by Dennis Dalman
At times, the gathering seemed like a funeral, with tears falling and speakers choking back emotions. Later, at the picnic that followed, the sadness was replaced with plenty of happy memories and laughter.
The gathering was a reunion of sorts for former Verso paper-mill employees, who got together May 27 for a ceremony at Veterans Park and a picnic across the street in Watab Park. It was exactly one year ago – May 27, 2012 – when an explosion and fire at Verso killed employee Jon Maus, injured four others and ultimately caused the plant to close forever.
Just before the disaster happened, a Memorial Day ceremony took place on a beautiful sunny morning with the Verso plant clearly shining in its baby-blue color just across the Mississippi River. After the Memorial Day ceremony, the sky began to cloud up as the explosion happened, sending a roiling cloud of black smoke into the sky.
As Sartell Mayor Joe Perske said Monday, in what amounted to a virtual eulogy for the paper mill, that day of disaster is one that everybody in Sartell will remember, and they’ll recall exactly what they were doing when they heard the news. It was an explosion and fire that spelled doom for the mill and caused 175 people to become unemployed. It also ended an era of paper-making in Sartell, an industry that began in the city nearly 110 years ago.
That sense of momentous history and of sorrowful loss was readily apparent at the Monday ceremony. Once again, speakers and listeners mourned the death of Jon Maus and empathized with the pain of his family and friends.
Dennis Molitor, one of the organizers of the event, presented plaques to four people for their hard work in the wake of the disaster: Sartell Police Chief Jim Hughes, Sartell-LeSauk Police Chief Ken Heim, former Verso human resources employee Nancy Koska and Gerry Parzino, a member of United Steelworkers International Local 274.
“We lost a piece of our past,” Molitor told the participants gathered in Veterans Park.
Choking back tears, Koska spoke about the many kinds of sharing that happened among Verso employees for so many years: sharing births and deaths, weddings and divorces, the good and the bad, beginnings and endings.
“Let’s all smile at the good memories, and let’s look forward to new beginnings,” Koska said.
Prazino recalled how, shortly after 11 a.m. on that sad day, he was in his yard mowing the lawn. His phone began ringing off the hook, and right away he knew it must be something serious at the paper mill.
Lyle Fleck, former employee, noted how many Verso workers, suddenly without jobs, had to shift gears to find new jobs, including moving from the area in some cases and in other cases returning to school to learn new job skills. Fleck himself attended a barber school in the Twin Cities and plans to open his own barber shop in the future.
During his speech, Mayor Perske looked across the river to the Verso plant.
“It lies there silent,” he said. “Like a massive iceberg.”
Perske praised the plant and its century of production that provided through wages and taxes so much for the Sartell area: jobs, schools, streets and a growing prosperity. During tough times, such as the Great Depression of the 30s, Perske said workers would cut back on their own hours so their fellow workers could keep their jobs. The mayor also praised all those who helped in the aftermath of the tragedy, including personnel from 92 fire departments from far and wide. Then Perske eulogized Jon Maus. He recalled how he and others waited in line for three hours at Maus’s wake. Perske said when he saw Maus’s hands, he was instantly impressed by their strength and character, and the image of those hands still remains with Perske.
“They are the kind of hard-working hands that exemplify this community,” he said.
After the ceremony, the participants enjoyed a picnic and shared lots of good memories of their years at Verso.
Molitor noted American Iron and Metal, the company that bought the Verso plant, donated $5,000 when its management heard a reunion picnic was being planned. Other donations also came from Celebration Lutheran Church in Sartell and from the United Steelworkers union. Those funds, Molitor said, made the ceremony and picnic possible.
AIM is going to dismantle the Verso plant for scrap metal, sell some of the machines and equipment, and try to help find a new use for the site.