Rosenblum: Alaska cabin is a fitting tribute for Mpls. native

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 6, 2013 - 7:34 PM

John Caouette was happiest on the ice, said his wife, Rebecca Braun. He died in an accidental fall in 2010.

He was a family man, a juggler of apples, a connector of people. He was an athlete, a knowledge-seeker and a quiet giver to strangers.

And he was forever the guy who could coax 20 people of all ages onto Lake of the Isles for a pickup hockey game.

When he died, suddenly, in an accidental fall from a bridge near Cedar Lake Parkway in 2010, 46-year-old John Caouette left two grieving communities — Minneapolis, where he was raised and remained fiercely connected, and Juneau, Alaska, his adopted home since 1993.

On Saturday, the quiet giver will be remembered in a fitting way, with the dedication of Caouette Cabin on Twin Lakes in Juneau. Hundreds of people, many of them longtime friends from the Twin Cities, will honor Caouette’s special brand of warmth with the cabin, a communitywide effort two years in the making.

“I don’t look at the cabin as a memorial for him. It’s more of a continuation of his connection with others, especially kids,” said longtime friend Mitch Richter of Minneapolis, who will be in Juneau for the ceremony. He and Caouette met at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

The rustic cabin is made from local cedar and spruce, and features windows overlooking the lake, located a few miles from downtown Juneau. In winter, the cabin will offer skaters a respite from the cold. In summer, it will function as a picnic spot.

“He exuded joy on the ice,” said Rebecca Braun, a journalist who met her future husband in Juneau when they both worked for the U.S. Forest Service. They married in her native Boston in 1999 and have two children, Rosie, 11, and Alder, 5.

Braun said her husband relished any chance he got to play outdoor hockey, especially if it meant teaching kids to love the sport as much as he did. But he was the guy, she said, “who has a perfect shot on goal but passes the puck so someone else can taste triumph.”

Caouette grew up in north Minneapolis, the middle of five children. He graduated from Totino-Grace High School in 1982, and attended the University of Minnesota.

Friends cherished his generosity — and his quirks. John Gilbert, who grew up a few houses from Caouette, remembers the two chasing raccoons through the sewers as boys. As adults, his friend struck up conversations with people wherever he went. “He seized opportunities to learn about life from experts — people on the street,” Gilbert said.

Caouette juggled apples as he ate them. He packed a pepper grinder with his sack lunch on wilderness jaunts. He’d return home to find out it was Twin Cities Marathon weekend, so he’d run all 26.2 miles of it.

Richter laughs remembering his decidedly noncorporate friend stuffing his suit and tie into his saddle bag to ride his bike to work. “What are you doing?” Richter asked. “Fulfilling my obligation,” Caouette joked.

After earning his master’s degree in math from the U of M, Caouette moved to Juneau to work as a statistician for the U.S. Forest Service. He later went to the Nature Conservancy, where his passion was preservation of cedar trees.

He returned often to the Twin Cities, bringing his family with him. On Oct. 12, 2010, his mother, Mary Gorzycki, dropped him off near Cedar Lake Parkway to run. It was an area he did not know well and it was nearing dusk. He jumped over a barrier to what he believed was solid ground but, instead, fell 25 feet.

Braun remembers three police officers knocking on her hotel room door. They asked her to step into the hallway so her children, then 8 and 2, wouldn’t hear the horrible news. She remembers falling to the floor. She remembers thinking that this was “a defining moment” for her and her children and, also “that we would be OK, and that we would need a lot of help.”

Help poured in from friends and strangers in Juneau, with meals, emotional support and child care.

A memorial rock sits under the bridge in Minneapolis where Cedar Lake Parkway and Cedar Lake Road split. When a memorial fund was established through the Juneau Community Foundation, friends suggested using the money for a warming house and Braun knew it was right.

“He loved the spontaneity of [ice hockey], the mix of kids, old friends, beginners and strangers,” Braun said. “He would bring extra milk crates and skate aids to Twin Lakes and help parents get their children’s skates on. He would tell us how, in Minneapolis, there are these great warming houses by popular skating spots, and [that] Juneau really should have one.”

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