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News from the week of April 6, 2005

Show must go on for Deb Miller

Deb Miller had every reason to look happy.

The Tracy mother of four had just belted out an uproariously funny song in front of hundreds of people. Her notes had been strong, in rhythm, and on pitch. The audience applauded vigorously. All evening, the energetic comedy routines of Mrs. Harold MacAfee had stolen scenes in the Tracy community musical Bye-Bye Birdie.

No one would have guessed that just a few months ago, the brassy-voiced diva couldn’t sing a note because of her chemotherapy cancer treatments.

“This is just so awesome. This is just so cool.” Miller said after the show Saturday night. “I’m so thankful that I’ve had this chance.”

Miller, 53, learned that she had cancer a week before her youngest daughter’s high school graduation last May.

The diagnosis was ominous: Type 3 cancer of the spleen (type four is the most serious). But encouragement and support materialized instantaneously from everywhere. People showed up to clean her house and take charge of the graduation party. Cards filled her mailbox. The phone rang with words of assurance. People took time to talk.

One day, Ade Miller, a co-worker at Tracy Elementary School, took her aside.

“Deb, we’ve got another musical coming up next spring, and we need you to be in it,” the music teacher said.

The library assistant at Tracy Elementary was flattered. But another part of her was doubtful.

“I wasn’t even sure I’d be around for the next spring,” she remembers.

Bumpy journey

The challenges of Miller’s past year have been many.

Her illness and the chemotherapy treatments sapped her energy. One by one, she was forced to give up many of the things that she loved.

She stepped aside as song leader at Tracy Alliance Church.

She took a leave of absence from her job at school.

She could no longer serve as her church’s Sunday school superintendent.

For a time, her sickness even took away her zest for living.

“For two and a half months last summer, I couldn’t even go to church,” she remembers. “I felt like I was caught in such a dark place, I just didn’t want to see anyone.”

In retrospect, she feels that some of her cancer drugs sent her into a deep mental depression. Her despair fell to new depths when a doctor said there was nothing more that he could do for her. But then—almost miraculously she feels, she found a psychiatrist in Sioux Falls last September who changed her medications. Overnight, her mental depression lifted.

“She gave me my life back,” Miller says.

In November, Miller completed that last of eight chemotherapy treatments. Subsequent medical tests have shown her spleen to be free of cancer.

A deeply devout Christian, Miller is convinced that God gave her the strength to make it through the past year. She sees the hand of God in the countless small kindnesses that people have extended to her.

“I thank God for bringing us to Tracy. I never want to leave Tracy. People here have been so wonderful. You can’t imagine how much a card or a phone call meant, or even someone walking up and saying something to you in the grocery store. Sometimes just that little thing helped me make it through the day. I had people that I hardly knew sending me cards and asking me what they could do to help.”

Had she still lived in her hometown of Colorado Springs, Miller said only a handful of people would have known about her illness, and her support network would have been much smaller. In Tracy, she said, it seemed as if almost everyone knew about her illness, supported her, and cared for her.

“I just can’t say enough about how grateful I feel,” she said. “People have been so wonderful.”

New leap of faith

It still took a leap of faith for Miller to try out for Bye-Bye Birdie this January.

Although she felt well enough to turn to work at the school part-time on Jan. 10, Miller still tired easily. She didn’t know if she had the stamina for long hours of rehearsals and the performances. Her singing abilities were starting to return, but her vocal chords still couldn’t sing more than a phrase or two without tiring. But the Tracy woman was determined.

I really wanted to be in it,” she remembers. She and her son, Levi, set out for tryouts.

She hoped for a small part…perhaps something where she stood in a crowd, spoke a line or two, and sang with the chorus. She was flabbergasted when the directors cast her as Mrs. MacAfee, one of the principal characters.

“I was never expecting that. I would have been happy just to be in it.”

Rehearsals began in February, just about the time that she returned to a full-time schedule at school. Rehearsals were long and tiring, at times. Sometimes, Miller remembers, she had to pull back and simply take a nap. But as opening night approached for Bye-Bye Birdie, her energy surged. Her singing improved so much that she resumed her song leader duties at Tracy Alliance. Friday and Saturday, she became Super Fifties Wife & Mom Doris MacAfee, unflappable, unstoppable and unforgettable.

“It was the perfect part for me,” she smiles. “I really felt as if I became Mrs. MacAfee.”


Pastor Bolte named district supervisor

Pastor Alan Bolte is leaving the Tracy United Methodist Church at the end of June to accept a district church position in Alexandria. He announced his new call to church members Sunday.

“Pastor Al,” as he is called by parishioners, said Tuesday that he and his wife, Cindy, have mixed feelings about leaving Tracy. They had hoped to stay in Tracy for a longer period of time.

“We are in the process of grieving because we are leaving Tracy. But that is not what God has called us to do.”

In the Methodist Church, the church’s hierarchy decides where a pastor should serve, and for how long. Pastor Bolte came to Tracy in the summer of 2000, succeeding Pastor Wes Gabel.

While he says he will miss Tracy, Pastor Bolte, 49, is excited about his new call as the Methodist church’s district supervisor in Alexandria. The district includes 78 churches in a region that extends from Canada to Wood Lake, north and south; and the Minnesota-Dakota border to nearly St. Cloud, west to east. Except for large congregations in Bemidji, Moorhead, and Alexandria, the churches in Bolte’s district are mostly small and rural.

In his new position, Pastor Bolte will oversee special issues and concerns that arise in the district, and work with leadership in each church to carry out their Christian missions. Additionally, Pastor Bolte will serve on a seven-member “cabinet” for the Methodist Church in Minnesota. One of the cabinet’s duties will be to direct clergy calls to congregations.

“Change is a part of life,” Pastor Bolte said, explaining why he is looking forward to his new district appointment.

His district appointment was made by Bishop Sally Dyck.

No announcement has been made regarding who will be called to serve the Tracy church. Pastor Bolte expects that the call will be announced later this spring. The Tracy United Methodist Church has about 235 confirmed members.

A 1974 graduate of Butterfield-Odin High School, Pastor Bolte has been a minister for 19 years. He served at Ottertail Lake, Blue Earth, and Winchester, Ohio, before coming to Tracy.

• • •

Cindy Bolte operates a Christian book and gift store in The Etc. building in Downtown Tracy. She plans to continue management of the Tracy store by driving down from Alexandria about once a week.


Wixons offer land for proposed Industrial Park

The possibility of buying land along west Hwy. 14 remains an unresolved issue for the Tracy Economic Development Authority (EDA).

Ward and Vince Wixon presented written proposals to sell up to 113.6 acres to the EDA Friday. The authority thanked the Wixons for their presentation, but took no action.

The Wixons offered to sell 48.37 acres north of Hwy. 14, and west of the access road to the city compost site, for $3,494 an acre or $169,000. A 65.9 acre parcel south of Hwy. 14 and west of the Wheels Across the Prairie Museum was offered for $3,997 an acre or $261,000. If the city and EDA purchased all 113.6 acres, the Wixons offered a selling price of $3,600 an acre or a total of $409,176. They said their asking price was based upon a “best use” appraisal conducted by Bob McCoy.

Over the past several months, the EDA has discussed the possibility of buying land for a new industrial park along Hwy. 14. Some EDA members feel that the west Hwy. 14 location has more potential for sparking commercial development than the city’s existing industrial park.

The Wixon property on the south side of Hwy. 14 would offer about 2,000 feet of frontage along Hwy. 14.

“That’s why were are interested,” said EDA member and city council member Tim Byrne.

The Wixons, who are both Tracy High School graduates, told EDA members that they are people with an interest in the future of Tracy. The brothers offered contract-for-deed seller financing to the city, with a 20% downpayment.

However, City Finance Director Dave Spencer said that he doesn’t think it is legally possible for the city to acquire property through a contract-of-deed. If city leaders decide to buy the Wixon land, Spencer said, the entire purchase price would have to be raised through the sale of city-backed general obligation or revenue bonds. Borrowing money from general obligation bonds, he said, would require approval from voters.

Sandi Rettmer, another council member who serves on the EDA, said that city voters aren’t in any mood to approve more city debt until aquatic center repair and litigation issues have been settled. Rettmer asked that all of the “hidden costs” of a new industrial park, such as the cost of annexing land into the city, be researched before a decision is made.

Although they took no action on the Wixon proposal, EDA members did indicated that they had little interest in the Wixon land on the north side of Hwy. 14 because of its proximity to the compost dump.

The Wixons said that other potential buyers have approached them about the land. They said that they would like to conclude a sale this year.


Morgan St. redevelopment envisioned

Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership and City of Tracy leaders are studying a plan to raze five older houses on Morgan Street, and redevelop the area with new housing using tax-increment financing.

The five houses are on the north side of Morgan, east of the First Street.

If the property can be obtained from owners, houses would be razed. Two 134x175-foot lots would be created for new housing construction.

According to Community Development Director Robert Gervais, a private contractor has expressed an interest in building new houses on the lots, if a tax-increment finance district can be created. Gervais said that the contractor has a potential buyer for one of the houses. Initial efforts have been made to contact property owners.

“What we are trying to do is create a win-win situation for everyone involved,” Gervais said. “We are not trying to kick anyone out-of their house.”

Property owners, he said, would have a chance to upgrade their housing, by selling their property and taking advantage of programs available through Southwest Minnesota Housing. The City of Tracy would upgrade its housing stock, neighborhood property values would increase, and the city’s tax base would expand.

Two of the five houses are now vacant. One structure was the home of the late Arlene Blanchette. The second vacant house, owned by Santos Pastranda, is on Lyon County’s property tax delinquent list. Della Van Meveren, Josephine Martinez and LaVern Sik own the other houses.

Money to acquire and raze the older houses, Gervais said, could come from the Tracy Economic Development Authority’s downpayment assistance program, or the $20,000 that the City of Tracy has budgeted for old building demolition. The EDA, and the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership, have applied for a state grant to assist with demolition costs.

Creating the tax increment finance district, Gervais said, is critical to the redevelopment plan. Without it, Gervais sees little likelihood anyone would build new housing in the Morgan Street neighborhood.

“Tax increment financing is an economic development tool that is used in a lot of places, but we haven’t used it here yet.”

Tax increment financing allows municipalities to raise money for a public improvement by selling bonds. The bonds are to be repaid over time with the increased real estate taxes that the improved properties generate. In order to qualify for tax-increment financing, a municipality must find that the increased market value of the property would not have occurred without tax-increment financing.


Town talents meld for musical

Were those professionals or amateurs on the stage for last week’s Tracy community musical Bye-Bye Birdie?

Some of the principal actors in last week’s musical brought a considerable theatrical background to the production. Others had almost no stage experience prior to Bye-Bye Birdie.

Second chance on stage

Mary Zwach’s halcyon days at Milroy High School did not include any bright spotlights. But considerable excitement was stirred during her senior year when it was announced that Milroy High would put on You Can’t Take It With You. Zwach tried out and landed a part.

“I was really excited about it, but then the play got cancelled because they couldn’t find enough people to play all of the parts.”

Zwach went to college, got married and soon was busy raising four children on a farm near Milroy. Her next chance to perform in a play didn’t arise until 1999 when The Music Man was staged in Tracy. She enjoyed her small role as a “Pick-a-Little Lady” so much that she returned for Oklahoma! in 2000. She subsequently sang with the Al Opland Singers in Pipestone. For the past two summers, she has played Caroline Ingalls in Walnut Grove’s Wilder Pageant.

She’s especially enjoyed Bye-Bye Birdie.

“I really loved this play.” The infusion of large numbers of teenagers into the cast, she said. “gives this such a spark.”

She has been especially impressed with the singing of Jacob Gilmore and Celia Brockway in the lead roles of Conrad Birdie and Kim MacAfee.”

As Rose Alvarez, the long-suffering girlfriend of Albert Peterson, Zwach had a role that included two major songs: a solo and a duet with Albert.

First-timer gets lead

Michael Martin had never been in a play before last week. As a teenager growing up in Arizona, Martin’s exposure to drama and theater was limited to a junior high drama class.

“I guess I was too cool for that (a musical) in high school. I was involved in a lot of other things. I ran cross country, hung out with friends, and was into a lot of academic stuff.”

In his first theatrical venture, Martin landed the leading role of a fledgling songwriter who is Conrad Birdie’s agent. Martin said he has enjoyed the experience immensely, but was surprised at the time commitment required.

“I’d never had to memorize anything before. It was pretty amazing how much time it took.” A theater professor at Southwest Minnesota State University, Marshall, where Martin works, suggested that he read his lines before going to bed. “That seemed to help.”

His wife, Rosemary, and son, Jeremiah, were also in the cast. Jeremiah also had a principal role, playing Kim MacAfee’s boyfriend, Hugo.

“That’s been awesome,” he said.

The singing parts of Bye-Bye Birdie came naturally for the tenor, who is a long-time choir member at St. James Episcopal Church in Marshall.

‘Alice’ returns

Vickie Olson, who portrays Albert’s self-martyred mother, is no stranger to the stage. As a student at Washington High School in St. Paul in the 1970s, Olson was active in drama, appearing in stage productions such as The Sandbox and Sorry Wrong Number. She played the lead in a production of Alice in Wonderland.

The high school plays were her last theatrical experience until she took a small role of the chorus of Oklahoma! in 2000.

She initially wanted just a small role in Bye-Bye Birdie.

“When Ade called and said she wanted me to play Mae Peterson, I said ‘no.’ I didn’t think I could do it. But Ade thought that I could, and I always have a hard time saying ‘no’ to Ade.”

Though initially nervous about the role, Olson has come to relish Mae’s character.

“I have really enjoyed the comedy…the lines are just handed to you.” Her favorite scene, is when Mae sticks her head in the oven.”

The role is fun, but still a bit nerve-racking, she admits.

“I’m the one talking to the wall and waving my arms backstage,” says the Tracy mother of two. Her challenge, it to get in character before she has to go on stage.

“If you wait until you are on stage, it is too late,” says Olson, who is the head librarian at the Tracy Public Library in real life.

What she enjoys most about Bye-Bye Birdie, she says, is the chance to work with all the other cast members and production and stage crews.

“This is such a positive group of people.”

Mayoral presence

Live theater is a part of Steve Ferrazzano’s heritage.

As a child growing up in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, he and his parents were cast in a community production of The Music Man. Young Stephen played one of the children in the band. In high school, he was in several school plays, and sang in a band for school variety shows. At law school at the University of North Dakota, the future Tracy mayor took part theatrical endeavors such as Gilbert & Sullivan’s Trial by Jury and a law-school spoof, The Mountains of Nebraska.

Ferrazzano has relished his role as Harold MacAfee, the grumpy, indignant father, who nonetheless thrilled at the prospect of appearing on national television. But, Ferrazzano admits, “I never realized that it took this much time to put on a community musical.”

Musical vacuuming

Growing up in Colorado Springs, Deb Miller says she was “too shy” to try out for her high school’s plays and musicals.

“I thought that those things were only for the popular people.”

Even after she became a pastor’s wife and the mother of four children, she continued to love the musical theater.

“I’d be vacuuming, and I start to sing and dance, and pretend I was on stage,” she remembers.

Performing in a musical remained a distant dream until 1999, when she was cast for a small role in Music Man. She returned a year later for another small role in Oklahoma! This year, she was thrilled to be cast in one of the principal roles, as Mrs. MacAfee’s wife.”

“Steve and I really get along well. We play off of each other, and one things needs to another.”

The Bye-Bye Birdie cast, she feels, is just like one big family, just like the Music Man and Oklahoma! casts also were.

“It is hard to describe. But you really get close to all of these people. You feel like everyone is part of a family. You get to know people that you didn’t before. It’s kind of sad when it ends because it is never quite the same again.”

New kid tapped

It didn’t take Jacob Gilmore long to establish himself on stage at Tracy Area High School. A transfer student from Pipestone in his first year at Tracy, the high school junior was cast in the lead role of Elvis-character Conrad Birdie.

Last year, he was in two school plays, as well as a one-act play at Pipestone. Last summer, he had a role in a Pipestone community production of Sound of Music.

In Bye-Bye Birdie, Gilmore has two major solos: “One Last Kiss,” and “Whole Lot of Livin’.”

Nice cast mix

Bye-Bye Birdie isn’t Celia Brockway’s first theatrical experience. As a fifth and sixth grade, she was cast in small roles for the Tracy Children’s Choir musicals of Wizard of Oz and Peter Pan. She has a much larger part in Bye-Bye Birdie, playing Kim MacAfee, the Sweet Apple, Ohio, 15-year-old who has been chosen to get Conrad Birdie’s last kiss as a civilian.

“This has been so much fun. It’s just been awesome,” the high school sophomore says. As Kim, Brockway sings two solos.

She likes being in a cast with both students and adults.

“It’s been a lot of fun being in a play with adults. In the children’s choir musicals, you pretty much did what you were told. The adults are always throwing in new things.”


Final 'Birdie' performances planned Saturday, Sunday

The curtain goes up on Bye-Bye Birdie twice more this weekend.

The final performances of the Tracy Community Education musical are Saturday at 7 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. at Tracy Area High School. Tickets, which are $8 for adults and $6 for children 12 and under, will be available at the door.

The show opened last week with shows on Friday and Saturday. About 475 people attended over the two nights.

The musical, which has a cast of more then 60 is directed by Ade Miller and Jeff “Jesse” James. Chris Edwards is the assistant director. Shannon Benson and Shirlee Gilmore are the musical accompanists.

A “Route 66 Diner” sponsored by the Fine Arts Council of Tracy will precede both performances. For $4, people will receive a root beer float and a premium hot dog and chips. Serving begins at 5 p.m. Saturday and noon on Sunday.