Jeff and Michelle Van Hee got the call around 6 a.m. on Feb. 3, about the time their alarm usually goes off. Phone calls at that hour are rarely good news, and this was no exception.
“I could tell by Michelle’s reaction that it was big,” said Jeff. “Of course, you think about relatives and friends.”
But this call, from one of their employees at the Madelia Times-Messenger, was not something they could have predicted: Their town was on fire.
That fire would eventually consume a large section of Madelia’s downtown, ripping through or seriously damaging Kay’s Upholstery, the Culligan shop, Tressa Veona Salon, La Plaza Fiesta restaurant, Hope & Faith Floral & Gifts, the Reed Gethmann dental clinic and American Family Insurance.
The Van Hees own the town’s newspaper, so they knew covering the fire would be important to the community. They had already put that week’s issue to bed, and it was scheduled to be printed later that morning. A blizzard had dumped 10 inches of snow on the area, and the Van Hees were stuck just outside of town, their house and driveway buried.
Michelle pulled on her boots and trudged to the road, where an employee picked her up. She got to the scene, took photos and videos, then got back to the paper to write the most important story in the town’s recent history. The printer pushed back the deadline so Van Hee could get the story. A powerful photo of firefighters among the smoldering ruins, beneath a large American flag, covered the front page of the newspaper that same day, with a one-word headline: “Devastation.”
“We know all these people,” said Michelle. “It’s not just a news story, it’s our lives.”
Nearly three weeks later, there is a different story line to follow. There is still grief over the tremendous loss, but there have also been remarkable signs of resiliency as nearby towns and cities have rushed in to help, raising more than $300,000, and counting. On Friday alone, Greater Mankato Growth brought a check for $78,000 and the city of New Ulm brought more later in the day.
In Madelia, Dan and Deb McCabe began printing “Madelia Strong” T-shirts and brought them to the chamber of commerce to hand out. They have printed 1,700 so far and plan to start printing sweatshirts soon because of demand. The McCabes didn’t charge for the shirts, but said people could donate money. The rebuilding fund operated by Region Nine Area Inc. has already raised more than $10,000 from the shirts.
“I was just at the chamber,” Dan McCabe said Friday. “Someone bought one for $500, then they said they didn’t wear T-shirts so we should just keep it. It’s been phenomenal.”
Another local employer, Tony Downs Foods, donated $20,000 and is committing up to $100,000 to the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation to support Madelia fire relief.
Michelle Van Hee said she’s been covering all the fire-related news — the fundraising, the attempts to find temporary housing for the burned businesses, the visits by politicians — while also trying to reflect small-town life that goes on.
“That’s what we do in small towns,” said Van Hee, who reports, photographs, edits and lays out the paper. “We have each others’ backs. It’s easy to be good neighbors when everything is going well, harder when things are tough. It’s going to take time and patience.”
Besides publishing the newspaper, Jeff Van Hee wears a number of public hats, among them, the job of the high school basketball coach. He’s been overwhelmed with the response to the team by its opponents. The competing teams have raised funds at games, put up banners of support and let Madelia fans attend games for free. Madelia returned the favor by letting visiting St. James fans, whose fire department came to the rescue, into Madelia’s gymnasium for free.
“We’ve been going through the grieving process; now we’re starting to think about getting our downtown back to normal,” said Jeff Van Hee, who got emotional describing the events of the past two weeks. First the fire. Then the continued displays of support from regional high schools. His son Derrick plays for the team, and during the senior day game, Van Hee realized he would be coaching his son for the last time this season.
“It’s been an emotional time,” he said. “It means so much to the kids. The support has been a catalyst for so much more than winning or losing a game. It’s important for the kids to see as they’re growing up. I’m blessed to be involved in this.”
Van Hee admits, however, that the team’s 15-10 record, the best in decades, doesn’t hurt.
Dan McCabe said he is reminded frequently just how lucky he is; the fire stopped 27 feet from his building.
“We’re extremely fortunate,” said McCabe. “Every day I see other things that make me appreciate that we were spared. [The T-shirts] are our way of letting everybody here who lost everything know that we’re here together. The next thing we’re going to do is to start planning for the grand openings and ribbon cuttings.”