by Dennis Dalman
The radiant smile of Jacob Wetterling brought sunshine again and again on a gloomy day during a Sept. 25 community memorial service for him at the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph.
Photos and videos of Jacob, taken so many years ago, were projected onto a huge screen throughout the service in the Clemens Fieldhouse on the CSB campus. All of the images showed an energetic, friendly, happy boy in love with life – a boy with a smile that could light up a room and with a sometimes-impish sense of humor.
The service, with many musical interludes, was a joyous celebration of Jacob’s 11 years of life and of the hopes he inspired worldwide encapsulated in the slogan of “Jacob’s Hope.”
At the service, those happy images of Jacob growing up were underlined by sorrow because the thousands who attended the service were all too well aware the remains of the happy boy of more than 27 years ago were found Sept. 1 in a pastureland near Paynesville. Jacob’s abductor and killer, Danny Heinrich confessed to kidnapping, sexually assaulting and shooting the boy to death on the same night as the abduction, Oct. 22, 1989.
A plea agreement led the 52-year-old to reveal what happened on that night, and though Heinrich on the terms of the agreement cannot be prosecuted for Wetterling’s murder, he faces up to 20 years in prison for possessing child pornography. Formerly of Paynesville, Heinrich’s last place of residence was in Annandale.
The Jacob Wetterling service was at long last a form of closure for the Wetterling family as well as for thousands of people who wondered and worried for 27 years what had become of the boy. An estimated 2,800 people were inside the Clemens Fieldhouse for the 75-minute-long memorial service, and about 3,000 people watched a simulcast of the service at viewing areas in St. Joseph. Many more thousands also watched the service telecast live on some television stations.
Jacob’s parents, Jerry and Patty, spoke at the service, as well as his siblings – older sister Amy, younger brother Trevor and younger sister Carmen.
Jerry and Patty thanked all the law enforcement personnel at the service who had worked so hard for years to solve Jacob’s abduction and his fate. They also thanked all of the people who volunteered time to look for Jacob, giving time and effort in a ceaseless determination to bring Jacob home.
“We could not have survived for 27 years without the love and support of all of you,” she told those assembled.
Then Wetterling focused on the subject of other missing children, a dedicated mission she has kept close to her heart for every day of the past 27 years.
“Our hopes and prayers go to all the families who are still searching,” she said, fighting back tears. “We won’t ever give up. Jacob, we will always carry you in our hearts, and our love for you will never die.”
The Wetterling family, along with friends, lit 11 candles in honor of the 11 years of Jacob’s life in St. Joseph. One of the candle-lighters was Aaron Larson, a best friend of Jacob’s who was with Jacob, along with Jacob’s brother, Trevor, at the time of the abduction. All three boys were riding bicycles home from a convenience store when the masked gunman appeared on the road out of the darkness. The St. John’s Boys’ Choir sang a sacred song, “Pie Jesu,” during the candle-lighting ceremony.
Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton also attended the ceremony, along with Minnesota’s two U.S. senators, Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar. Earlier in the week, Dayton declared Saturday, Oct. 22, as “Jacob Wetterling Day” throughout the state.
Other dignitaries at the service included St. Joseph Mayor Rick Schultz, St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis, Stearns County Attorney Janelle Kendall and Stearns County Sheriff John Sanner.
The featured speaker was Jacob’s cousin, Allen Overturf, now of Walker, Colo., who told some of his favorite Jacob memories from when he was growing up with his St. Joseph cousin: Jacob “the funny boy with twinkling eyes” who loved to put peanut butter on top of his cereal; Jacob often coming home from school and telling his mother something happened at school that “just wasn’t fair.”
“He (Jacob) taught us how to live,” Overturf said.
One of the highlights of the event, which brought smiles and laughter from the audience, was a video of Jacob and his siblings, which they made for their father for Father’s Day. In the video, Jacob pretends to be his father, Jerry, reading a newspaper and listening one by one to the children, until at one point, not liking what he hears, he leaps up and says, “You’re grounded!”
Another special moment of the service was when Red Grammer, a singer/songwriter from New Jersey, sang Jacob’s favorite song, “Listen,” which Grammer wrote. As Grammer strummed his guitar and sang his iconic song, the St. John’s Boys Choir backed him with choruses of the song.
“Listen, can you hear the sound
Of hearts beating all the world ‘round?
Down in the valleys, out on the plains.
Everywhere around the world a heartbeat sounds the same.
Black and white, red or tan
It’s the heart of the family of man,
Wo-oh, beating away
Wo-ho, beating away.
Wo-oh-ho, beating away.”
Another emotional moment, combining sadness and spiritual uplift, was when author and singer/songwriter Douglas Wood of Sartell sang the song he wrote for Jacob not long after his abduction, a song called “Jacob’s Hope: The Missing Children’s Song.”
“There’s a child all alone in the world tonight
He was stolen away and we cry for his plight.
But he’s not really gone
‘Cause we won’t let him go.
We are Jacob’s Hope.”
Other moving musical moments were provided by Robert Robinson, the great Minnesota gospel singer; the St. Benedict Women’s Choir; several songs by the St. John’s Boys’ Choir and a couple of other musical performers.
The memorial service was opened and closed by comments from College of St. Benedict President Mary Dana Hinton who talked about the promise of hope and of how grief and courage had lasted so long for the Wetterlings and others – 27 years. At the close of the service, Hinton said how important it is to find comfort in community and how the process of healing and peace must begin. She then invited all present to meet on the commons area outdoors for free ice cream bars, another way to celebrate the life of Jacob Wetterling.
There were also speakers representing the Baha’i faith of which the Wetterlings are members and a man representing the Dakota Nation, who quoted a Dakota poem: “Do not think of me as gone. I am with you still at each dawn.”
The memorial service was almost visibly cathartic as participants worked through their sadness and, together, spoke of and sang the praises of the happy little boy from St. Joseph who is finally, at long last, back home.
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.