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The caring counted most: Ben Franklin principal shares memories of flood

Beth Randklev, the principal of Ben Franklin Elementary School, holds a portrait of BreAnn Benedict, a girl who stayed in the FEMA flood housing in Grand Forks and attended Ben Franklin for a short time. Mary Ellen Mark took the photograph. (Jesse Trelstad/Grand Forks Herald)

Out of all the aid Grand Forks Public Schools received in the aftermath of the Flood of 1997, Beth Randklev remembers the nonmonetary contributions the most.

One company sent enough blankets for every student and staff member in the district. And she remembers people sent Christmas ornaments, too, because they understood the memories attached to such trinkets made them some of the hardest possessions for residents to lose.

"There's so much memory or meaning or story with some of them, so those were the big things," said Randklev, the longtime principal of Ben Franklin Elementary School who will retire at the end of this school year.

Twenty years after the flood, memories of the flood have come rushing back. Ben Franklin became a ground zero of sorts for some schools. Children from all over town who stayed in the FEMA trailers after their homes were destroyed came to school at Ben Franklin. Randklev remembers there were about 120 of them.

Outpouring of help

She remembers helping the administration at Lincoln Elementary School, which was destroyed, fill out insurance claims. Donations to the school's community were unpacked and laid out in Ben Franklin's cafeteria for people to take.

Randklev herself took charge of writing thank-you notes to each person or organization who sent donations to the school district, which trickled in for a good year after the flood. In addition to monetary donations, the district received everything from clothing and books to carpeting for classrooms. She said pitching in helped take some of the burden off schools that had sustained heavy damage, such as Lincoln and the Belmont School.

"It's just one of those things where people just helped where they could," Randklev said. "If you were a dry school, you did stuff. People who had been in a destroyed school were doing something else."

At the end of the school in 1997, students at Lincoln and Ben Franklin who had been displaced returned for a day to see their teachers and classmates once again. Randklev said, ultimately, the communities that took students in from Grand Forks stand out to her the most.

"The surrounding areas, to me they were the real heroes because they opened up their communities and their homes and they took in kids from our town, and they let them be on sports teams and they let them be part of whatever they did and fit them in," she said. "Some of them were just bursting at the seams and just did that with such grace, and those kids were so well cared for and had a really positive school experience to come back and tell us about. ... I just think that's a beautiful thing about North Dakota, and how people here come together."