More than two decades ago, Brian Daniels came to Faribault as a father determined to help his son. A fortuitous series of circumstances have since enabled him to not only survive, but thrive, and become a community leader.
Originally from Hennepin County, Daniels’s family moved to northern Minnesota when he was a child. They lived on a farm near Shevlin, a small town roughly halfway between Bemidji and Bagley. It was there that Daniels started working for part of his family’s Suzuki dealership.
“My job was to take motorcycles out of a crate from Japan,” he said. They were maybe like 4.5-5 feet long and 3 feet wide, two motorcycles in there. My job was to take them out of the crate and put them together, gas and oil them up, and charge the batteries.”
When he was 18, Daniels’s father asked him to take over the business. The move worked out well, as Daniels turned the business around with the help of high school friends who Daniels recruited to work as part-time staff.
The weak economy and high interest rates of the early 1980s eventually forced Daniels to leave the business, although he was able to close the store with no outstanding debts. He worked at another dealership before getting a job at an area rental store.
Daniels was also a busy family man, raising four children with his wife, Liz. In his spare time, he coached youth hockey, taught Sunday School and won a seat on the local school board. An exceptionally active person, he loved weightlifting, downhill skiing, tennis and motocross.
Yet tragedy would strike when the Danielses' son Jeremiah was just 10 months old. Jeremiah came down with what his parents at first believed to be a simple case of the flu. Then it took a turn for the worse.
“It got to the point where if we picked him up he’d just scream,” Daniels said. “We thought he was just tired so we let him sleep for a day, sleep all day and all night, then the second day we picked him up and it was the same thing.”
Soon, Daniels and his wife realized something was wrong, and they took Jeremiah to the local clinic. In a stroke of luck, a retired physician from the Twin Cities was in the clinic that day and examined the child. The doctor soon came to believe that Jeremiah had a case of spinal meningitis, an infection of the fluid and membranes around the brain and spinal cord. Testing confirmed the diagnosis, and although Jeremiah survived, by the time he was 3 he'd lost his hearing.
Daniels and his wife enrolled Jeremiah in the Bagley school district, where he was given an interpreter. As he grew older, Jeremiah began to struggle with his academic work and social life due to his disability.
Daniels said that he realized his son wasn’t doing as well as he’d hoped when he brought Jeremiah to a summer football camp. Even though he had put racing stripes on his son’s helmet, Daniels still lost track of him quickly.
“I look in all the groups and can’t find him,” he said. “Then I looked behind me and he was one step back, by himself talking to no one, because he’s deaf and none of the kids could sign.”
By this time, the family had heard about the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf in Faribault. As Jeremiah’s grades sunk and he became ever more isolated and alone, the family decided they needed to enroll him at the Academy.
In eighth grade, Jeremiah packed his bags and headed south to the Academy. He did well, making new friends and actively participating in sports. It was more difficult for his parents, who only saw him twice the whole year. The next summer, Daniels got a call back asking if he’d like to manage the rental store in Northfield. After talking about it with his wife, Daniels decided to move to Faribault. By coincidence, his oldest daughter had just enrolled at Mankato State University.
As he entered high school, Jeremiah found his groove and thrived at the MSAD. He increased his GPA dramatically and turned into a star athlete, getting voted the best defensive player in the nation on the gridiron.
After graduating from the MSAD, Jeremiah Daniels enrolled in a welding program. He achieved his certificate and has worked as a welder since 2001.
A difficult diagnosis
With Daniels’s new job at the Northfield rental store came an affordable, quality health insurance plan. Even though he felt healthy, Daniels decided to go in for a regular checkup, which he hadn’t been able to afford previously. At first, Daniels’s check up seemed to be going well, but then the doctor performed a regular reflex test. When the he tested Daniels's reflexes in his right leg, he quickly detected something was amiss.
Daniels tried to explain to his doctor that the odd movement was most likely the result of an injury he’d suffered from a weed whacker — or, perhaps, related to his motocross days. The doctor was unconvinced and recommended Daniels see a neurologist.
The neurologist ordered an MRI, which detected a lemon-sized tumor in Daniels’s head. Emergency brain surgery was ordered for the next day. Daniels was shocked, not knowing anyone who had ever been through brain surgery.
“I sat down at the computer and wrote four letters to each of my kids just in case,” he said. “If it didn’t work out, I knew I wouldn’t be coming back.”
After surgery, Daniels was a wheelchair. Though he quickly regained much of his ability to move, he was looking at six weeks of radiation and a year and a half of chemotherapy. Even with all that, doctors were skeptical that his life could be extended by more than five to 10 years.
As he struggled to recover from treatment, Daniels was unable to work for several months. He received an outpouring of community support, especially from members of both the church he’d just joined in Faribault and the church he’d left in Bemidji, who were eager to lend a helping hand.
One of Daniels’s church friends had suffered a perilous injury: a fall 40 feet from a power line left him paralyzed from the waist down. He was forced to make a career change, leaving his family in difficult times. Even in the midst of extreme stress, the friend sent Daniels a check. Daniels struggled with what to do about the friend’s generosity before finally calling him.
“I called him and said ‘Jim, I can’t cash this check, I know you’re going through a lot,’” Daniels recalled. “He said ‘Brian, if you don’t cash it you’re possibly withholding a blessing from God.’”
Daniels and his family are still deeply grateful for the steadfast support they received from those around them during that most difficult of times. Thanks to that support, the family was able to stay afloat and ultimately emerge from the struggle strengthened in a commitment to help others.
Daniels’s treatment was successful and thanks to the generous support from a caring circle of friends, and he was eventually able to return to his old job at the rental company. He increased his hours and before long he was working 40 hours a week - although that's less than he'd often worked before..
The job was strenuous, however, so he took a new job as a mechanic with Northern Tool and Equipment. In 2002, he transferred to a position leading the company's the Warranty Department, which enabled him to work at a desk.
Advocating for the academies
Daniels was thrust into the political spotlight in 2014, when he defeated then-Rep. Patti Fritz, a five term incumbent, by a narrow margin. In 2016, he comfortably won re-election in the conservative-leaning district.
Even though he voted regularly and identified as a conservative, Daniels said he’d never considered himself a very political person. In 2012, his sister Marion O’Neill was elected to a House seat just west of the Twin Cities metro area.
With Republicans struggling to find a strong candidate to run against Fritz, O’Neill called her Daniels and asked him if he knew anyone. He thought of his neighbors, co-workers and fellow church members, but ultimately couldn’t identify anyone.
That’s when O’Neill suggested to Daniels that he run for the seat which includes Faribault, Medford and Owatonna. Although he was hesitant to get into the race, he eventually took the plunge and picked up the seat, one of 10 gained by Republicans that year throughout greater Minnesota.
Daniels said that although he never expected to serve in the Legislature, he’s come to thoroughly appreciate the job. Nearly every week, he says he finds another issue that he can help a constituent with.
At the Capitol, he’s worked particularly hard to help children who are struggling like his son Jeremiah once was. He fought to expand opportunities for autistic children, writing bills that have helped them to take college courses, learn key life skills and become independent.
Daniels has also championed the cause of the state's Deaf and Blind academies. Funded by the state, the academies often struggle to get funding. In the Legislature, Daniels has worked to ensure funding for maintenance and to make the buildings more accessible.
More than 20 years after receiving treatment for a cancerous brain tumor, the tumor doctors said would likely kill him, still hasn’t begun to grow again. Daniels said he’s incredibly grateful for the chance he’s been given to live life to the fullest every day.
“What God has done is amazing," Daniels said. "I’m 13 years past when they said I would be gone, and I’m still here.”