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(Philip Weyhe/St. Peter Herald)

Live nativity returns for fourth time, continuing a First Lutheran community tradition

For the greater community, the St. Peter First Lutheran Church live nativity is a chance to experience something a little different during the Christmas and holiday season. For the church community, it’s something more: a tradition, a connection to faith, an opportunity to bond.

In 2001 and 2002, Barb and Dale Haack organized the drive-thru nativity scene at the church, and hundreds came out to see the scenes of Jesus’ birth, along with handcrafted signs telling the story. There was a 15-year hiatus before Kim Neubauer decided it was time to bring it back in 2017. She and co-chair Amy Pehrson felt it was a perfect time, as the church transitioned pastors.

“It’s ministry we’re doing with this event, so that the community can come in and see a live nativity,” Pehrson said. “But I think we also felt it was a good bonding opportunity in a transition time. It was something solid we could connect to.”

Kim, whose family participated in the 2001 and 2002 nativities when their kids were young, added, “I just wanted my kids to know what it was like. Pastor Alan Bray was retiring and Pastor Ten Kunze was hear for a year before the next pastor (Gwen Hermanson), came in. I was mulling it over, and right before he left, Alan said, “Kim, are you going to go for it?’”

First Lutheran Church held its first Live Nativity event in 2017. Here, church volunteers play the parts of Joseph, Mary and others in showing the story of Jesus’ birth as told in the Bible. (Herald file photo)

Kim and her husband Jim Neubauer, and Amy and her husband Pat Pehrson, led the way in 2017, following in the footsteps of Barb and Dale before them. They loved it.

“It was fun, oh year,” Kim said.

So much so that the team decided they would continue the tradition every other year going forward. They hope new leaders will emerge in coming years, but for now, they’re excited to continue offering the community event biannually.

“It was always our intention that we would do it every other year, I think,” Amy said. “We were very pleased in 2017 after recreation of the costumes and rebuilding of the stable. We for sure thought we’d take it on one more time.”

Successful start

The live nativity began at First Lutheran in 2001, thanks to the efforts of Barb and Dale and a supportive congregation. The inspiration was a deep one for the couple.

“The reason for it was because I had a serious operation, and I lived through it, and we didn’t know what would happen; it was a brain tumor,” Barb said. “ And I was motivated at that time to thank God for saving my life, and I wanted to do something here in St. Peter to show appreciation.”

Barb and Dale took care of most everything in the first year, including funding for the project. They went all out, hiring a company to make handcrafted signs, telling the story of the birth. They even brought in dozens of hay bales to build the manger.

PhilipW / By PHILIP WEYHE pweyhe@stpeterherald.com 

The original manger at the First Lutheran Church live nativity in 2001 and 2002 was built with dozens of hay bales. In 2017, the manger was made of a wood structure. Pictured here, a Lego model of the original manger with each Lego representing one bale of hay. (Philip Weyhe/St. Peter Herald)

The first year, the show was multiple nights, and it was an instant success, with cars lined up down the block, waiting their turn to catch the spectacle. It took dozens of church member volunteers, but the congregation managed to pull it off.

Kim and Jim played Mary and Joseph in the first reenactment; their young kids tailing along. Amy’s family drove through, meanwhile, as she played an angel — “Type cast of course.” Friends and family made their way through, sending out greeting to their loved ones that were enduring the cold.

“A lot of people come for their friend or relative,” Jim said.

Kim added, “Yes, and then they yell at them, and the actors are like, ‘Shh!’”

But it’s not just people who know the actors that show up. The greater community has consistently enjoyed the show, starting from the first one in 2001.

“I think what was unexpected to me was the number of members that went through that were not from First Lutheran,” Amy said.

Starting again

Even as the live nativity went on hiatus for a decade and a half, church members held on to fond memories. The event was special in many ways. One was the way it connected church members to a story that they cherished.

“You have a lot of time to think about the story you’re portraying, and that’s what we told actors, ‘Remember the story you’re telling here,’” Jim said. :Standing there as Joseph, it’s like, you know, ‘What was Joseph thinking?’”

“It did change the way you perceived it,” Kim said.

Then there was the community service aspect. Churches have their own communities, but they don’t always get to touch the lives of the larger community surrounding them. The nativity provided a very direct, personal way of doing that. It also provided the chance to do some good for the community in other ways.

Each live nativity includes a St. Peter Area Food Shelf donation, with a stop at the end, where visitors can donate cash or food items. In 2017, Scouts, led by Jim, were able to collect over $700 and over 750 pounds of food from the event.

Perhaps the most motivating benefit of the live nativity is the way it brings the church community together. Kim had thought about bringing it back for a few years before she finally pulled the trigger. She was inspired be her memories of participating as a family and her desire to see her kids do it again. She and the team wanted the rest of the church to feel the same, whether they were members 15 years ago or joined on since.

Church members are dressed up for the first live nativity at St. Peter First Lutheran Church in 2001. (Photo courtesy of Barb Haack)

“I think it was really fun for some of us that had young children that were in it to think those kids could do it now, or for sure see it and understand what’s happening,” Amy said.

Jim added, “It was also nice to bring new members that had no idea what it was like to participate in it.”

Making it happen

Kim, Jim and Amy established Thrivent Action Teams in 2017, which each were given $250 to work on different aspects of the renewed live nativity. It was enough funding to get it done, with the help of Amy’s husband, Pat, building a new wooden manger, and some 50-60 church members volunteering their time on the day/night. The original founders, Barb and Dale, were also eager to see it get going again. Barb was asking Kim, “What do you need? What do you need?”

“When you have something that is really important to you, you like to see it continued, and you like to see the young people feel they’re participating in something they feel is alive, instead of just scenery,” Barb said. “It means so much that they would continue it.”

It’s fair to say the congregation was pleased with the results in 2017.

“It went very well,” Kim said.

To make it happen each year, the lead team does a lot of organizing. They all agreed that gathering volunteers was the most difficult task. They need bodies to play the parts — in a few sets of actors, so they can all switch off and not spend too much time in the cold. They need people inside controlling traffic, people in the kitchen, people handling childcare, people bringing treats, people dressing the actors, and then the Scouts taking donations.

Beyond the volunteers, the team also needs to take inventory each year. In 2017, there were a whole lot of costumes needing to be reworked or made for the first time; they went thrifting and headed to Halloween stores to find what they needed. Then there are the props, the settings, the signs and even some live animals that need to be counted and displayed. The team event puts out carpet squares to help the actors stand in the right positions.

Lights and a sound system finish off the preparations ahead of time. For the leaders, Kim and Amy, it’s two full days of work, in addition to all of the build-up, planning and organizing ahead of time.

“We’ll be here Friday night before the show, ironing, sewing and all of that,” Kim said. “We spend the entire Saturday setting up.”

“Now that we’ve been through it, it should go more smoothly,” Jim noted.

Still, it’s quite an operation. But it’s one the First Lutheran congregation is proud to put on, and one the community eagerly awaits. For newbies like Pastor Hermanson, it’s as exciting as it was for the congregation 18 years ago.

“I’m participating, and I’m just very curious,” she said. “I’ve really been hearing about the live nativity since the day I started.”

Kreykes turns 100, not slowing down

When the clock strikes midnight New Year’s Eve and we all enter the ‘20s, it’ll be nothing new for Gale Kreykes.

Of course, last time, she was just an infant. This time, she’ll enter the new decade with a full century behind her and a perspective of the world and its history that few among us can boast.

Gale turned 100 years old Dec. 3, and she’s still fit as a fiddle.

“I’m feeling good,” she said. “No problems.”

Still active

Kreykes, who lives alone after her husband Keith died in 2014, has five children, 12 grandchildren, over 30 great grandchildren, and many other friends and family to still keep her company. But she doesn’t really need much help.

In fact, she’s still helping others.

At 100 years old, she is still portioning out Meals on Wheels and serving a senior dinner every weekday. She took on the volunteer job about eight years ago, thanks in part to daughter Koroll “Korky” Schaefer, who is the coordinator for the local program.

“Monday through Friday I’m here 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. doing whatever needs to be done,” Gale said “I don’t want to dry up. You’ve gotta keep moving.”

Gale Kreykes, center, serves meals to seniors at Parkview Manor. Ron Saltzman, left, serves with her. (Nancy Madsen/St. Peter Herald)

During a 2018 Meals on Wheels work session, fellow volunteer Ron Saltzman said of Gale, “She’s good to work with. She’s hard to keep up with.”

When she’s not working, Gale is usually tending to her apartment, taking part in activities at her living complex, going on walks, or spending time with family. She even still drives, heading to the nearby grocery store when needed.

“I still have my car. I still drive. Anybody heard it, they’d probably have a hemorrhage,” Gale said with a laugh.

Daughter Korky countered, “Oh, no, you’re still a good driver.”

Gale has been active for a long time.

She and her husband, Keith, devoted years to the Nicollet County Fair, where he was on the board and she served as secretary. She downplayed her role, but it included a number of tasks, including putting together the fair book, writing out prize winner checks and creating meeting minutes.

“She retired at 90-something, and they still called her back to help,” daughter-in-law Mary Kreykes said.

Besides her extra-curricular efforts, Gale also taught for three years after getting a college degree in mathematics and music. And she worked many jobs thereafter, including 16 years as a research analyst at the state hospital, now called the St. Peter Regional Treatment Center.

Growing up

Gale was born in Montana, but her family, which included parents Earl and Martha Page and brother Gene, moved to North Mankato when she was 2. Her grandfather was an early settler of the city, and the family is well-known in town, with some streets even being named after them.

Gale’s mother died early, and she went to live with her grandparents from 2 to 8. There, she found one of the great loves of her life.

“My grandpa had horses, so I spent a lot of time around them,” she said. “I’m still kind of horse-minded.”

The Great Depression was setting on by the time Gale was 9 or 10, and it certainly affected the family. Her father, who had been remarried, worked the railroad and times were tough. But Gale said “It didn’t bother us too much.”

She was able to attend school in Mankato from kindergarten through college. She was part of the first class at the original North Mankato school, which is now apartment complex. She eventually moved on to Mankato State University where she got her degree.

Family life

Above all else, Gale has been devoted to family. She was married to Keith in 1943, and the two enjoyed 70 years of marriage. They also had five children: Korky, Larry Kreykes, Karen Hibbard, Fred Scott Kreykes and Gean “Skip” Kreykes.

Gale and Keith Kreykes pose in their younger years.

“She raised a good family,” Korky said.

Gale quipped, “None of them were in jail anyway.”

Korky said Gale set rules and ensured all the children helped. She is a master of the English language.

“Even today, her handwriting is perfect,” her daughter said.

The family moved to the St. Peter area in the 1950s, living on a couple farms and in the city. Keith farmed as a hobby, and they both enjoyed riding horses.

Keith and Gale Kreykes were featured in a book about the 1976 Bicentennial Wagon Train from Minneapolis to Valley Forge. The two rode horses along the route.

The couple even participated in the Bicentennial Wagon Train Pilgrimage for three months. Thousands of people participated in some or all of the event, which began in June 1975 and ended on July 4, 1976. They followed the trails that settlers followed from the east to the Midwest and West, out as far as California and Washington.

The children were involved in 4-H, and Keith was also involved in harness racing. The couple would go to races and sleep in part of the horse trailer.

“She was very active – she and her husband,” daughter-in-law Mary said.

More to come

Gale is still sharp and still motivated. There is no clear end in sight for the century-old woman.

She’s even still engaged in politics, feeling the importance of the current moment.

“She’s political,” Mary said, “likes politics.”

Gale pitched in, “There are things I don’t like about it, or should I say, ‘Somebodies’ I don’t like.”

But while Gale can get frustrated just like the rest of us, she has a generally positive and happy demeanor. She appears unaffected by the world around her. Heck, she’s seen it all, and she says she’s loved every minute of it.

“I enjoy life in general,” she said. “I mean if you can’t enjoy everything, then what’s the point.”

City eyes 8.2% tax levy increase for 2020


St. Peter property owners can expect the city portion of their tax bill to go up, at least slightly, in 2020.

The St. Peter City Council will vote at its Dec. 9 meeting on a proposed 8.2 percent, or $246,000, citywide tax levy increase in 2019. That will cause the city tax rate, which is also affected by new development and other factors, to go up from 50.27 percent in 2018 to 51.58 percent in 2020.

The councilors went over the proposed levy increase with staff at work session Dec. 2. The final proposed increase, at 8.2 percent, is slightly down from the 8.8 percent preliminary increase established in September. City Administrator Todd Prafke noted that St. Peter city staff attempts to give an accurate estimate in September, rather than making significant changes on the final levy in December. The council seemed generally agreeable with staff’s proposal, though Mayor Chuck Zieman wanted to make one note.

“People see the 8.2 percent and think ‘That’s how my taxes are going up.’ But that’s the levy increase, not the actual increase on individuals,” Zieman said. “People get alarmed when they see that number sometimes.”

Increases to individual property owners are actually determined by the city’s new tax rate, but also depend on a number of other things, namely changes to market value. On a $150,000 property in St. Peter with no change in market value, the 8.2 percent levy increase would raise the city portion of the tax bill by $16.54. But on a $150,000 property that increases in value by 4.8 percent, the 8.2 percent levy increase would cause the city portion of the tax bill to raise by $57.02.

Property tax bills are also affected by changes to the county tax levy and school district levy. Each of those entities will also be approving final levies in December.

Even with an 8.2 percent tax levy increase, the city projects its expenditures to be more than its revenues in 2020, which would lower its reserves by about $380,000. The city’s reserves would still be at a healthy $3.82 million at the end of 2020 — equal to 46 percent of the expected general fund expenses in 2020. Current city policy states that the reserve fund should be 35-50 percent of the following year’s budgeted expenditures.

According to Finance Director Sally Vogel, total city expenditures are increase by about $623,000 in 2020, driven by personnel costs, park improvements, municipal building maintenance and some capital projects. That includes city employees seeing a 3 percent wage bump, increases to health insurance costs, funds for new playground equipment at Veterans Memorial Park, funds for a second school resource officer, and the first Minnesota Square Park pavilion payment at $92,000.

The St. Peter Community Center, meanwhile, will retire its debt with a final $36,500 payment in February, and the city levy going toward operations there is unchanged at $135,000. The library tax levy is also stagnant at $284,000.

City staff did offer up some ideas for cutting down on the levy increase for 2020, but that would mean either taking more out of the city’s reserves or a reduction in city services, and staff noted that several requests were already left out of the budget, and it already under-funds road maintenance, as is is the case in most communities. The 2020 budget also doesn’t make room for fire hall construction, which may be funded by a sales tax instead.

The council will have the opportunity to discuss further and make a final determination on the 2020 levy and budget at its Dec. 9 meeting.

River's Edge selects new CEO

Joseph Stratton will be the next River’s Edge CEO, pending contract approvals.

After interviews with five finalist candidates Nov. 21, the Hospital Commission and St. Peter City Council agreed to hire Stratton, who most recently served as CEO at Geary Community Hospital in Junction City, Kansas from 2013 to September 2019. According to a River’s Edge description, Stratton developed several strategic partnerships in the Junction City area to enhance pediatric services, organize educational opportunities for students at the University of Kansas Medical School and Manhattan Area Technical School, and developed new service lines. Stratton led a team of approximately 300 employees at Geary to “improve patient experience, employee engagement, community relations and strategic planning.”

Stratton is set to replace departing CEO George Rohrich, who started in 2013 and is now heading to the Pacific Northwest. Stratton is expected to start in March, with a target date of March 2. Rohrich is leaving in December, and Chief Financial Officer Lori Zook is the interim CEO.

A contract agreed by Stratton and the Hospital Commission includes a $250,000 salary, with a minimum increase of $5,000 in the second year. It’s a two-year contract and also requires Stratton to live within 15 minutes of the hospital. The St. Peter City Council will be asked to approve the hire at its Dec. 9 meeting.

The Hospital Commission was looking for someone with previous CEO experience to replace Rohrich, and Stratton provided that.

“I think he came with really outstanding credentials,” Commission Chair Margie Nelsen said. “Not only many years as a CEO but also in critical access, which is very important to us.”

Stratton stood above candidates, who also had CEO experience, for a number of reasons, but an important factor was how he would fit into a well developed culture within the hospital

“I think the most critical thing was that the commission, executive leadership and all staff felt very positively about his personality and his fit in our culture and that he can sustain our culture in a really positive way,” Nelsen said. “He seemed warm, approachable; he had a sense of humor.”

PhilipW / By PHILIP WEYHE pweyhe@stpeterherald.com 

George Rohrich receives a card and framed photograph from Margie Nelsen and the River’s Edge Hospital Commission at the end of his last commission meeting. (Philip Weyhe/St. Peter Herald)