preservation District. That required mural proponents, represented by Fogal, to apply for permission to install and to negotiate the specifications of the piece with the city’s Heritage and Preservation Commission.
In the discussion at the Feb. 26, 2020, meeting, the parties agreed to the plywood mural that hangs below gooseneck lights on the north side of the hotel.
Russ Wille, community development director, said the hotel is significant for hosting such dignitaries as William Jennings Bryan, a famous politician and presidential candidate around the turn of the 20th century. He said the commission developed a “reasonable solution” to the mural request.
“Our business community has a way of coming together that can be largely attributed to the tornado recovery,” he said, referring to rebuilding efforts after the March 1998 storm.
Little time passed after Gran’s death when his mother, Michele, began advocating for greater safety measures on Minnesota’s farms. Calling herself a “momma on a mission,” she called for the state to assist farmers in installing safety equipment in legislation dubbed “Landon’s Law.”
The Minnesota Legislature approved the appropriation of $250,000 from fiscal year 2021 for farm safety grants and outreach programs in their recently-concluded session.
Sen. Nick Frentz, DFL-North Mankato, was the bill’s chief author in the state Senate and Rep. Jeff Brand, DFL-St. Peter, was his counterpart in the House.
According to Frentz, the bill would help farmers purchase grain storage safety equipment, such as automatic shutoffs and auger enhancements. Too many people have been killed in farm accidents.
“This bill provides an opportunity to do something tangible to help make our family farms safer,” Frentz said in a February press release.
“Landon’s family has been through a lot, yet they were very supportive of this legislation, and I’m glad to have worked with the Gran family to see its passage,” Brand said. “Turning a tragedy into a legacy could not have happened without their support.”
One proposed safety device is one Michele herself conceived — an electronic device that would cut power to the farm machine if something went wrong. She plans to spend time soon with an engineer brother in Texas to work on it.
Finally, after months of secrecy, the mural creators lured Michele and David Gran to downtown St. Peter with the promise of dinner on Tuesday evening. Speaking after seeing the mural, the two were effusive in their praise of the art and the efforts put into its creation.
“It’s cool that all the friends did this tribute,” David said.
Michele added that she was amazed by the number of people who went out of their way to honor their son. They found the symbols appropriate.
“His pickup and his puppy were his life,” Michele said. “His whole room was the American flag.”
The attention probably would have embarrassed him, they said, describing him as someone who would help others and expect nothing in return.
“We found out a lot of things after the fact,” Michele said.
He’d stay after school to protect a younger student who was getting harassed, his father said. He’d take food to a neighbor who had cancer, so the family didn’t have to worry about getting meals, his mother said. He’d even pay for the order behind him at a drive-thru.
Choking back tears, she described defending the name “Landon’s Law.” So many others have died in similar accidents, she was told, that it didn’t seem right to name it just after him. But no one else did anything about it, she said firmly. If someone had, she said, she might not have lost her son. His death is the one that led to action.
David described his son as “self-driven.” Michele agreed.
She tells his friends, “Make your dash matter,” referring to the dash between the birth and death years on a gravestone. Landon was born in 2001 and died in 2019, but to friends and family, that dash means everything.
It was going to be a big year for a big event in St. Peter.
The annual Old Fashioned Fourth of July celebration was set to take over the community for the 50th time this summer, and even better, Independence Day falls on a Saturday this year. But then a global pandemic hit worldwide, and although reluctant, the St. Peter Area Chamber of Commerce and its Fourth of July organizing committee didn’t see any other option but to cancel.
“COVID-19 really has us, and all event organizers, in a chokehold,” St. Peter Area Chamber Director Ed Lee said. “Regardless of how people feel on opening things up or clamping things tighter, the fact of the matter is that, for any event, if they don’t err on the side of caution, and somebody gets sick, then morally the event organizers feel responsible.”
He added, “Beyond any laws, beyond any rules, it just has to be safe. There has to be safety involved.”
This year, the celebration was set to be bigger than ever. Celebrating the 50th edition, there was a plan for more music, more food and more fun than ever before. It’s a loss that was hard to take for organizers.
“This year, especially, it was going to be huge,” Lee said. “It’s a really fun day for me. I’ve taken selfies, and my smile is always huge on Fourth of July. It’s really stressful and there are lots of questions to answer, and it’s also the most fun day of the year for the director of the Chamber. I mean imagine hosting a party for 10,000 people; that’s what it’s like leading this event, where you go ‘Oh man, this is just overwhelming,’ but then all your friends show up, and you just can’t believe how much fun you’re having. I mean I take at least 200 photos every Fourth.”
Lee pondered what a celebration-less Independence Day in St. Peter will loo like.
“The Fourth of July is going to come, and what is that going to feel like to have it that quiet,” he said.
Still, though, the conversation on cancelling was a short one.
“It was not a long conversation at all,” Lee said. “The three routes to be taken were cancellation, postponement and thinking creatively. And that last one would’ve meant, just as one example, using the four parks along the route as a place for the parade units and then have people drive through and see it all. That would’ve been something. But considering all the logistics, again, COVID-19 just has such a chokehold. The flow chart is ‘If you host an event and somebody gets sick, you feel bad.’ And hosting Fourth of July on Sept. 4 or Nov. 4 just doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
Instead, organizers are looking to the future — as in 2021. Assuming the event can take place then, it will still neatly fall on a Sunday. And Lee doesn’t see any reason why it can’t still be called the 50th edition.
“We just won’t be able to say ‘the annual celebration,’” he noted.
Lee and the organizing team believe that was planned for this year can simply be moved to next year. The group had a grand marshal in mind already, and they plan to just hold off on naming that person until next year. Some parks in St. Peter are seeing improvements this year, which Lee said will be an added bonus for next year’s festivities.
In terms of community reaction, Lee said most have been understanding, though some have argued. He said he’s a big believer in the 1st Amendment, so he welcomes people’s comments, but there is no chance the Chamber will change its mind.
“The decision is final,” he said.
The fourth all-school reunion in St. Peter was also planned to coincide with the Fourth of July celebration in 2020. But as the celebration was postponed to 2021, so was the reunion.
“The Chamber led us to our decision,” said Bob Genelin, one of the all-school reunion organizers. “I was waiting to hear whether they were canceling the Fourth of July. (The all-school reunion) was set up years ago with Larry Haugen. We started working in 2000 and our first one was in 2003. They’ve always wanted it over the Fourth of July weekend.”
The all-school reunion, which has taken place in 2003, 2008 and 2014, is what it seems: a reunion for attendants of all schools in St. Peter, including all graduating classes. The most difficult part, Genelin said, is getting the word out.
Unfortunately, the committee had already sent out save-the-dates to a good 10,000-plus people, spending about $6,000 through the Post Office. The group doesn’t have the funds to send out a cancellation notice, so it’s trying to get the word out any way it can. Of course, most people likely aren’t going to travel a long distance to St. Peter, amid a pandemic, without checking whether the event is still on.
Like the Chamber, the all-school reunion organizing committee has its eyes set on 2021.
“Yeah, it can be moved to next year,” Genelin said. “We’ve got basically the things we want to set up. We’d just have to confirm with a band and reconfirm with First National Bank to use their parking lot. They’re up for it; they hosted the last one in 2014.”
It was a tough decision to make, but following the Chamber’s lead, it wasn’t a hard one.
“We have disappointment, of course, because there is a lot of work that goes into the planning. You have to reserve the space, the band, work with the Lions Club on the beer garden, rent the band shell,” Genelin said. “But we’re looking forward to next year for sure. I’d rather see people stay healthy and use social distancing. Everything is a little different right now; it’ll be interesting to see what happens.”
Nicollet County does not have the most confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the south central Minnesota region — not even close — but it does have the most reported deaths from the ongoing pandemic.
The Minnesota Department of Health on Tuesday reported the sixth death in the county, a resident in their 80s. And Nicollet County Public Health further reported that a seventh death is now confirmed, an individual in their 90s. This came after the fourth and fifth deaths in the county were officially reported by MDH on Monday; those two residents were in their 80s and 90s.
The county thus far has reported 71 confirmed cases, which pales in comparison to some of the metro counties, and even counties in south central Minnesota, like Rice County, that have reported hundreds of cases. But the fact that Nicollet County has more deaths, despite fewer reported cases than many counties, is an indicator of the impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable communities.
The first death from the disease in Nicollet County was on April 9; it was an individual in their 90s. Since then, six more deaths occurred, and all the individuals were in their 80s or 90s.
“We’re really worried about our vulnerable populations and congregate living communities, because transmission is so high once it enters those communities,” Nicollet County Health and Human Services Director Cassandra Sassenberg said.
The case county in Nicollet County continues to grow, as it does across the state, but it’s very likely that many cases went uncounted and will continue to go uncounted. That is because health leaders believe the disease can go undetected in many people, as they don’t show symptoms, or at least not severe symptoms.
Those people, though, can still spread the virus, and it only takes one transmission — from a non-vulnerable person to a vulnerable person — for the virus to go from unproblematic to deadly.
The Center for Disease Control reports that people 65 years and older, along with people who live in a nursing home or long-term care facility, are the most likely to become severely ill from COVID-19. Others vulnerable include those with underlying medical conditions, including: chronic lung disease or moderate to severe asthma, serious heart conditions, compromised immune systems, severe obesity, diabetes, kidney disease and liver disease.
Just over 80 percent of deaths across Minnesota, as of May 26, were of people living in long-term care or assisted living facilities.
While the state is beginning a process to open up, health officials are still encouraging residents to take whatever precautions possible. Chief among them is wearing face covers while out in public.
“We really continue to encourage the use of cloth face coverings whenever people go out. I know they can be frustrating for some people, but they can make a difference. And the more people we have that wear them, the more people we have safe,” Sassenberg said.
She added, “I would also encourage continued hand washing and social distancing and keeping groups to 10 or less. We will be going out to locations when we see groups larger than 10 and doing our best to provide education.”