Flood, virus and recovery.
Dan Schill was born during what then was called “the flood of the century,” in 1979. As the river crested, his mother worried the hospital would be unreachable when she went into labor.
But that was just a rehearsal for the real flood of the century, which overwhelmed Grand Forks and East Grand Forks in April 1997, forcing a near-total evacuation and stalling most of life’s routines. It ended Schill’s high school career, except for a first reunion with his Grand Forks Central classmates five weeks later – for graduation.
As we try to reclaim our lives now following the pandemic, as we work through a slow-motion “recovery,” we might recall the last time people of these river cities took a hard blow and had to respond, individually and together.
“Just being there, that’s what you miss,” Schill said on May 25, 1997, the day he and more than 500 Central and Red River seniors received their diplomas. More than 2,500 upper-class students had been released from school to sandbag and patrol dikes, then scattered with their families across the country as the dikes failed and the river claimed homes, businesses, neighborhoods.
There were no last conversations with teachers, no sports, no plays or concerts or late-night talks with friends who had been friends since kindergarten. “All the simple things that typically end your high school career are gone,” Schill said then.
He is 42 now, a professor of communication at James Madison University in Virginia. He’s married, father of two, and like the rest of us he has had to deal with the coronavirus’ effects on work, play, school, relationships and many other aspects of life.
“What I remember about the flood was the community unifying, preparing, and then reacting,” he said. “It gave me and the community a sense of resiliency and a belief in community action. We knew we had to be self-reliant but also depending on neighbors, all of us working together.”
And the pandemic?
He hesitated. Then, “I don’t feel the same sense of unifying,” he said. “But we’ll see if we can come together.”
In 1997, the last day of class was April 17. Schill, a burly tackle at Central who would go on to play football at UND, said he had done “way too much dike work” in the losing fight with the river, then spent the week before graduation ripping Sheetrock out of basements.
“I was ready to get out of high school,” he said then. “But it sure was good to get back and see how everybody’s doing.”
Few of Central’s 258 graduates and few of Red River’s 283 missed the ceremonies. Attendance was nearly perfect, too, when 113 seniors graduated in East Grand Forks.
For parents of graduates, it was a day to put aside work gloves and rubber boots and celebrate. Tents went up in University Park, with tables laden with food, for families unable to host traditional commencement parties in their battered homes.
At Red River’s ceremony, senior Teresa Nelson told her fellow graduates, “We are so much more than a flood.” At Central, sandbags symbolically ringed the lectern as speaker Dale Brown, North Dakota native and legendary basketball coach, praised the seniors for their spirit.
Michael Nelson, another commencement speaker at Red River, noted that 14 of the 21 children he started kindergarten with were still classmates. “Let us not mourn what we didn’t have, but remember all that we did have,” he said.
The seniors of 2021 strode across platforms last weekend. They were able to finish this school year, but many did it remotely. COVID restrictions crimped many traditional activities.
Ray Holmberg, a counselor at Central in 1997, could have been speaking about this year’s crop when he said this 24 years ago: “The last weeks of senior year are a time of fun, reminiscing and saying goodbye over a period of time. These kids have had to focus hard on adult things, and now they’ll have just a couple of days to be together and say those goodbyes.”
Dan Schill’s parents, Mary Jo and Ken, still live in Grand Forks. After the flood, when people piled all their soaked, ruined possessions out on the berms, “Dan put a sign out with our junk,” Mary Jo said this week. “It said, ‘You are not what you own.’ We still have it.
“I think what’s the same is a sense of caution. OK, what is the future going to hold? After the flood, we wondered will the community be rebuilt? Now it’s will our sense of community be rebuilt? We have concerns about lost businesses, lost jobs. And how will it be, seeing people again? How can we assist each other?”
Her son, born during one flood and coming of age in another, is a good model, she said. “He’s always been resilient.”
Chuck Haga had a long career at the Grand Forks Herald and the Minneapolis Star Tribune before retiring in 2013. He can be contacted at email@example.com.