Year in Review Part 1: Verso tragedy dominated news in 2012 (January-June)

by Dennis Dalman

The year 2012 in Sartell will forever be known as the year the paper mill died.

On May 28, Memorial Day, an explosion and fire at the Verso paper mill resulted in the death of an employee, Jon Maus of Albany, injuries to several employees and – ultimately – to the permanent shut-down of the iconic factory, which is as old as the City of Sartell ) – 106 years.

Entire generations of residents worked at the plant, which was also an economic bedrock as one of the prime taxpayers of the city for so many decades.

Shock waves of the catastrophic incident reverberated throughout the area all through the year and continue to trouble the city into the new year. Two big questions remain: Will its displaced workers find adequate new jobs in the area? Will a new industry or other purpose be found for the Verso site along the river?

Another ongoing concern in Sartell was a public tempest over the behavior of the Sartell-St. Stephen School Board that included squabbles and bitter recriminations among board members, resignations and accusations from the public about the board not listening to or heeding the concerns of the public it is supposed to serve. The three main bones of contention involved the board’s decision to end spring break, its policies of replacing board members and its protocol in renewing the superintendent’s work contract. Many in Sartell are hoping the election of four board members in the Nov. 6 election will put the board back on track.

Despite the Verso tragedy and the disaffection about the school board, however, many positive developments happened in Sartell during 2012: a multi-million-dollar series of improvements at Sartell schools as authorized by voters in 2011, more business growth, academic achievements, athletic triumphs, construction of a divergent-diamond interchange and other infrastructure improvements, the further development of recreational facilities in Pinecone Central Park and a vigorous consensus about creating a Sartell community center in the near future.

The following are brief summaries, month by month, of some of the main news developments in Sartell during 2012:


Sartell Mayor Joe Perske is named “Bell Ringing Champ” by the Salvation Army for the Christmas season. In just a four-hour session, Perske (with help from city council member Steve Hennes) raised $1,551.66 while ringing the bell by the red kettle at Walmart in Epic Center.

John Ross announces he will retire from coaching after 17 years. Ross was a football coach in the Sartell-St. Stephen School District for 17 years. He coached an estimated 190 games. Born in St. Stephen, Ross graduated from Sartell High School in 1983.

Eric Jungels of Sartell raises more than $10,000 for the National Alliance to End Homelessness. To raise the money and bring attention to homelessness, Jungels slept for 18 consecutive nights in a tent pitched by the Blue Line Bar and Grill.

The Sartell-St. Stephen School Board decides to end an extended spring break period starting 2013-14, instead putting three extended weekends on the school calendar. The decision, in the weeks and months to come, will cause widespread controversy and accusations by many parents that the decision was arrived at too hastily with hardly any public input.

Lesa Kramer is chosen as the new school-board chair.


Sartell Sabre Dance Team is named tops at Central Lakes Conference meet, taking first place in both the jazz and high-kick categories. The dancers competed against 13 other teams during the Section 4AA meet at Sartell High School.

Former, long-time Sartell Police Chief Jerry O’Driscoll dies, and hundreds of mourners attend a memorial service at St. Francis Xavier Church. O’Driscoll served Sartell from 1963 to 1993 when he retired. It was O’Driscoll who hired the current police chief, Jim Hughes, as an officer in 1991. O’Driscoll died at age 75 after a 10-week battle with cancer. He and his wife, Joyce, are the father of three children and many grandchildren. One of their children is State Rep. Tim O’Driscoll, a former mayor of Sartell.

Once again, for the third time, the Sartell Post Office is honored for selling the most breast-cancer stamps in the postal region.

The December-January period in the area, including Sartell, was the warmest recorded in the past 98 years.

Five Nordic freestyle skiers from the Sartell-St. Stephen School District advance to state competition in Biwabik. The skiers, who do well in the race, are Josh Hill, Andrea Franz and Anna Lindstrom. The two qualifiers are Greta Danielson and Kyle Sovada.

Michael Heim, 14, of Sartell is one of 102 young honorees in the nation to be given the “Prudential Spirit of Community” award for volunteerism. Heim organized a project to gather much-needed items for the Anna Marie Women’s Shelter in St. Cloud.

Connie Froehle celebrates 34 years in the daycare business. The Sartell woman started her business in her home in 1971 after the birth of her first child. “Having been part of so many families for so long has been a blessing to me,” she said.

Sartell Police Chief Jim Hughes and police sergeant Kelly Mader both receive “Lifesaving” awards for helping save the life of a Sartell woman and her young daughter. Both rescuers jumped into a freezing-cold pond when the woman’s car slid into it near the Grand View Estates Apartments.

Alyssa Franzmeier, an eighth-grader at Sartell Middle School, wins the regional spelling bee at St. John’s University by spelling correctly the word “menagerie.”


Evie Dingmann of Sartell retires after 30 years as a mail carrier.

Once again, the Sartell Community Showcase is a success at Sartell Middle School. The annual event showcases Sartell area businesses and services, along with family-fun activities.

Jeff Sackett is named the new pastor at Celebration Lutheran Church.

Simmering dissatisfaction about the elimination of spring break at Sartell schools boils over into a protest when more than 150 people present a petition to the Sartell-St. Stephen School Board. The petition, signed by 300 people, requests the board to reconsider its decision about ending spring break and replacing it with several extended weekends. Those against the decision said it was made with virtually no public input.

Sartell Sabre swimmer-diver Tanner Nordlund takes first place as state championship diver in a meet at the Minnesota Aquatic Center. His win was remarkable because at the time Nordlund was extremely sick and fatigued because of some kind of flu bug.

Julie Zupfer Anderson resigns from the school board because of differences with some other board members and what she feels is a lack of common vision on the board. It’s the second resignation on the board. On Feb. 21, Lesa Kramer resigned from her role as the board’s chair, although she agreed to remain on the board.

The Sartell High School speech team reaps a slew of awards through the season, earning several first-place awards at meets, as well as other high honors. At 21 members, it’s the largest team in 10 years.

A School-Land-Trust-reform bill drafted mainly by Rep. Tim O’Driscoll (R-Sartell) passes the Minnesota House of Representatives. The bill changes the law so school trust lands are no longer administered by the Department of Natural Resources. With changed management of those lands, O’Driscoll and others hope more revenue can be generated for schools through increased investments and revenue-generating operations on those lands. The entire legislature will approve that bill, thus making it into law, later in the year.


For the fourth time, Gopi Ramanathan of Sartell wins the Minnesota Geography Bee, qualifying him for the national contest. An eighth-grader at Sartell Middle School, Ramanathan competed in Washington, D.C. when he was a sixth-grader.

Taylor Daniels, a junior at Sartell High School, wins “Best of Show” in the prestigious 32nd annual regional High School Arts competition. Her acrylic painting, which shows girls standing in autumn woods, is on display at an exhibit in the Paramount Theatre in St. Cloud.

Sartell math wizard Austin Sura, an eighth-grader at Sartell Middle School, once again earns the chance to compete in the “Math Counts” state contest.

Sartell resident Ester Sharrow celebrates her 106th birthday and is honored by family, friends and dignitaries during a party at Whitney Senior Center in St. Cloud. Mayor Joe Perske says to Ester in a birthday card, “You are an inspiration to all of us in Sartell. Ester, you are one year older than the City of Sartell!”

Some Sartell residents are voicing opposition to the way the Sartell-St. Stephen School Board is choosing to replace people who resign from the board. They say the process should be more open, including acceptance of applications from anyone interested in serving, rather than appointments of people one or more board members happen to know. The controversy rises when the board considers a replacement for Julie Zupfer Anderson, who left the board in February.

Some Sartell students spend their spring break on a trip to the Dominican Republic where they deliver school supplies to an elementary school in that Caribbean nation. The students raised money for the supplies before leaving on the trip, which was organized by Lee Hurd of Sartell, executive vice president of Bursch Travel.

Scott Hentges is named as the new football coach, to replace John Ross, who retired after decades of a highly successful coaching position for the Sartell Sabres. Hentges has been part of the Sartell-St. Stephen football program since 2000.

The City of Sartell introduces a new, improved, interactive city web page.

A mock crash staged behind Sartell Middle School fills student spectators with horror. The Sartell police and fire department personnel reacted to the scene as if the dead and injured youth were actually “real.” The mock crash, an annual event, is meant to show students the terrible dangers of drunk or reckless driving.

Pine Meadow Elementary School enacts its own “Olympics” event, complete with flags of all nations, a procession, music and guest speakers. The event is an homage to the Olympic summer games slated to open soon in London, England.

The school board agrees to open up its member-replacement policy by actively soliciting applications from people interested in serving. Public pressure is brought to bear on the board, and many accuse the board of poor communication and ignoring the opinions of the residents of Sartell and St. Stephen.


The House of Pizza is named “Business of the Year” by the Sartell Area Chamber of Commerce. Its owner, Brandon Testa, opened the branch of the long-established St. Cloud business in Sartell’s Pine Cone Marketplace in 2004. The honor was bestowed during the chamber’s annual banquet at Mulligan’s Event Center. Also at the banquet, Tom Offerdahl was named “Citizen of the Year” and Lint Edgerly was named “Volunteer of the Year.” Both have contributed countless hours of volunteerism to the city.

The Sartell Lions help clean up the City of Sartell as part of Earth Day.

Another person resigns from the Sartell-St. Stephen School Board – Patrick Jacobson-Schulte, who is moving with his family out of the school district. His resignation follows that of Julie Zupfer Anderson, who resigned in March. Also in March, Lesa Kramer resigned from her position as board chair.

For “Community Service Day,” 1,000 students in grades 9-12 in the school system roll up their sleeves and do a wide variety of work for Sartell, including tidying up the outdoors, reading to young school children and many other connective kindnesses.

Linda Wilfahrt announces she will retired as principal of St. Francis Xavier Elementary School after 17 years of service.

Four Sartell Middle School students earn honors at the Minnesota Science and Engineering Fair in Bloomington. One team, comprised of Sam Neuman and Rory Spanier, earned the Gold Award for their invention – an interactive tic-tac-toe game. Other students on other teams also placed highly at the event.

Fourteen Sartell Middle School students return from the regional “Envirothon” with lots of awards, including a first-place honor for a team comprised of Elliot Edeburn, Jacob Fisher, Jarret Janu, Adam Johnson and Turner Kuhn.

Sartell will get only a drop-in-the-bucket of state aid for 2013 – a paltry $3,300, which is the same amount the city received in 2012.

Sartell High School is one of three schools in outstate Minnesota to be honored with a rating of “excellent” by U.S. News and World Reports magazine. The award is based on a variety of criteria, including student test scores and how well disadvantaged students are doing.

Gopi Ramanathan finishes among the top 10 in the National Geography Bee in Washington, D.C. He is an eighth-grader at Sartell Middle School and participated in the national bee previously.

The school board and teachers approve a two-year teaching contract, which calls for a 1.75-percent salary increase in its first year and a 1.0-percent increase in the second year.

Veterans and many residents gather to honor the nation’s soldiers and their sacrifices at the annual Memorial Day service in Veterans’ Park along the river. During the moving ceremony, the Sartell choir and community band perform. Guest speakers give heartfelt speeches about the heroism of veterans.

Less than two hours after the Memorial Day ceremony on a beautiful blue-sky morning, an explosion and fire at the Verso paper mill in Sartell sends emotional shock waves throughout the area. The plant, as old as the city of Sartell, served as a place of employment for generations of people – Sartell residents and others. An employee, 51-year-old Jon Maus of Albany, dies in the explosion, and several others are injured. As firefighters rush to the scene, the beautiful May morning clouds up suddenly and some rain begins to fall. The tragic incident continues to haunt the city all through 2012. A big question looms: What will become of the Verso site, and can it be adapted someday to another use that could provide jobs?


The Verso plant explosion and fire May 28 proves to be almost impossible to contain. The fire burns into huge paper bales in a storage unit. It takes many days and many personnel to put out the fire completely and to cool down the site. Nearly 100 agencies (fire, police, emergency responders) from throughout the state rush to Sartell to help out.

Patrick Parish, 27, of Bloomington, is the winner of the annual Sartell Apple Duathlon. The female winner is Ruth Brennan Morrey, 37, of Rochester. The winners of the children’s Apple Duathlon the night before the adult race are Jennifer Mettler, 9, of Chanhassen; and Noah Eide, 14, of Avon.

The 20th annual Sartell SummerFest (June 8) features the ever-popular Grand Parade, Family Carnival and an entertaining show put on by the Timberworks lumberjacks. In the evening, a big crowd enjoys a dance with music by Diamondback and fireworks.

Through the month of June (and beyond), the future of the Verso paper mill continues to concern people far and wide. It took almost a week before the fire and its hot spots were declared no longer a danger. Estimates of the cost of firefighting and other follow-up duties range as high as $500,000. The question on everyone’s mind is: Will Verso be able to resume production?

Dennis Dalman

Dennis Dalman

Dalman was born and raised in South St. Cloud, graduated from St. Cloud Tech High School, then graduated from St. Cloud State University with a degree in English (emphasis on American and British literature) and mass communications (emphasis on print journalism). He studied in London, England for a year (1980-81) where he concentrated on British literature, political science, the history of Great Britain and wrote a book-length study of the British writer V.S. Naipaul. Dalman has been a reporter and weekly columnist for more than 30 years and worked for 16 of those years for the Alexandria Echo Press.
Dennis Dalman
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