The backstory on the Erlers and how they connected with Obama

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  • June 30, 2014 - 12:59 PM

In the wintry gloom of a March night, it was suddenly just too much for Rebekah Erler.

It wasn’t just the normal grinding fatigue from a day of work and caring for her 3- and 4-year-old sons. Nor was it the cumulative effects of a long, hard climb out of the Great Recession by she and her husband, Ben — a struggle that included job losses, a cross-country move and living a while in the basement of his parents’ Arden Hills home before pulling themselves up with new education, new jobs and a new house.

Hers was an exhaustion of the spirit, so common across post-recession America, with the daunting sense that, despite those efforts and hard work, a better future for her young family remains elusive. So, in a letter, she gave President Barack Obama an earful. And, quite unexpectedly, he responded in a big way.

“I’m pretty sure this is a silly thing to do, to write a letter to the president,” she wrote. “But on some level, I know that staying silent about what you see and what needs changing never makes any difference. So I’m writing you to let you know what it’s like for us out here in the middle of the country.”

The letter, one of 10 President Obama reads nightly that are culled from thousands that are sent to him, clearly touched him. During his two-day trip to Minnesota on Thursday and Friday focusing on economic issues, Erler, of St. Anthony, was to be at his side much of the time, putting a human face on policy debates. On Thursday, they had a one-on-one lunch at Matt’s Bar in Minneapolis.

“It was very heartfelt, and what she said just kind of touched a nerve” said Ben Erlers, adding he was proud his wife gave voice to millions of Americans who have seen their buying power diminished and struggle from paycheck to paycheck after paying for student loans, day care and groceries. “It was all her idea. I think after long day, that night she sat down and just wanted to say something.”

The letter focused on his wife’s worries for the future. But the couple had quite a journey through the Great Recession.

A carpenter by trade, Ben, a St. Paul native, met Rebekah at a San Francisco lunch counter when the construction industry was flush. They moved to Seattle, where she is from, and looked to settle into the work of building their own little version of the American Dream.

Then the Great Recession hit.

They both lost their jobs and in early 2010, with their then-infant son, came in desperation to Arden Hills to move in with his parents for about seven months as they grappled to right their situation.

They wouldn’t have made it without their help, he said. “It was challenging,” Ben said. “It was just something — it was not the position you expected to be in at that stage of life. It was very awkward.”

But the couple persevered. He tried unsuccessfully to get his own remodeling business going, then got a job as a railroad conductor that took him away nights and weekends. With loans, she went back to school and got an associate degree in accounting. Their second son came along.

Rebekah now works for a Minneapolis accounting firm, and Ben has landed a job he loves for a remodeling company in St. Louis Park. In October, they were able to buy their own home.

But with all their hard work, he said, there is still an overwhelming sense that they are running just to stay in place financially.

The family is moved by the president’s effort to lift their story as an example to the nation is also overwhelming, Ben said. The only tinge of regret is their two sons are too young to comprehend or remember one of the biggest days in their family’s life. But they will carry and cherish the memories, as surreal as it has sometimes seemed.

“She’s in the president’s motorcade right now, so I’m not sure where she is. It’s kind of strange to think of that,” Ben said Thursday, during his lunch break. “So it’s radio silence for now.”

The experience of being involved with a presidential visit has been both fascinating and head-spinning, he added, with almost daily updates.

“Our running joke since we started getting all these e-mails and phone calls has been, ‘Well, what did the White House have to say today?’ ”

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