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Year in review: Memorable students, longtime friends and more

Finding five top stories each year is never really easy. But here's a stab at what stories meant the most to me in 2010.

Destination Imagination

When I first visited with the Destination Imagination team JAM2K - Ali Grebner, Marcia Pacheo, Jeanna Gallswyk, Kelli Emmer and Katie Aaron - we were just doing a cute little story on how this group of girls has done the Destination Imagination challenge for the past several years and how they had qualified for Global competition. Again.

JAM2K has been a team since the girls were in fourth grade, though a few of them have been together since they were in second grade. In their time as a team, the girls qualified for Global Finals three times.

At first, I just talked to the girls while they were preparing for Global Finals. Since they'd been working together on DI for so long, I thought it would be cool to do a story about these girls and why they're so successful as a team.

"We mesh well together, so it's fun," Aaron said at the time. "And I just love how funny we are."

It turned out the judges in Tennessee loved how funny they were, too. The team earned 236 out of a possible 300 points, which put them at the top of the 68 teams that had qualified for Globals.

I just saw the girls bagging groceries at Cub Foods on Wednesday night. It turns out they're gearing up for another year of Destination Imagination, already working to raise some more money, just in case they have to make another trip to Tennessee this spring.

Saying goodbye

A funny thing happens when you've worked in a community for 16 years. You become a part of it. You make friends. You get used to being able to see and talk to certain people, and you know they'll always have a smile for you.

Well, this year, I said goodbye to a couple of those people.

"Officer Friendly," Ted Dau, isn't gone forever. I heard he was in town just a couple of weeks ago. But while he was here as a police officer and school liaison officer, Ted was one of those people who just made me smile.

Ted retired in May this year, after a 30-year career in law enforcement - all of it spent in Farmington. He's the guy responsible for building the school resource officer program in School District 192, but he'd been positively influencing the lives of kids from Day 1 as a cop.

My story about Ted's retirement was long, but it was so easy to write. A very affable guy, Ted had lots of memories to share. We spent well over an hour, visiting at Dunn Bros., while doing that interview.

And because he and I had a friendly relationship for more than 15 years, it was easy for us to get sidetracked. To share a few memories of events we'd both experienced.

I gave Ted a hug that day, later, at his retirement party. Took a few pictures for his family. It was one of those times when I was there just as a friend, not necessarily as a reporter. And that feels good once in a while.

In June, I took my reporter hat off once again, although I did have my camera in hand.

It was June 11, graduation day at FHS. I worked my part-time job in the morning, then rushed home just after noon.

I wanted to pay my respects to longtime fire chief Ken Kuchera. Ken died June 6, after a lengthy battle against colon cancer. He was 63.

I'd already missed the funeral, but was hoping to make the memorial service at Fire Station 1 and the graveside ceremony.

I ran home to change clothes, then left for the fire hall. Coming around the bend by my house, which is right by the cemetery, I spotted the Lakeville and Rosemount fire departments hoisting quite possibly the largest American flag I'd ever seen. I arrived at the fire hall just as the funeral procession had made its way down the street.

I went to his funeral because I was saying goodbye to another friend, only this one wouldn't stop back through town someday. And I'm not ashamed to say, I shed some tears that afternoon.

Patriotic Day

This fall, I was part of something bigger than myself, bigger than the newspaper, and it was a pretty incredible feeling.

I've never hid the fact I'm the president of the Farmington American Legion Auxiliary. As such, I was invited to be part of the group that planned the 2010 Patriotic Day celebration at Farmington High School.

Leading up to the event was a bit of a headache. There were meetings at inopportune times, a shower of e-mails. Phone calls and posters to make. A script to write and emcees to coach.

We wanted to reach out to current military men and women, as well as our community's veterans. We planed an event that represented the entire student body from elementary to middle school to high school students; one that showed our veterans and military just how much support there is for them in Farmington.

The event was a success beyond our wildest dreams. The FHS recital hall seats 800, and I think there were maybe two dozen unoccupied seats in the house.

I can't think of what part was my favorite. I just know that it meant a lot to our veterans and I know there was a lot of positive feedback. And I know it's going to be even bigger and better in 2011.

Friday the 13th

I was confused when I woke up to sounds of weather sirens going off in the early morning hours of Aug. 13. I looked out the window, but couldn't tell what the problem was. Where I live, it was pretty quiet. I went back to bed and didn't think twice.

Well, it turned out that the sirens were a bit late. And I was lucky.

Once in a while, I'll pop on to Facebook in the morning, just to see what's going on. I can't remember what the exact post was, but it was enough that it got me up and dressed and out on the road with a camera in hand.

We've had a number of windstorms over the years while I've been here. Driving up Akin Road, I didn't see anything more than what I'd seen in the past. Then I turned to the right, went down a hill. I'd not seen anything like what I saw that morning before, and hopefully never will again.

As I drove slowly through the neighborhoods - I had to, because there were trees, debris and people everywhere - I was struck by how odd it was. My neighborhood had a few twigs lying on the ground. These neighborhoods had garages lying on the ground.

I remember our office was supposed to send a few volunteers out to the drug store at Dakota City to scoop ice cream during the county fair. I was dressed in a red t-shirt and white shorts as directed. I never made it to the fairgrounds, though.

The residents whose houses were damaged knew right away it was a tornado, too. They just didn't know it was coming, because those sirens that woke me up across town came about 15 minutes after the tornado had blown through. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

I remember driving through the neighborhoods later that evening, about 6:30 p.m. or so. After a warm, muggy day - forecasts called for more showers that evening - the residents of those neighborhoods had set up lawn chairs and tents everywhere. They helped each other clean, they grilled food and drank beers. In a way, I think that tornado made brought some folks together that day.

A rescue

When it came time to deciding on what my top five stories of 2010 were, I decided to save the biggest for the end. It's not every day you spend eight hours outside a grain silo, waiting to see if the guy trapped inside will be rescued.

But that's how I spent my day Thursday, Feb. 10. Me, a few other reporters and about 100 emergency personnel.

That was the day Feely Elevator manager Mark Malecha tried to loosen up a clog in one of the silos while standing on some of the frozen corn inside. The corn shifted, burying Malecha to his chest.

Emergency personnel from around the metro area responded, including Task Force One and the Dakota County Special Operations Team. We all watched and waited as they cut a hole in the side of the silo so they could scoop buckets of corn out and loosen Malecha. We watched as rescuers dropped down into the silo - later finding out they were giving him shots of sodium bicarbonate so his muscles weren't affected by the toxins building inside his trapped body. They kept him warm, they kept him hydrated. And after nearly eight hours, Malecha was lifted from the silo and brought to the ground. He spent only a few hours in the hospital and returned to work just days later.

What sticks with me the most, though, was that for all the spotlight on the top of the silo as Malecha was free, the line he was attached to was pulled by the Farmington firefighters. They stepped aside for most of the day, letting those with much more training set up the rescue, but when it came right down to it, it was Farmington's rescue personnel taking care of one of their own.

Michelle Leonard

Michelle Leonard joined the Woodbury Bulletin staff in November, 2014, after 14 years covering news for the Bulletin's sister publication, the Farmington Rosemount Independent Town Pages.  Michelle earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Mass Communications: News-Editorial from Mankato State University in 1991. She is an active member of the American Legion Auxiliary Clifford Larson Unit 189 of Farmington, and served as the 2014-15 Third District President to the American Legion Auxiliary Department of Minnesota. Michelle is also the volunteer coordinator for the Minnesota Newspaper Museum which is open annually during the Minnesota State Fair. She has earned Minnesota Newspaper Association awards in Investigative Reporting, Local News Coverage, Feature Photography and Column Writing. 

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