From the Sands of Time in the early 1970s in St. Peter to the Mushroom Mountain Band in the 1980s in Denver to Bob’s Band in the 2010s in Washington state, one might think that Bob Theis has seen it all in music. But amid the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, he’s finding a new joy in his musical endeavors.
Theis, who has probably played thousands of gigs in about 50 years of music, has been playing a new kind of gig since the spring: virtual. On most Sundays (or sometimes Saturdays), Theis sets up shop outdoors, usually just outside his home in Washington, and he starts playing for an audience of hundreds (sometimes thousands) of Facebook viewers.
“It’s a real satisfying feeling to be able to bring people together,” he said of the online shows. “Even just seeing them say ‘Hi’ to each other in the comments. It’s just the bringing people together, more than anything, getting them away from the reality of this pandemic and the political chaos.”
It’s making other people happy, too.
“He has lifted my spirit during this time, and I am sure he has done the same to so many people,” said Vickie Conlin, a Mankato resident who has known Theis for 25 years. He has a great following during these concerts.”
Lifetime of music
Impromptu sets are no challenge for Theis, who grew up in St. Peter, graduating high school in 1970, and starting a few bands in town before he left. He’s played gigs his entire adult life, including solo and in numerous different bands.
“It hasn’t ever been my main occupation,” said Theis. “What I get out of it is people just seem to really, really like it. I play for tips most of the time, and they’re very generous with it. I just feel really good about being able to be accepted in people’s lives; that I can bring that type of happiness to them.”
Theis’ first bands were in high school, playing at St. Peter area dances. The most notable band, formed with his brother Dan, a friend and a neighbor, was called Sands of Time. He and his brother had developed the musical itch from their mother.
“I’ve loved music since my mom used to have the radio going all the time when I was kid,” Theis said. “And of course then I saw Elvis on the TV and then the Beatles, and I thought, ‘I can do something like this.’”
After high school, Theis was all over the place, hopping the rails to pick apples in Washington state and working a year in Tuscon, Arizona. But he was in St. Peter for much of that period, and he started a couple bands. in 1973, he joined a friend’s band called Stone Face. He then started his own band with another guitar player in town in 1975, which lasted until 1977; that one was called Snapper.
“We did a lot of playing around Mankato and St. Peter,” Theis said.
In 1977, Theis went to a concert with his brother in Denver with bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Outlaws, The Marshall Tucker Band and a number of others. They loved the experience, and seeing that Denver had a booming job market where they could get construction and carpentry jobs, they chose to stay there.
“We went to work for about $4 per hour,” Theis said.
By 1978, Theis had joined a local band called Last Train. They played small clubs around Denver for about a year. Then in 1980, Theis and one of the other Last Train guitar players started their own band, The Fever, which did mostly rock and roll. Not long after, Theis started Mushroom Mountain Band. They played in the mountains and all over Denver for a good six years.
By the late 1980s, though, he had moved to Washington state with his new wife and their daughter. They went on to have two more kids together. Theis took a job for Boeing. For the next couple decades, as he was raising a family and working, music was more of a hobby than any kind of professional work.
“I kind of got out of the music business when I had kids,” he said. “I should’ve done what I’m doing now, playing retirement centers and things like that. But I was out of music until my younger daughter and my two boys were moved on.”
Theis and his wife separated when the kids were older, and suddenly Theis was left with an empty home and a lot more free time. It was around 2013 when he joined with an old music friend, Harold Christensen, to form the Bob and Harold band. And suddenly he was back in music again.
“We just started playing places, and people received it quite well,” Theis said. “He learned to play a peddle drum, and I plugged in my acoustic into an amp, and it was going over really well. We had a little truck with our band name on it, and we would play at a pizza place every Tuesday night. Eventually, we got invited to play at retirement homes, and they just kept asking us to come.
Harold started having health problems a few years ago, and so Bob started doing some shows alone and with a new friend Kevin Ingbretson. Harold’s health improved, and all three would do shows together, too. In the end, they just started calling it Bob’s Band, since he was the consistent factor.
The three even recorded a CD, thanks to a generous fan with a recording studio, called “Time Not Lost” that Theis has been sending out for free.
Making people happy
Playing at retirement centers and nursing homes helped reinvigorate a love for music in Theis. He recalled one instance in which a retirement center resident, named Louise, insisted after a show that Theis would play “Walk Across Texas” at her memorial service. A year later, Theis got a call, informing him that Louise had died, and she had instructed her daughter to have Theis play at a memorial service.
“That was really special,” Theis said.
For the past five years, Theis had returned to St. Peter annually to play at Hobber’s Bar and Grill, which is now closed, ahead of Rockbend. He was greeted each year with an excited audience of family, friends and beyond.
“The first year, it went over so big, (the bar owner) said ‘Let’s do it again next year,’” Theis said. “I played on Thursday, as kind of a kickoff for Rockbend. The place was really hopping. People like something to do, somewhere they know their friends are going to be. It’s not just about the music; it’s a place to gather. That’s kind of what I like to create. I’m really never good. It’s just about giving music to people that they can relate to.”
The first widely reported outbreak of COVID-19 in the United States was in Washington state, and one of the hardest hit facilities was Kirkland Lifecare Center, where Theis had just performed a show only days before. Reality set in quickly that he wouldn’t be able to do his normal shows for quite some time.
“The world began to change at that point,” Theis said.
Over time, he’s found new ways to play live, including outside of windows at some of the retirement communities. But it’s the internet where Theis has found his most success. At the end of March, he started trying out the live Facebook feed, playing setlists, and he realized quickly that people were listening.
Since that time, he’s done well over 30 virtual shows on his Facebook page — Bob Theis — and he continues to do them weekly.
“There were so many people watching, and it’s on public, so people were sharing it, and it was reaching way out,” he said. “And I thought, ‘This is really fun; I’ve got such a response; I couldn’t believe how much people were appreciating it.’”
Friend Conlon shed some light on what makes the shows so attractive to the online audience.
“He has such a wonderful attitude, spirit, and love of life,” she said. “It’s just a blessing and uplifting couple of hours while he plays. I think we all need an uplifting moment in our lives, and Bob does this out of the goodness of his heart.”
For Theis, music, in general, has always been a crucial part of life. And he’s glad now that others can use his music as an escape.
“It takes people back to a different time and lets them get out of this world we’re in right now,” he said.
The start of the new school year has come with its own set of unique challenges for educators. Between online learning, reduced class sizes and a mask mandate, schooling looks a lot different than in previous years. But after a semester of distance learning last spring, teachers are happy to be seeing their students in class again.
“It went very well; the day went very fast,” TCU Lonsdale second-grade teacher Abby Brockway said after the first day of school. “It was nice to have the excitement of the students and the staff in the building, and even though you couldn’t see their smiles, you could just hear the excitement in their voices.”
Local school districts including TCU, Le Sueur-Henderson, St. Peter and Cleveland have all debuted hybrid models this year to accommodate COVID-19 which come with a whole host of changes. One of the most significant is reduced class sizes. Guidelines for the hybrid model mandate that classrooms be at 50% capacity, so local districts have split students into two different groups. Each group alternates days and attends school in-person twice a week. One day a week is reserved for all distance learning.
TCU Lonsdale fourth-grade teacher Megan Warner leads a class of 11 students in-person on “Group A” days and a class of eight on “Group B” days, but the whole class comes together through Google Meets projected on a TV screen. Students at home will log on from school-distributed Chromebooks in the afternoon during read aloud time. Unlike last year, during distance learning, Warner can teach lessons in person and allow students time to apply their skills at home.
“I think with the smaller class sizes we were able to really instruct on the first day,” Warner said. “With the classes split in half to a smaller group, everyone had a chance to talk.”
Brockway agreed that spending one on one time with students is an advantage to the smaller class sizes. On the first day of school especially, this allowed for more time to establish routines, answer questions, and get to know one another.
Creating that level of consistency was a big focus of Le Sueur-Henderson Middle School/High School Social Studies Teacher Rick Bruns. Since students have been out of the classroom for much longer than usual, Bruns said that it has been harder for his pupils to adjust back to learning in school again. It has also been challenging to get students to consistently be on Zoom when they aren’t in the classroom.
“I asked them yesterday how they were feeling and the overwhelming response was they are getting a lot of work,” said Bruns. “Admittedly, coming off of spring there really wasn’t quite a demand on students and they feel a little bit overwhelmed right now. But it’s amazing to have these kids back, to be in the building with them; they get to be with their friends and things like that. I think part of it is getting back into that routine again.”
Hybrid learning has also introduced more reliance on technology in the classroom than Bruns and students are used to. During class, half the students will be at their desks while the other half will be following along on Zoom. A few students over Zoom will occasionally be dropped from the call due to a poor internet connection, so Bruns has to spend some time catching students up to speed and finding out what they may have missed.
Though keeping students up to speed through technology has been a trial by fire, Bruns and many other teachers are coming out of the experience with a greater understanding of digital tools for education.
Robert Deering, a science teacher at St. Peter High School is accommodating a divided classroom with divided lessons. When students are learning from home, Deering gives students self-guided work they can perform independently, such as reading an article or watching a video. When they’re in class, he uses the space for hands-on science experiments. Due to the pandemic, science equipment is divided out so that everyone can use their own set and the equipment is sanitized afterward.
The St. Peter science teacher came into the new year with some experience under his belt, having not only learned from distance learning in the spring, but also participating in a team of teachers that studied the hybrid learning model. Deering’s main takeaway was that hybrid learning should accommodate a self-led lesson plan.
“Part of the hybrid instruction focuses on wanting to educate students to be independent,” said Deering. “They’re allowed to have a choice when they complete assignments and how they show content mastery and how they show understanding. We looked at a lot of different models like creating a playlist that the student can choose from that the teacher has decided is appropriate for them to do.”
One of the major challenges Deering is trying to address in his class is building relationships with students. Deering said he wants to create a greater sense of normalcy in the classroom, but it’s been harder with hybrid learning and the potential for the learning model to shift to distance learning if COVID numbers were to go up.
“There’s always that potential to move to distance learning as the pandemic continues, so I try to have one day with my kids to build that relationship.”
At the elementary level, being in the classroom can come with its own set of challenges. In second grade, Brockway often reminds her students to respect one another’s “bubbles” regardless of the pandemic. This year, that conversation isn’t just about personal space but keeping others healthy. With that comes reminders to keep masks on and wash hands.
Students’ understanding of the pandemic varies according to their age level. As a second-grade teacher, Brockway said she focuses on the virus in general and talks to her students about staying healthy and taking care of their bodies. She plans to read students a book called “When Virona the Corona Came to Town” to help them understand what happened in March, why schools needed to close, and why things are so different now. Brockway believes parents have the option to talk more in depth about the virus outside of school with their children.
In Warner’s fourth-grade classroom, she chose to talk about healthy choices and the importance of hand washing. Since school began the day before the 19th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attack, she talked about how that moment in history stands out to those who lived through it just like students will remember living through the coronavirus pandemic, even when they grow up.
“No one seemed fearful at all, just doing their part,” Warner said.
Though the year has many challenges ahead, teachers were confident that their schools were well-prepared.
After children were dismissed Thursday for the first time, Warner said, “I’m excited; I’m ready for tomorrow.”
Driven primarily by salaries and insurance costs, Nicollet County is proposing a 2.99% increase to the countywide tax levy for 2021, equal to about $690,000 spread across the tax base.
“As a county government, we are heavy in human capital because of all the services we provide,” County Administrator Ryan Krosch said, explaining why wages, employee insurance plans and other personnel items impact the budget so heavily.
Most Nicollet County residents aren’t likely to be cushioned by the county’s overall tax market either. Staff projects that overall taxable market value in the county will decrease in 2021, driven mainly by a 17% drop in the value of agricultural land.
“That’s the largest drop I’ve seen here,” Krosch said. “That causes a significant increase in our tax rate.”
The tax rate is projected to move from 55.63 in 2020 to 58.62 in 2021. And the share of county taxes that residential property owners will be responsible for in 2020 is expected to increase from 51% to 55%.
A residential property that is valued at $150,000 in 2020, and has no change in value in 2021, would see an approximate $38 increase to county taxes, according to projections. That same property, with a 5% rise in value in 2021, would see an $86 increase to county taxes.
The county will determine its final 2021 levy in December. The number can go up but not down from the preliminary.
Beyond the wage and insurance cost increases, the county is allocating additional dollars in 2021 in a few areas. Throughout all the departments, the county is hiring three new employees for 2021, which staff expressed to be absolute needs.
The commissioners were comfortable with those additions, feeling they were necessary.
“It seemed like the staff additions were minimal and necessary,” Commissioner Terry Morrow said. “The great bulk in this budget is for people. As we look at the great need for public services right now — safety, health, public works — I came away thinking everyone was conservative in their requests. They recognized that, not only does the county have expenses, but the folks in Nicollet County have challenges right now.”
“I think what we added made sense,” Commission John Luepke agreed.
Along with the immediate impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, local governments need to be wary of the long-term impacts. With a new statewide deficit caused by the pandemic and related shutdowns, the Minnesota Legislature might be taking away from local government aid, or at least not increasing it, next spring, meaning counties, cities and school districts might be working from behind. There are also less people driving currently, meaning less funds from the gas tax.
To keep expenses in check, the county chose to eliminate all seal coating projects from the Public Works Department in 2021. Although it might put street maintenance behind, Krosch and Public Works Director Seth Greenwood felt the county is far enough ahead to go without for a year.
“We’re anticipating a reduction in funds from gas taxes, so we eliminated the expenses from seal coating for one year.” Krosch said. “We’ve kept up with seal coating and have converted a lot of roads to concrete over the years, so we’re comfortable with that.”
The commissioners voted 5-0 in favor of the preliminary 2021 budget and tax levy. Commissioner Jack Kolars noted that everyone should be ready for challenges ahead.
“I am in favor of this (preliminary levy), even though we might be in worse economic shape than in 2009 after all this finishes,” he said.