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Waseca senior Kyreese Willingham hugs junior Christian Rodriguez Friday following the final kneel down in a 23-8 victory over Plainview-Elgin-Millville at Waseca Junior Senior High School. The Bluejays clinched the Section 1AAA championship with the win. (Nick Gerhardt/southernminn.com)

Family of Owatonna sailor battles unanswered questions, moving forward

The sight of three uniformed servicemembers standing out on his front lawn on a warm and sunny October day will be seared in the mind of Chad Frank forever.

“I wasn’t ready for it,” Chad quietly said as he relived the nightmare every parent fears. It was that day they informed him that his 20-year-old son Hunter Frank had been found dead in his residence in El Salvador while serving his country in the U.S. Navy. The cause of his death is still unknown.

While trying to process the shock of the news himself, Chad said the next thing he did was get in his truck and drive from his home in Waseca to Medford, where Hunter’s mother Annette Duncan lived and where the three servicemembers were headed next.

“I knew I needed to be there to help her when she found out the news,” Chad said. “It was a very hard day. After that, I had to go pick up his little sister from school and she knew something was wrong. I didn’t want to tell her, but I had to. That is the hardest job as a parent I’ve ever had to do.”

Duncan, who is the president of the United Way of Steele County, said she knew exactly what the servicemembers were there for the moment she saw them waiting for her at her door. As everything crumbled down around her, Duncan admitted she couldn’t get out of bed for several days until she was able to put all of her focus into bringing her sweet boy home.

“We went through making sure he had a proper burial, but after that – what do you do now?” Duncan said through tears. “After I got myself into work, which is what I do when things get too hard and I’m trying really hard not to break down, people would say things, say they heard about my son, and they all have well intentions, but they don’t realize that I’m doing everything in my power not to lose it every single day.”

Brandon Flores, the oldest of Hunter’s seven siblings, said he was in disbelief when he heard the news and that he even initially believed his youngest brother was pulling a prank on him. Every year since Hunter had enlisted in the service, he would surprise his family by coming home unannounced. Flores said he spent his drive to his mother’s house trying to convince himself that Hunter had simply gone too far this year.

“It was like my world shattered,” Flores said when he finally came to the realization that Hunter was truly gone. “I try to always step outside of my own shoes when I look at different situations, but logically it just didn’t make sense. Why did he, above anyone else, have to be the one to go?”

“Sweet, loyal, caring Hunter,” he continued through his emotions. “There are still days I don’t feel it’s real, because it shouldn’t be. Survivor’s guilt hits really hard.”

The unimaginable grief that has fallen on this family is only compounded by the questions still left to be answered.

“We’re all trying to get back on track, but it’s all very confusing because we haven’t had any answers so there’s no complete closure with what happened,” Chad said, expressing frustration the lack of answers from the government. “Everything is on a gag order and it’s all under investigation by NCIS and the FBI. It’s hard because I want to know if it’s a medical condition and if I should be concerned about his other siblings or anything, but they can’t give me any information.”

The emotional rollercoaster began with the family trying to get Hunter home, a process that took 10 days. Flores said even the day Hunter came home endured speed bump after speed bump from meeting the plane in Minneapolis to getting stuck in a traffic jam on the interstate.

“We were all in bad moods – we were sad and angry and emotional – it was the worst drive of my entire life,” Flores said

When the convoy reached the Owatonna exit, there was a police officer waiting for them with their lights on, giving him a sigh of relief that the remainder of the drive to Michaelson Funeral Home would be easy.

“As soon as we turned on 18th Street and I saw the lights… I immediately broke down. That’s a long street and to see it lined with people who sat out in the cold with flags… it was so special and a really good way to end a really horrible car ride,” Flores said.

Duncan couldn’t help but laugh at the idea of her son being the center of such a commotion that night, which was organized by the Beyond the Yellow Ribbon Owatonna organization. She said Hunter was about sneaking in under the radar, never wanting the spotlight to be on him for long, and always looking for a way to help others instead of having people do stuff for him.

“That was always Hunter,” Duncan said, recalling the special way Hunter had with people, specifically his younger sister Indya who is 13 years old. “Those two had a genuine bond that I haven’t necessarily seen with my other children. She would get in these fits and we would have Hunter call her and she would be fine, all it took was to hear his voice on the other end of the line.”

Being there for others was one of Hunter’s most notable traits, according to his family. Chad said Hunter always stood out from the rest of the youth throughout his life, saying that he would stop anything he was doing if someone called on him for help.

“Hunter was basically the same person to each and every individual he came across,” Chad said. “He never left you hanging – if he said he was going to be there, he would be there every time.”

Flores echoed his parents’ sentiment about his younger brother, adding that having a Hunter in your life was something never to be taken for granted.

“The best way to describe Hunter to anyone else is that you don’t realize how much you need him in your life until he’s there,” Flores said. “He shows up and it just hits you like this brick wall of ‘where have you been all my life?’”

Because helping others was so deeply engrained in his personality, Hunter’s family was hardly surprised when he began the enlistment process with the Navy at the age of 17. Though Duncan admits she had hoped Hunter would take some time after graduating from Owatonna High School in 2018 before enlisting, she added that her son was always a go-getter when it came to what he felt was his calling.

“I am so proud of him, but I was so scared in that moment,” Duncan said. “I was just a mom wanting her son to experience more and hoping he would take some time, but in his mind that would have been selfish, and to Hunter you just didn’t live like that.”

Flores said all the men in his family were extremely proud of Hunter for making a commitment to serve for his country, something both Flores and another brother tried to do but were unable to enlist. Chad said he also had thought of enlisting in the service as a young man and regretted never following through with it.

“I am very proud of what he was doing,” Chad said. “It was his calling. He strongly believed he wanted to help everyone and he had his sight set high. He went out to do what his calling was. He said he wanted to be the best of the best and he got himself there.”

A little more than a month since losing Hunter, moving forward still feels like an impossible feat for the blended family. Flores said losing his brother that was eight years his junior has been the biggest wake-up call of his life that tomorrow is never promised.

“My daughter will grow up hearing stories about her uncle,” Flores said, holding back emotions. “Hunter’s biggest thing was family, and that is something I’m going to bring with me forever. Those principles are what we are going to incorporate – we’re going to make that time to spend time with family. We’re going to hug tighter and love harder.”

Chad said it will certainly take a while for everyone to heal, but that there is only one word to describe his son.

“We will remember Hunter as a hero,” Chad said. “He was a great person, and no matter how you define a hero, Hunter was always there. If you had a problem, he would help you.”

For Duncan, she knows that there is a part of her heart that will be missing forever. As she maneuvers and navigates through a new world without Hunter in it, Duncan said it takes every ounce of strength she has just to make it through each day.

“There are so many other people and things out in the world that are so wrong, and here you had this brilliant light, this good soul, this person who is so selfless,” Duncan cried. “It’s hard to understand…”

On Sunday morning, Duncan said her daughter Indya had a difficult time as 3-year-old Amelia wanted the teddy bear that was given to the siblings to remember Hunter. Duncan said Indya got upset, exclaiming that Amelia “didn’t even know him.” They two took a moment to talk about it, with Duncan reminding Indya that Hunter would have been there for Amelia just as he had always been for her.

“We talked about how the best thing she can do to help honor Hunter’s memory is to help share Hunter with Amelia,” Duncan said. “We have to help her get to know the brother she never got to know. That is how we honor Hunter, by continuing to share his story, and continue to carry out our lives serving others.”

“That is her job now, to help her little sister understand the person Hunter was,” she continued. “We try to just live each day and be thankful and to serve however we can serve and try to make this world a better place because that is all we have. We can’t change the past, we can’t change what happened, but we can accept the future and try to make it better for someone else. I can honor my son by continuing to do that with my own life. That is how we all have to live every day.”

Janesville golf course projected to have record revenue
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After years of needing to be bailed out by the Janesville City Council, the Prairie Ridge Golf Course is projected to come out ahead for the 2020 season.

Every year during the city budget process, the council assigns funds for the city-owned golf course to cover deficits. In the 2020 budget the council budgeted $30,000. The biggest deficit the city paid out for the golf course was in 2016, when the city transferred $2.03 million from three utility funds to the Prairie Ridge Golf Course.

But Prairie Ridge had a record year for revenue in 2020, which prompted General Manager Scott Allen and Grounds Superintendent Jacob Lehrke to suggest putting some of the golf funds toward a new deck on the clubhouse. They said at the Nov. 9 council meeting that the deck on the clubhouse is deteriorating and will need to be replaced.

“The deck is basically a lawsuit waiting to happen,” Councilor Melissa Kopachek said. “It’s getting pretty bad and half the cost is being taken up by labor being donated.”

The city received a bid in October for the deck and will be receiving a second bid soon. The materials are estimated to cost about $30,000 with labor costing about the same. All of the $30,000 in labor cost will be covered by the Janesville Area Golf Association.

The council discussed pre-ordering some materials for the deck using $20,000 of the budgeted funds from 2020 and taking $10,000 from the 2021 budget to pay for the remaining materials. No final decision was made about the deck and discussion will continue at future council meetings.

“It’s not often that we have a positive on the bottom that we can purchase stuff this year,” Mayor Mike Santo said.

“They’re going to be showing a profit this year, unless something strange happens at the end of the year and I think we can wave a fee for a building permit for a city owned building.”

Allen also mentioned he is expecting some donations from members to help with the cost of the deck, which he said is “exciting.”

Over the recent years the council has taken steps to help improve Prairie Ridge and one of the decisions was to bring back the Golf Advisory Board.

The board is made up of four members and a council member. Kopachek is the councilor on the board along with residents of Janesville. The board meets often and reports to the council about the golf course’s funds, membership and other needs, which allows the council to have a better understanding of its operations.

Waseca hospital at 100% capacity due to COVID-19 surge
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The Mayo Clinic Health System’s five hospitals in the Mankato region are full due to a surge in COVID-19 cases and health care officials are making a plea for residents to not gather for Thanksgiving.

Mayo Clinic officials appreciate the residents who are following public health officials’ guidance to curb the spread of COVID-19, but they need everyone to do their part, Dr. James Hebl, regional vice president of the Mayo Clinic Health System, said during a press conference Friday, Nov. 20.

“We know it’s been a difficult year and we know that the holiday season is soon upon us, making this even more challenging. We also know that the holidays typically mean gathering with friends and family, however in 2020, we are asking that we do not do that this year,” Hebl said.

The Mayo Clinic Health System has seen a “very rapid rise” in COVID-19 cases and the hospitals in the Mankato region are feeling the impact on their medical and surgical bed availability, Hebl said. The Mankato and Waseca hospitals were at 100% of their capacity on Friday, the New Prague hospital was at 94% capacity, the Fairmont hospital was at 96% capacity and the St. James hospital was at 92% capacity, Hebl said.

Residents experiencing a non-COVID-19 medical emergency should continue to go to their nearest emergency room, even if the hospital is at 100% capacity, according to Dr. Brian Bartlett, emergency medicine physician with the Mayo Clinic Health System.

Hospital capacity is a “fluid” situation and a hospital may be at 100% capacity at one point, but then have an available bed due to a patient discharge, he said. Hospital capacity is also coordinated within the Mayo Clinic system and a patient can be transferred to a different facility where there is an available bed if they need to be admitted, he said. However, Mayo Clinic hospitals elsewhere are starting to reach their capacity, which may mean a patient needs to be transferred to another health care system where there’s an available bed, he said.

A COVID-19 patient’s average length of stay is four to five days in the hospital, unless it’s a severe case, which is usually at least two to three weeks in the hospital, Hebl said.

As of Friday, 141 Mayo Clinic employees in the Mankato region were absent from work due to COVID-19 restrictions. Fifty-eight of those employees had tested positive for COVID-19 and were in quarantine, and the remaining employees were in quarantine due to being exposed to a COVID-19 case, Hebl said. Ninety-six percent of the staff were exposed in the community.

Forty-five percent of Blue Earth and Nicollet counties’ COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic have occurred in the last month, according to Dr. Katie Smentek, a COVID-19 lead physician at the Mankato clinic. Andrew Lundquist, chief medical officer of the Mankato clinic, said at the current pace of COVID-19’s spread, Blue Earth and Nicollet counties could see 1,500 new cases in the next 12 days.

“In Blue Earth and Nicollet County, if you have a group of 10 people, there’s a 42% chance that one of those people has COVID-19 right now. That’s sobering,” Lundquist said.

Waseca County had 191 new COVID-19 cases from Nov. 13-20. Only one of those cases occurred in the federal prison in Waseca and the remainder were occurring in the community, according to Waseca County data.

Health care officials know it’s difficult to stay home and away from friends and family, Smentek said. But slowing the spread of the virus is the only way to ensure there will be enough health care staff and resources to care for patients, she said.

“Remember, every interaction counts, whether it’s a hunting trip with your brothers or coffee with a friend,” she said. “Lives depend on your actions right now.”

Mayo Clinic staff is working long hours to care for patients, Smentek said. The average number of patients in their respiratory clinic has increased 104% from March to November and telehealth visits and drive-thru tests have nearly doubled in November. Their COVID-19 hotline has long waits even though they’ve more than doubled the number of nurses answering the calls.

“Our health care workers, we don’t have a second line. We’re it and we’re in danger of becoming overwhelmed,” she said.

The health system has been preparing for this surge for months and is coordinating with facilities across the region on telemedicine, virtual appointments, monitoring patients at home and transferring patients from the Mankato hospital to other hospitals, including Waseca, New Prague, St. James and Fairmount, Hebl said.

“However, there is a finite amount of resources and the reality is that this situation can and likely will become untenable if our communities do not take precautions and act now,” he said.

Birds Eye (copy)

The city of Waseca approved the tax abatement for Conagra on Nov. 17. Conagra plans to build a 220,000 square foot building near the old Quad Graphics building. (County News file photo)