A famous guest unexpectedly showed up at an East Ridge student's graduation party.
Caleb Gotz, a senior at East Ridge High School in Woodbury, has been looking forward to his graduation party for years. He often told his parents, and anyone else who would listen, that he wanted nationally acclaimed Christian rock musician David Crowder and country music icon Johnny Cash to attend.
Gotz, who has Down syndrome, invited Crowder in person when his family got backstage passes after the David Crowder Band performed at a music festival in Chicago when Caleb was 13 years old.
Five years later, Crowder showed up.
Caleb's mom, Dana Gotz, sent Crowder an invitation, a picture of Caleb and Crowder hugging when they met, and a note reminding him of her son's dream to have him and Cash, who died in 2003, at his party.
The Gotz family hadn't heard from Crowder, so imagine their surprise when he arrived about half an hour into the celebration last month at Afton Apple Orchard.
Many of the more than 250 party guests recognized him and were in awe. Others weren't sure who he was, but knew he was important when Caleb dropped to his knees and bowed to one of his musical heroes.
"He rocks," Caleb said of Crowder recently from his Cottage Grove home. "I love his hair."
Dana said Crowder flew from Arizona especially for Caleb's party.
Caleb's dad, Rob Gotz, said that when Crowder was asked why he came, he said something like, "I knew that Johnny Cash wasn't going to show up."
Dana said Crowder didn't play any music, but he tossed beanbags during lawn games, square danced to a contra dance band that played and ate dinner with Caleb and his guests.
"Caleb made such an impact on this man's life that he wanted to give him his presence," said Denny Larson, Caleb's elementary gym teacher who was at the party. "It was totally amazing."
Caleb is well-known around the community for his enthusiasm and ability to accept others as they are, Larson said. He encourages other people with smiles and hugs when leading warm-ups at softball practice, or with inspirational letters he frequently sends to friends, classmates and teachers.
Caleb said he often ends cards with a phrase such as, "God loves you in so many ways." At one point, his mom said she had to reel Caleb in a little because he wrote so many letters that she couldn't keep up with the stamps.
On shelves in his bedroom next to Green Bay Packers memorabilia are trophies for "Best Team Leader," "Most Positive Attitude," and "Best Team Spirit."
"He has a contagious spirit," said Larson, who coaches the Thunderbolts, the team of which Caleb is the captain, in both softball and soccer. "He is kind of like the spirit of our team as a leader. And anytime you mention Caleb by name, people know who he is."
At Gallery Covenant Church in St. Paul, Caleb often leads prayers and helps lead communion, said Brad Kindall, the church's senior pastor.
"[Caleb is] one of the leaders of our church and leads us somewhere we couldn't get without him," Kindall said. "Every person in our church that is wrestling with life, before they have lunch with me, should probably have lunch with Caleb."
Even as a baby, Caleb influenced people around him. He was born with two holes in his heart and near the end of the surgery to fix them, construction workers accidentally cut off the power and the back up generator for the operation room. The surgery was finished with flashlights and by hand-cranking the machines. At subsequent checkups, hospital personnel called him the "power-outage baby."
Caleb graduated from high school on Saturday, and now will attend a three-year transition program in Cottage Grove called Next Step to prepare him for life after high school.
"It's gone so fast," Rob said. "It's been challenging, but wonderful."
Kaitlyn Walsh is a freelance writer from Minneapolis.