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News from the week of July 28, 2004

Balaton derailment forces evacuation

Thirty to 50 Balaton people were evacuated from their homes late Tuesday night after a train derailed just south of the Hwy. 14 overpass in Balaton.

Twelve to 14 cars on an east-bound Dakota Minnesota & Eastern Railroad train derailed at about 11:10 p.m. Tuesday. People from a four-block area were evaculated from their homes. Members of the Balaton Fire Department and Lyon County Sheriff’s deputies went door-to-door spreading the evacuation order beginning about 11:45 a.m. The Red Cross arrived in Balaton early Wednesday and set up a relief station at the Balaton Public School library, where many people spent the night. The evacuation remained in effect as of 9 a.m. Wednesday. Residents in the evacuation zone were allowed to return momentary to their homes only if escorted by a Balaton fire or ambulance department member.

No injuries were reported.

“It’s as good as it can be,” said Balaton Fire Chief Greg Erickson, of the situation at 3 a.m.

He estimated that five of the derailed cars contained soy oil, and six to eight cars contained ethanol. Three of the ethanol cars and one of the soy oil cars had ruptured.

Erickson said that arrangments were being made to line up tanker trucks to pump out the contents of the derailed cars.

As of 9 a.m. authorities were detouring all Hwy. 14 traffic around Balaton. Eastbound traffic was being detoured at Hwy. 91 west of Balaton. Westbound traffic was being routed on County Road 7 east of Balaton.

Erickson said that people not connected to a relief effort should stay away from Balaton until the clean-up is completed.

Fire departments from Marshall, Tracy, Russell, and Garvin joined in the emergency relief effort..

First pitch at Twins game is ‘pretty cool’

Eric Peterson, 35, threw the first pitch at a recent Minnesota Twins game. But Twins catcher Joe Mauer didn’t catch the ball. Twins’ mascot, T.C. the bear, did.

“It was a once in a lifetime thing,” Peterson said. “To do it one time is pretty cool.”

The Twins invited Peterson, a Tracy native, to throw the first pitch on June 29 to thank him for his work with the baseball organization. A former marketing director for Dairy Queen, Peterson had worked closely with the Twins organization. Though he left Dairy Queen in April, the Twins still thought enough of Peterson to honor him with a first-pitch offer.

“It was sort of a thank you for the partnership we had over the past four years,” Peterson said.

The Twins also gave Peterson an authentic Twins jersey with his name on it. The jersey was a big enough thank you for Peterson. But the Twins insisted he make his Major League Baseball debut, too. Peterson was hesitant, and it took a few pleas from the Twins to get him to the pitching mound. He backed out of the deal three times before he finally gave in.

“The Twins are a great organization,” he said.

He wanted to downplay the event as much as possible, but he let a few friends tag along. He received some “good-natured heckling” from his small crowd of fans while he stood on the field, he said.

When Peterson stepped to the mound and saw his face on the Metro Dome’s big screen, nervousness set in.

“Then I realized where I was and what I was doing,” he said.

Peterson’s main goal was to throw the baseball across the plate. If the 30,000 attendants weren’t pressure enough, T.C.’s enormous glove added more. If he missed the glove, he might as well walk off the field in embarrassment.

Luckily, Peterson achieved his goal. His pitch carried across the plate, and found a cozy home in T.C.’s oversized glove.

“I didn’t want to end up on ESPN highlights as the guy who couldn’t get it across the plate,” he said.

The rookie pitcher is now a managing director for Ryan Partnership, a marketing agency in Minneapolis. A 1987 Tracy Area High School graduate, Eric is the son of Winston and Ellie Peterson of Tracy.

Donated kidney cements co-workers’ friendship
By Brady Averill

They call themselves Lucy and Ethel. But really they’re Nicole Elzenga, 30, and Amy Ankrum, 33. They work at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Walnut Grove together. The comedic chemistry between the two is as natural as it was between the television duo.

They laugh about how they were recently bonded for life. Not by their friendship or their workplace camaraderie. But by a kidney. A kidney Elzenga donated to Ankrum in June.

They met almost four years ago when Elzenga was hired at the museum as a collections manager. Ankrum, the office manager, already worked at the museum. They say Laura brought them together. And if that’s true, perhaps Laura also had a hand in Elzenga’s selfless donation.

They’ve been friends since they met. But Ankrum admits had it not been for Elzenga’s job at the museum, the two probably wouldn’t be friends. They’re different, Ankrum said. She’s from Walnut Grove, born and raised. Elzenga’s an East Coast gal. But you wouldn’t guess it. They throw jokes back and forth at each other with the same graceful rhythm of the real Lucy and Ethel.

“I didn’t want her job so I gave her a kidney,” Elzenga said.

They joke about the transplant. Only because it’s their strength. For seven months, life has been serious. But if they can find something to laugh about, like Elzenga’s repulsion for kidney beans, it can be quasi-normal. Because that’s what they’re used to, the lifestyle of Lucy and Ethel, where jokes were never in short supply.

A Christmas present
It all began on Christmas Eve 2003. That day was no laughing matter.

Ankrum had tests done at Tracy Area Medical Services to find out why she had high blood pressure. It definitely wasn’t hereditary, and Ankrum felt healthy, she said. High blood pressure can be one of several indicators of kidney failure. A few hours after the tests, her physician, Kelly Hoffman, called her at work with some bad news. There was a problem.

“That was my Christmas present,” Ankrum said.

Hoffman scheduled an ultrasound in Tracy two days later. Ankrum recalls the technician had trouble finding the kidneys.

“I was scared to say the least,” she said.

By Monday, Ankrum was sitting in a specialist’s office at Avera McKennan Hospital in Sioux Falls. She was diagnosed with kidney failure. Both were working at 12 to 15 percent. Her doctor suggested she think about dialysis and a transplant.

“My kidneys weren’t working,” she said.

Ankrum decided to go for a second opinion at the Mankato Clinic where her diagnosis was confirmed.

By January 27, Ankrum was searching for more answers. She went to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, world renown for its research and medical treatment. There, she got the same story.

Ankrum had decisions to make.

She felt healthy, a sign she didn’t need dialysis treatment yet, she said. But that day could come soon. At any time she could feel sick. So she began thinking about a transplant. The wait for a cadaver donor with the same blood type, O positive, was five to seven years. She needed to find a living donor.

Decision to donate
When Ankrum got back from her Sioux Falls appointment, Elzenga offered right away to donate her kidney. She had the same blood type.

Ankrum had a brother who was adopted, but he wasn’t a match. Her parents were out of the question. Her father died almost 20 years ago. And her mother had medical issues. Ankrum’s husband, Ford Jr., was tested. He didn’t have the same blood type. A transplant would require crossmatching, extra work to clean the blood.

“Nic said ‘I’ll give you one, and I’ll be done with it,’” Ankrum said.

Elzenga never really gave donating a second thought. Her driver’s license shows she’s an organ donor. She’s even on the bone marrow transplant list to donate. It was just the right thing to do.

Plus, she wanted her partner in comedy to be healthy. There was no question in her mind that she was willing to give a kidney to her friend.

“I wasn’t surprised. She’s like that,” Ankrum said.

But the decision to donate was easier than what came later.

Elzenga underwent rigorous testing and frequent trips to the Mayo Clinic. At first, she just had to take a health quiz and a blood test. That was followed by a two-day “grueling” test, Elzenga said.

“She had a lot more poking and prodding than I did,” Ankrum said.

And the transplant was no breeze, either.

The transplant
On May 21, the news Ankrum and Elzenga had long waited for arrived. The transplant was a go. Elzenga got the news when she was at the Mayo Clinic

“I just walked out (of the doctor’s office) smiling,” she said.

She stepped out of the office and immediately dialed her transplant coordinator’s phone number. It was time to schedule surgery. She then called Ankrum, and she contacted her coordinator, too.

There was an opening in June. So soon? Ankrum wanted to wait until August. July is the museum’s busiest month with the Laura Ingalls Wilder pageant and Wilder Festival happening. And she wouldn’t be back to work full time for months after the transplant.

But Dr. Rolf Storvick, her nephrologist, warned she could go on dialysis before the transplant, and she might be weak.

“Life was more important than pageant,” Ankrum said.

The pair went in for the transplant at the Mayo Clinic on June 15.

“I liked their numbers. They hadn’t lost a donor yet,” Elzenga said.

Before surgery, they waited in the pre-operation room together. Elzenga was wheeled away first. And they shared a few tears, something they vowed not to do.

“She cried as I was leaving. We promised we weren’t going to do that,” Elzenga said.

Promises aside, they’re emotional people, Ankrum said.

And she couldn’t help but think about the person who was giving her a kidney, who was making a sacrifice to give her a healthier life.

“I was more worried about her than me,” Ankrum said.

After surgery, each spent about a week in the hospital. Elzenga was able to go home. Ankrum had to stay. She spent around three weeks at the Gift of Life House in Rochester, a transplant house for Mayo Clinic patients.

Ankrum’s body began to reject the kidney a few days after surgery. But after two therapies, her immune system began to adjust.

“I give her this kidney, and there’s this chance it won’t work,” Elzenga said. “That’s why you still need the prayers.”

So far so good. The new kidney is working, although Ankrum’s body could still reject it months or years from now. Both hope that won’t happen.

Saying ‘thank you’
How do you thank someone who gives you an organ?

“You can’t,” Ankrum said. “You’re thanking someone for life,” she said.

She can write only so many thank you notes, and bake only so many chocolate cakes.

But Elzenga didn’t do it for her minute of fame, the bags’ full of letters and cards, flowers or food people made.

“I didn’t do it to be thanked. I did it for her to be healthy,” Elzenga said.

She added she wouldn’t mind a chocolate cake every June 15. She also suggested there should be a nationally recognized donor day like Mother’s and Father’s Day.

Elzenga has no regrets. She’d do it again, if only she could.

“I can’t give her another kidney, but yeah, I would,” she said.

Elzenga’s beneveloence has earned her small-town fame.

“She’s (Ankrum) from Walnut Grove. Everyone knows her. Now everyone knows me,” she said.

Ankrum has more people to thank. There was water damage in her home’s basement. Before she came home from Rochester, about 20 people from the community scrubbed walls and cleaned her house so it would be sterile for her arrival.

“That’s another thing. How do I tell all those people thank you?” she said. She added it’s the “real small-town stuff that beats anything,” she said.

Nearly two months have passed since the transplant. The Lucy-Ethel duo still finds something to joke about.

If Elzenga hears a kidney joke on television, she’s immediately relays it to Ankrum.

They’ve named the kidney Rocky. Ankrum didn’t just get a kidney. She got a kidney stone, too. Thus, the fitting nickname.

But there’s a serious undertone to their joking. After all, the past seven months have been nothing short of dramatic.

“That it all worked out is pretty amazing,” Ankrum said.

Elzenga agrees.

“Hopefully it will encourage more people to be donors,” she said.

The Walnut Grove Fire Department is hosting an August 21 benefit at the Walnut Grove community center from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. to help pay for Ankrum’s medical expenses. There will be a hog roast and a raffle

Mini-golf grand opening is Saturday

The Pit Stop Pizza and Grill plans a grand opening for its new 19-hole mini-golf course this Saturday.

Pit Stop owners Brenda and Chris Ness say the mini-golf course is up and running, with just a few flowers yet to be planted around the course.

Brenda said she had long considered adding some sort of activity in the spacious area behind the restaurant.

“I was trying to create something we could do with this back yard,” she said.

She considered volleyball and other activities, but when the restaurant became more family-oriented, she and Chris decided on mini golf.

“We wanted to do something for families,” she said.

The idea, Ness said, is for the course to run hand-in-hand with the restaurant.

The par-45 course has a variety of holes, including two-level, raised horseshoe, and “pro-golfer” holes. The newest addition is a jump hole that incorporates the restaurant’s racing theme by including a racing tire that golfers have to hit the ball through.

A new security light has been installed on the course, and Ness said she is considering getting glow-in-the-dark golf balls if there is interest. She also emphasized that adults who want to bring their children golfing do not need to pay just to watch.

She said response has been good so far.

“It’s been growing and growing,” she said. “Each weekend we get more golfers. We have more people coming in during the week, too.”

Singles tournaments are held every Sunday at 4 p.m. Prizes are offered for first and second place winners, and golfers receive two rounds for the price of one for entering.

Several grand-opening specials are being offered on food and mini golf offered for singles, doubles, and groups.

The mini-golf course is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. until dark. The restaurant is open Tuesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Methodist flower show still blooming after 65 years

The 65th annual flower show at Tracy United Methodist Church attracted 220 exhibits from 39 exhibitors Thursday. Nearly 270 people attended.

Winning the prize for grand champion arrangement was Jean Hicks, for her wildflower arrangement in the “Cowboy Hat” category. Reserve champion arrangement went to Judy Hamilton, for her arrangement in the “Hard Hat” category.

Marge Hyland took top honors in house and container plants. Cleone Richardson won the specimen category with her daylily. Winner in the children’s division was Jessica Meyer, with her arrangement in the “Bike Helmet” category. Wava Vickerman was tops in the fruits and vegetables category with her green beans.

For more on this story, please check this week's paper.

Steve Louwagie is new Tracy police officer

Steve Louwagie has been hired to fill a vacancy on the Tracy Police Department.

The 2002 Marshall High School graduate will begin working regular shifts after completing department training procedures. Louwagie is a recent graduate of the two-year law enforcement program at Alexandria Vocational Technical Institute.

The new Tracy police officer said that he chose a law enforcement career because of its opportunities to help people. He applied for the Tracy position, he said, because he enjoys small-town life and it was a chance to work close to home.

Louwagie is single and is renting an apartment in Tracy.

Christensen Farms honors Ron Scott

Ron Scott was recently hailed 2003 Producer of the Year by Christensen Family Farms (CFF).

The owner and operator of a four-barn hog farm northwest of Tracy has contracted with CFF since 1996. It’s not the first award he’s received from the company. In 2000, he won an award for the hog site. After eight years of his partnership with one of the country’s top pork producers, Ron is proud of the new honor.

“We feel like we’ve made some accomplishment and, I guess, been recognized for it,” Ron said.

It’s an incentive to continue farming, he said. His brother, David, who works with Ron on the farm couldn’t agree more.

“Boy, you feel like you’ve done a pretty good thing,” David said.

CFF, based out of Sleepy Eye, honored 17 of its almost 200 hog producers, said Brian Foster, director of business development at CFF.

“He’s a very good producer for us,” Foster said.

The annual award is based on production records and a nomination by service managers who work daily with the contract producers.

“They (contract producers) work very hard. That’s why we recognize them,” Foster said.

• • •

When Scott signed on with CFF, he remembers that some area farmers were skeptical about the concept of small farmers taking care of hogs for a large operation like CFF.

“There was some opposition,” David said, who added that his brother’s initial decision to go with Christensen wasn’t an easy one. Now, Ron said, he’s happy with his choice.

Ron and David grew up around family farming. They farmed with their dad, Don, until 1996. That’s when Ron looked at CFF. The trend of livestock at the time was geared toward contract farming, Ron said. He considered the risks involved with independent farming and hog prices were down, he said. Financially, working for CFF looked more attractive than independent farming, he said.

For more on this story, please check this week's paper.