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Faced with extraordinary personal challenges, they could have given up, become bitter, withdrawn. Instead, these Minnesotans improved lives all around them, influencing how the nation thought about victims of domestic violence, civil rights and sexual harassment. They found ways to soothe us: a professor who taught intense college students to relax, a baker who broke up long drives north with a slice of flaky apple pie, a reliable voice during tornado warnings. They were writers, farmers, poets and lawyers. Ten Minnesotans we lost this year, whose legacies endure. Our Northern Lights for 2015.

OUR NORTHERN LIGHTS

Audrey Benson | 76

Eight miles of skyways link downtown Minneapolis. But stairs in the system were obstacles for wheelchairs. Benson fixed that — and more.

There ought to be a plaque with her name, right by the door.

No one goes into the alcove unless they need it, and most don’t. Skyway pedestrians go up and down the steps and through the door. But if they ever ended up in a wheelchair, it wouldn’t be so easy.

That’s when they’d be grateful for Audrey Benson.

The alcove has a tiny elevator that makes one of the shortest trips in the city. For the disabled, that may as well be a hundred stories. It was the first elevator to deal with the changes in elevation that run through the skyway system.

Audrey Benson lived with cerebral palsy and knew what stairs meant for a wheelchair. She had a novel way to make the problem clear to others.

Billy Binder, an aide to then-Mayor Don Fraser, was a staff person on the Minneapolis Advisory Committee on People with Disabilities. The committee “got the idea of putting City Council members in wheelchairs and asking them to negotiate the skyways. Blindfolded them and said ‘good luck.’

“They were rolling along and came up to a stairway, and one of them said ‘Now what do we do?’ And Audrey said ‘I’ll tell you.’ ” A public-private partnership got the elevator installed.

Audrey Benson went on to work for accessibility on mass transit. Beeps from those wheelchair lifts would be music to her ears.

“As soon as we had a sign outside saying the elevator was finished, she was there,” said her pastor, the Rev. Don Portwood of Lyndale United Church of Christ.

“She had a phenomenal sense of humor; she was just mischievous. A fireball! ‘Why be normal?’ could have been her motto.”

James Lileks

OUR NORTHERN LIGHTS

Lucille Broderson | 98

At 94, Lucille Broderson launched her first poetry collection at the Loft, reading with such luminaries as Jim Moore and Michael Dennis Browne.

She was so tiny she might have been standing on her tiptoes as she strained to reach the microphone, her white head barely visible above the top of the lectern.

Lucille Broderson wore an appliquéd sweatshirt and sensible shoes, but once she began to read, she was a literary force of nature.

At age 94 (“and a half,” she corrected Michael Dennis Browne, who introduced her) she was launching her first book, “But You’re Wearing a Blue Shirt the Color of the Sky,” at the Loft Literary Center.

These were not sweet old-lady poems about grandchildren and puppies; these were vivid, skilled and poignant.

In “Eight of Us,” she wrote about her seven siblings, how “we thought we’d live forever,” but now she was the last. In “Heaven,” she wrote about her gratitude for the natural world. “Can you believe … the snow / how it glows this morning, / I sang as I got the blower / and cleared the driveway.”

Broderson wrote for years, but after she and her husband began taking workshops from Browne, she came to realize that she was a poet.

Her rewards were many: publication in Poetry magazine, Agassiz Review and TriQuarterly. In her 60s, she won a Minnesota State Arts Board Grant and a Loft Mentorship.

Broderson’s inspiration was the outdoors. She’d squash her old straw hat onto her head, tie on her shoes, and tell folks she was going to take her brain for a walk.

And off she’d go, out the front door, up the street, walking fast — “a little elf zooming along,” her daughter-in-law Linda Broderson said — thinking hard, writing poems in her head.

LAURIE HERTZEL

OUR NORTHERN LIGHTS

Audrey Benson | 76

Eight miles of skyways link downtown Minneapolis. But stairs in the system were obsticles for wheelchairs. Benson fixed that — and more.

There ought to be a plaque with her name, right by the door.

No one goes into the alcove unless they need it, and most don’t. Skyway pedestrians go up and down the steps and through the door. But if they ever ended up in a wheelchair, it wouldn’t be so easy.

That’s when they’d be grateful for Audrey Benson.

The alcove has a tiny elevator that makes one of the shortest trips in the city. For the disabled, that may as well be a hundred stories. It was the first elevator to deal with the changes in elevation that run through the skyway system.

Audrey Benson lived with cerebral palsy and knew what that meant for a wheelchair. She had a novel way to make the problem clear to others.

Billy Binder, an aide to then-Mayor Don Fraser, was a staff person on the Minneapolis Advisory Committee on People with Disabilities. The committee “got the idea of putting City Council members in wheelchairs and asking them to negotiate the skyways. Blindfolded them and said ‘good luck.’

“They were rolling along and came up to a stairway, and one of them said ‘Now what do we do?’ And Audrey said ‘I’ll tell you.’ ” A public-private partnership got the elevator installed.

Audrey Benson went on to work for accessibility on mass transit. Beeps from those wheelchair lifts would be music to her ears.

“As soon as we had a sign outside saying the elevator was finished, she was there,” said her pastor, the Rev. Don Portwood of Lyndale United Church of Christ.

“She had a phenomenal sense of humor; she was just mischievous. A fireball! ‘Why be normal?’ could have been her motto.”

James Lileks

OUR NORTHERN LIGHTS

Lucille Broderson | 98

At 94, Lucille Broderson launched her first poetry collection at the Loft, reading with such luminaries as Jim Moore and Michael Dennis Browne.

She was so tiny she might have been standing on her tiptoes as she strained to reach the microphone, her white head barely visible above the top of the lectern.

Lucille Broderson wore an appliquéd sweatshirt and sensible shoes, but once she began to read, she was a literary force of nature.

At age 94 (“and a half,” she corrected Michael Dennis Browne, who introduced her) she was launching her first book, “But You’re Wearing a Blue Shirt the Color of the Sky,” at the Loft Literary Center.

These were not sweet old-lady poems about grandchildren and puppies; these were vivid, skilled and poignant.

In “Eight of Us,” she wrote about her seven siblings, how “we thought we’d live forever,” but now she was the last. In “Heaven,” she wrote about her gratitude for the natural world. “Can you believe … the snow / how it glows this morning, / I sang as I got the blower / and cleared the driveway.”

Broderson wrote for years, but after she and her husband began taking workshops from Browne, she came to realize that she was a poet.

Her rewards were many: publication in Poetry magazine, Agassiz Review and TriQuarterly. In her 60s, she won a Minnesota State Arts Board Grant and a Loft Mentorship.

Broderson’s inspiration was the outdoors. She’d squash her old straw hat onto her head, tie on her shoes, and tell folks she was going to take her brain for a walk.

And off she’d go, out the front door, up the street, walking fast — “a little elf zooming along,” her daughter-in-law Linda Broderson said — thinking hard, writing poems in her head.

LAURIE HERTZEL

OUR NORTHERN LIGHTS

David Carr | 58

A Hopkins hooligan with a drug-stunted past, he became a must-read columnist — and a mini-celebrity — at the New York Times.

Reporters at the Twin Cities Reader, which David Carr edited in the mid-1990s, were expected to show up at meetings with good ideas, plural, for cover stories.

Carr sent half-baked pitches to the trash with his trademark “nah.”

Writers with a more promising story idea might hear Carr say, “you got something,” then experience the boss’ uncanny knack for seeing a potential winner in even the most tentative proposal for the alternative weekly newspaper.

He’d blurt out a headline, a few words that often would stick all the way through the reporting, writing, design and publication.

That instinct for finding and shaping a story served him well as he stampeded to the big time, first running a hefty alternative weekly in the shark-busy waters of Washington, D.C., and then, in 2002, joining the New York Times.

The Ivy Leaguers at the Gray Lady were (mostly) captivated by this rambunctious bumpkin, the profane, hilarious and ungainly Minnesotan who went on to write a weekly column about media in an era when that surely was the best beat in the house.

Carr’s fame increased when he “starred” in the 2011 documentary “Page One,” about the New York Times adapting to a changing world of journalism.

He rubbed elbows with Hollywood heavyweights and wrote “The Night of the Gun,” a “reported autobiography” that chronicled drugs, booze, capers, children, fights, rehab and revivification via journalism.

Sad and shocking though his early demise was, Carr made his final exit by gurney from a newsroom he loved.

What a great story.

CLAUDE PECK

OUR NORTHERN LIGHTS

Bruce Dayton | 97

He was a department store magnate, a patron of the arts and a quiet conservationist. Above all, he understood the value of personal connections.

Across the age divide, across the racial divide, across the gender divide, Bruce Dayton reached out to a rising leader named Laysha Ward.

Ward, then 31, had just been put in charge of the Target Foundation, which carries out the Dayton family’s legacy of returning profits to the community.

In sinuous cursive script, Dayton wrote to wish Ward well in her new responsibilities and invite her to lunch.

“I have to admit, I was nervous,” Ward said of their first meeting at the Minneapolis Club. “I was young, a Chicago transplant and wasn’t the traditional Norwegian or Scandinavian. But he put me at ease.”

A black woman 50 years his junior, Ward understood the power of meeting at the venerable downtown Minneapolis restaurant, a longtime gathering place of the city’s business, civic and political elite.

“By doing that he said, ‘You belong here.’ ”

For the next 15 years, Dayton became an important mentor as Ward rose to be Target’s executive vice president and chief corporate social responsibility officer.

They kept an annual lunch date, and he always picked up the tab. They talked on the phone when she needed a “quick brainstorm.” He continued to send handwritten notes. In recent years, as he grew frail, they met at his Orono home.

“He was a cheerleader in good times, and would catch and support me during the inevitable fall,” Ward said. “He’d say that if you’re not falling down from time to time, you’re not taking enough risks.”

The vast differences between them were “strengths and assets,” she said, “not detractors.”

“He had a way of instilling confidence and courage to do the job well. But to do it on my own terms. As he would say: I don’t expect you to be me.”

Jackie Crosby

OUR NORTHERN LIGHTS

Bud Kraehling | 96

For almost half a century, through blizzards and tornadoes, hail and floods, his voice was a calm, sure presence on WCCO-TV.

It might have been tempting to blow the tornado sirens in his honor when Bud Kraehling resigned, but it wouldn’t have been apt.

Bud Kraehling was low-key. He wasn’t the sort of man who’d shout about the danger. But when the sirens blew, Bud was the one you’d tune in to find out what was headed your way.

No fancy graphics. He drew on the map with a grease pencil. The pictures didn’t change behind him when someone flipped a switch; he strolled to the next map.

No breathless hype. A man in a TV studio whom you trusted to tell you what you needed to know, and possibly knew it first: WCCO had weather radar in the Twin Cities before the U.S. Weather Bureau. He had a 46-year run in an industry renowned for shoveling someone out the door when the numbers dipped, and he left on his own terms.

It’s been 19 years since he did the weather, but longtime Minnesotans still find themselves surprised sometimes to turn on the TV and see someone else.

In a deadpan interview with longtime WCCO anchor Dave Moore, Bud Kraehling explained his methods for getting the forecast. “I call the weather bureau, and say hi, what’s the weather? And then I write it down and say it to the folks.” Not the audience, or the viewers. The folks.

His training? “Just living here in Minnesota,” he told Dave, “is an education in the weather.”

True. Experience is the best teacher, and Bud Kraehling had half a century’s worth. But knowing what type of cloud is drifting overhead or what the barometer’s dip means — it’s just data. In clips of Kraehling as he strolls along the wall of maps, calling our attention to a cold front with those long conductor’s hands, it was a conversation.

He wasn’t a meteorologist. He was a weatherman.

James Lileks

OUR NORTHERN LIGHTS

Philip ‘Flip’ Saunders | 60

The adopted Minnesotan and basketball coach for a lifetime expressed himself in both anger and affection. In late-night phone calls, I experienced both.

I don’t recall the first phone call I ever received from Flip Saunders, but the last one this past summer will stick with me forever.

The kid from Cleveland seemed to become a Minnesotan as soon as he played his first game for the University of Minnesota in 1973. He coached a minor-league team in the early 1990s and chased the National Basketball Association dream by helping the Milwaukee Bucks with summertime draft preparations.

That’s when the calls from him started to arrive, unsolicited — always at home, often approaching midnight.

I was covering the expansion Timberwolves. He wanted draft information and shared some in return.

More than 20 years passed. He moved on, coaching the Wolves and nurturing a youngster named Kevin Garnett to stardom. Then it was on to NBA teams in Detroit and Washington. I covered other things before returning to the Wolves beat. He came back to run the franchise that had fired him in 2005 as coach.

Text messaging replaced late-night phone calls, except if he was angry. When his name appeared on an incoming call, I braced for a lively, often one-way, conversation.

One morning in July, my cellphone buzzed as soon as I landed in Las Vegas to cover summer-league play. Predictably, he was agitated about something, until he wasn’t anymore and hung up. Five hours later, Flip phoned back — I presumed to expound on the morning’s conversation.

Instead, he had a tip: Garnett was about to re-sign with the team in Vegas within minutes.

His last call came a month after he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I’ll remember it because, in the last 30 years, no other source had ever said it, if only in jest.

“I still love ya.”

JERRY ZGODA

OUR NORTHERN LIGHTS

Paul Sprenger | 74

Paul Sprenger took on cases other attorneys wouldn’t touch, confronting mining interests on the Iron Range and pioneering class-action lawsuits that changed workplaces.

The magistrate had a problem with Paul Sprenger’s case.

Sprenger and his legal team had filed a class-action suit against Eveleth Taconite on behalf of female workers fed up with being groped, pinched, propositioned and threatened in their workplace.

The case hinged on the “reasonable woman” test: Would a reasonable woman consider this behavior harassment? That presented a problem, the magistrate explained to Sprenger’s colleague, Larry Schaefer. “I’ve got to tell you,” he said. “I’ve never met a reasonable woman.”

It took 11 years, but Sprenger ultimately wrung compensation for the workers out of the company, winning the nation’s first class-action sexual harassment case.

It was one victory in a life spent taking on the big guys on behalf of the little guys. When the 2005 film “North Country,” based on the case, was made, actor Woody Harrelson played a character fashioned after Sprenger.

Sprenger was fearless, clever and unswerving in his belief that improving conditions for American workers was just as good for companies as it was for employees.

“He loved to be David to any Goliath,” said Sprenger’s widow and law partner, Jane Lang.

She recalled that when he went after the University of Minnesota for gender discrimination, representing assistant chemistry professor Shyamala Rajender, the case pried open tenure track positions to women in the sciences.

He faced down Burlington Northern Railroad on behalf of its black employees.

“He loved to challenge an insurance company, a multinational company, a bank,” Lang said.

“The bigger the better. If it was a favorite son, that was OK too.”

Jennifer Brooks

OUR NORTHERN LIGHTS

Anna Stanley | 71

In 1969, she and others took over the University of Minnesota bursar’s office, demanding racial inclusiveness and establishment of an African-American Studies department.

The interview — say those who have heard countless retellings — seemed like any other: the reporter asked a question and Anna Stanley, in her eloquent style, answered, and so on and so forth.

But this time, there was a bombshell.

“Are you gay?”

A pause.

“Yes.”

Her most closely guarded secret was out.

It was the early 1970s, a less accepting time. Stanley was just starting as a teaching associate in the U’s fledgling African-American Studies department. The infamous Morrill Hall sit-in, of which she had been an architect, was still fresh in people’s minds.

In the years that followed, she would be shunned for her sexuality by some fellow civil rights activists. Eventually, she left the university. Her name was omitted from official accounts of the protest.

But her activism continued. She left an imprint on the local women’s and gay-rights movements.

Her former classmate-turned-colleague John S. Wright recalled that she told it like it was, even when that meant incurring some wrath.

Her fiery lectures on black consciousness earned the admiration of young blacks. In high school, Phyllis Chapman sneaked out of class to go hear her speak.

It would be 30 years before Stanley again set foot in the department she helped nurture. A flier touted it as the return of one of the “forgotten leaders” of the Morrill Hall takeover. She was gracious about the delayed recognition, but unbending about her dismay at being left out of accounts about the U in the 1960s.

“It’s kind of weird,” Stanley told U historian Ann Pflaum in 1999. “It’s like watching revisionist history being written again and, again, we’re being left out.”

Libor Jany

OUR NORTHERN LIGHTS

Sharon Rice Vaughan | 73

A passion for protecting women and children led her to help create a national first — a safe house for battered women that has welcomed thousands over the years.

The house at 584 Grand Av. in St. Paul was not quite ready for guests in the fall of 1974.

But the doorbell and phone constantly rang. On the other end, pleas for a place to stay from women in crisis. Beaten. Abused. Terrified.

There was only one thing for the small band of women activists to do: open the doors.

Sharon Rice Vaughan was among the first to welcome those beleaguered guests. Together with her friends, she created Women’s Advocates — the nation’s first shelter for battered women and children.

In a meeting to determine who would work that first overnight shift, the women drew straws.

“I was hoping and hoping I wouldn’t be the one, because I did not want to stay in that big old house all by myself at night,” recalled Lois Severson, one of the pioneers. But Vaughan badly wanted to do it, and she got her wish.

Vaughan opened the door to more than a safe place to stay for a night. She and her fellow advocates developed a program of powerful self-change for thousands of women fleeing abusive relationships.

The original house still stands, connected to two more. Nearly 1,000 women and children arrive each year, greeted with warm meals, a safe bed, and counseling.

“She was essential and the primary reason that there was that first shelter,” said Pat Murphy, one of the organizers.

“She was so committed — so deeply committed to ending the oppression of women,” recalled longtime friend Susan Ryan, one of the founders.

That passion must have overridden any concern about taking on that first night alone in the house, Ryan mused.

“It had the element of danger,” she said.

“It took a lot of chutzpah,” Severson added. “She was fearless.”

Allie Shah

OUR NORTHERN LIGHTS

Qiguang Zhao | 66

On a campus of high-achieving students, his class on mindfulness became a favorite, transforming the lives of his students far beyond graduation day.

Students streamed across the Carleton College campus, intent on class or the library. Prof. Qiguang Zhao and his students seemed to be fighting the tide — in slow motion.

Arms and legs arced slowly as Zhao led his class through the intricacies of tai chi. They practiced outside in the grassy green of spring, as people would in his native China.

With wooden swords — which Zhao taught them to make — students moved through “sword dancing,” trying to be in the moment, the stress of term papers and finals melting away.

Zhao’s “Taoist Way of Health and Longevity” was one of the most popular classes at Carleton, in Northfield, Minn.

The impact of those peaceful hours was not fleeting. Over his 28-year career, many former students sent letters about how his lessons in mindfulness endured.

“They wrote to him how when they took the class, how they changed their lives. How they go to the campus to sit under the tree, thinking about life, and thinking about the class, thinking about life and death, about health and well-being, about family — those bigger issues, rather than just finish the homework,” said Litao Zhang, his widow.

In Chinese, his name meant Enlightenment, fitting for a man who launched the Chinese language program at Carleton in the late 1980s and whose 20 books included “Do Nothing and Do Everything: An Illustrated New Taoism.” He led student trips to China, bridging East and West.

“He was a truly international figure who had a sense of joy as well as careful scholarship,” recalled colleague Bardwell Smith, a retired religion professor.

After Zhao’s death, his family cleaned out his office at Carleton. They discovered a trove of letters from his students — and a few wooden swords.

Allie Shah

OUR NORTHERN LIGHTS

James Zimmerman | 91

Zimmerman turned tragedy into a public safety crusade. Thanks to his advocacy, thousands of Minnesota children now have a bus ride to school every morning.

Tragedy marked James Zimmerman’s life, but never defined it. After his wife and six children were killed at a railroad crossing in 1959, the quiet Waseca farmer rebuilt his life, restoring the land his family has farmed for five generations.

Songbirds weren’t singing around Waseca the way they used to when James Zimmerman was a boy.

Southern Minnesota’s rich farmlands had fed a nation, but woods and wildlife habitats had been plowed under in the process. Zimmerman wanted to restore what he could.

He was tragically suited to the task. Zimmerman knew more about loss and survival than most of us could bear. His wife and all six of their children were killed at a railroad crossing one September morning in 1959, as she drove the children to school. The grieving farmer drew strength from his faith and from the land, then set out to preserve and protect.

First, he went to St. Paul and persuaded the Legislature to rewrite a law barring children attending Catholic schools from public school buses.

Then he came home and planted trees. He protected little pockets of wetland among his fields. He married a widow with six children and together they had three more.

Zimmerman helped create the Moonan Marsh, 900 acres rich with wildlife and happy hunters. It’s where the avid birder, hunter and fisherman liked to canoe with longtime friend Jurgen Peters.

“I’m 80, and I can remember when we had meadowlarks and we had whippoorwills and prairie chickens,” Peters said. “In this part of the world here, that’s all gone.”

Now Canada geese, pheasants and ducks once again share the Moonan Marsh with yellow-headed blackbirds.

Zimmerman, who rarely spoke of his great loss, was a kind, gentle man — Peters never once heard him swear. He took great joy in his family and the land.

“He put back more than he took,” Peters said.

Jennifer Brooks

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