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MILLER: On the 1997 Grand Forks flood, the kindness of strangers and a boy's rebuilt baseball card collection

On April 25, 1997, some Grand Forks residents were allowed back in their homes. My family's story circulated the country.

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A collection of letters sent to Grand Forks Herald sports reporter Tom Miller after the 1997 Grand Forks flood.
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GRAND FORKS — On April 25, 1997 – 25 years ago today – my family’s personal Grand Forks flood story landed on the pages of most of the country’s major newspapers.

In the wake of the 1997 flood, after seeking refuge in Carrington, N.D., my parents Brent and Roxanne Miller returned to our Ben Franklin Elementary neighborhood home for the first time and were stopped at the National Guard checkpoint near Altru Hospital.

Reporters weren’t allowed beyond the checkpoint unless someone who lived in that area agreed they could accompany them.

A young man told my parents he was a reporter in Bismarck and my parents agreed to be followed to our house. My parents assumed the reporter worked for the Bismarck Tribune and the story would have a fairly limited reach.

Instead, the reporter worked out of Bismarck for the Associated Press and that story was picked up by AP members and circulated around the country.

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The Associated Press story chronicled my parents’ discovery of 4 feet of filthy water in the basement.

The story mentions my parents finding water-logged photo albums and yearbooks, as well as the baseball cards of their 11-year-old son.

“Tom had his Barry Bonds baseball cards down there,” my mom is quoted as saying. “That’s your life for a kid. He was pretty crushed.”

All things considered, it was a pretty minor quote in the greater story of a flood-ravaged community.

That quote, though, struck a nerve with so many people around the country. The response was incredible.

In the days, weeks and months after the article ran, people started sending me baseball cards.

It started with one or two cards here and there. From Fargo, Ohio, Louisiana, California.

It started with small envelopes and escalated quickly. The baseball card company Upper Deck sent cards. Someone sent a Bonds autographed photo.

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One man in South Carolina sent his entire collection. Set after set, giant box after box, of baseball cards. Tens of thousands of baseball cards showed up at my front door. At one count, nearly 200 Bonds cards were sent to me.

With the cards came hand-written notes. Without knowing exactly where we lived, many of the notes were either sent to the Grand Forks or Carrington postmasters. In this pre-social media era, people took the time to scribble hand-written personal notes.

My parents still have every note in a box in their basement.

“I have a 5-year-old son and we collect a lot of cards, and I know how important they are for a young boy,” one note from New Philadelphia, Ohio, read. “I had some extra Barry Bonds cards and thought maybe they would help your son get a start on recovering his collection. Good luck and hang in there.”

That 1997 summer, while my parents and the rest of the Grand Forks community rebuilt their homes, the neighborhood boys and I were allowed to be boys. We unpacked and sorted these baseball cards from around the country.

It was all a remarkable life lesson – a wholesome reminder of how many good-hearted people truly exist.

Miller has covered sports at the Grand Forks Herald since 2004 and was the state sportswriter of the year in 2019.

His primary beat is UND football but also reports on a variety of UND sports and local preps.

He can be reached at (701) 780-1121, tmiller@gfherald.com or on Twitter at @tommillergf.
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