South Dakota family rallies to keep lost father's memory alive through race
MITCHELL, S.D. -- The plaque is dated Oct. 16, 2013, with a photo of a man in military fatigues that reads, "Our family leader. Without him none of this would be possible. Love you, Dad."
It's a family's tribute to Harlan Niewenhuis, who died in an accident at the Army National Guard building in Mitchell in 2008. It's just one of the ways Linda Niewenhuis-Kredit, Harlan's widow, and their children have found to keep Harlan's memory and spirit alive and well.
Their daughters, Sarah and Miranda, bought the Mitchell business, formerly known as Arnie's First and Foster, now known as Niew Arnie's First and Foster. The plaque hangs inside the store. Harlan always thought owning a convenience store would be fun, Linda said.
And they don't just run the store in Harlan's honor. They also run in his honor.
The Niewenhuis family has made sure Harlan's dog tags have crossed the finish line of the Sioux Falls Half-Marathon every year for the last six years.
"I'll show you what started it," Linda said, pulling out her iPad.
She pulls up a picture of her son, Lance Niewenhuis, running in the Sioux Falls Half-Marathon in 2008. Lance had made plans to run the race with his dad. But Harlan died at the age of 58, when an overhead door fell on him, leaving his goal uncompleted.
So, his kids took over.
"The kids decided not to let dad die," Linda said, her words tinged with pride and sadness.
Linda, of Mitchell, said running the race was on Harlan's "bucket list" -- in other words, a list of things to do before "kicking the bucket."
"He started making a bucket list. Lance was always a runner, so he said, 'I could do that,' " Linda said. "He had never run a marathon. He just thought it would be neat to do it with Lance."
Harlan Niewenhuis, formerly of Mitchell, had been out of the National Guard for 15 years, Linda said. Then, the Twin Towers fell on Sept. 11, 2001, and he re-enlisted. He deployed to Iraq in 2004, but returned home safely. He was scheduled to deploy again in 2009.
"To make it back from Iraq, only to die in Mitchell?" Linda says with a shake of her head. "We were so close to retirement."
Harlan was a fun dad, Linda said, who "never sweat the small stuff," and made sure his children knew how to have fun. But he also treasured hard work and passed that on to his children.
"He'd said, 'never punish them with work; work is a gift,' " Linda said.
The couple moved to Mitchell in 2007 but raised their four children in Stickney, where Harlan's 93-year-old father, Edwin "Bud" Niewenhuis, still lives.
She admits it's been hard, that at times she's been angry. She's since remarried a former classmate and said that despite being happy, she deals with some guilt -- guilt that she's moved on, regret that she gets to share in the convenience store and her grandchildren but Harlan doesn't.
"I still cry, but that's OK," she said through tears. "I know God has a plan for me yet."
The matriarch of a tightly knit family, Linda said the hardest part was -- and is -- watching her children grieve. It's difficult knowing that the child her daughter, Miranda, was pregnant with when Harlan died will never get to meet his grandpa.
"I have a lot of faith. Sometimes you've just got to let faith take over," she said. "I've been told what Heaven is; I hope it is what I think it is."
The race has been a unifying and healing event for the family. Lance had run the race each year since Harlan's death, but could not this year due to his own deployment overseas. So Miranda took over.
Lance tracked the race electronically, then called the family immediately after the finish. Miranda said it was an adrenaline rush, and she hopes to continue the family tradition, whether Lance is overseas or not.
And this time, Linda went to watch. She saw a man run in combat boots with an American flag who reminded her of her late husband.
"I thought to myself, 'that would be Harlan,' " she said. "A lot of tears were shed, but happy tears."