Strohmeier’s legacy can be measured in miles

Elmer and Janice Strohmeier participate in the MS 150 Ride from Duluth to the Twin Cities, in 2002. During the three-day event, the couple slept in a tent.
Elmer and Janice Strohmeier participate in the MS 150 Ride from Duluth to the Twin Cities, in 2002. During the three-day event, the couple slept in a tent. (submitted photo)
Presenting Strohmeier’s cake at his farewell ceremony are, from front left, Parks and Recreation commission members Sarah Zahradka and Nancy Thorsen (obscured), Strohmeier, Terry Furlong, Dave Andren and Lloyd Grachek.
Presenting Strohmeier’s cake at his farewell ceremony are, from front left, Parks and Recreation commission members Sarah Zahradka and Nancy Thorsen (obscured), Strohmeier, Terry Furlong, Dave Andren and Lloyd Grachek. (Kaitlyn Roby/Review)
A look at the personalized cake Strohmeier’s colleagues presented him, complete with crosswalks and bike lanes he campaigned so hard for.
A look at the personalized cake Strohmeier’s colleagues presented him, complete with crosswalks and bike lanes he campaigned so hard for. (Kaitlyn Roby/Review)

Elmer Strohmeier, 76, and his wife, Janice, also 76, have put in more miles than they can recall running and biking on the trails that run through the city of North St. Paul.

It’s little wonder the Strohmeiers have made the most of the trails. Any city parks or trails that have been set aside or constructed in the last 37 years have been provided while Elmer was a member of the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission.

It’s hard to imagine, for instance, while watching bikers, inline skaters and joggers speeding along the Gateway Trail, over bridges purpose-built to keep them moving and safe, that in the 1980s, the “trail” was nothing more than an abandoned railroad line, a dirt track hidden by weeds and something of an eyesore to neighbors.

Similarly, the Southwood Nature Preserve, which might several decades ago have looked like a wasted opportunity to a developer’s eye, is now a gem set aside in its natural state and a place people flock to see migrating birds and other species you wouldn’t expect on a walk in the suburbs.

And the Silver Lake trail that separates foot traffic from winding 19th Avenue? When Elmer took his sons up to the beach for a cooling swim in the 1970s, that wasn’t available to neighbors and visitors.

So, for many years, the Strohmeiers could be found afoot or on wheels, making the most of the outdoor opportunities Elmer helped make possible. The couple would often hop on the Gateway State Trail and ride their bikes all the way to Stillwater.

Up until the spring of 2013, the couple even trained at a 5:45 a.m. spin class at their gym to keep their cycling edge.

It was there that a stationary bike injury altered the course of both their lives.

Wings clipped

Janice banged up her shin on a pedal and sought medical care when the bruise refused to heal. An MRI revealed that she had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, for which she underwent six rounds of chemotherapy treatment. But she still hadn’t regained her strength. Subsequent tests revealed she had ALS, commonly known as “Lou Gehrig’s disease,” a fatal degenerative condition affecting motor skills, like speech and body control.

The crisis meant not only was Janice’s life about to change, so was Elmer’s.

After serving as a member on the North St. Paul Parks and Recreation Commission for 37 years, he decided it was time to retire.

“I’ve gotta be with her 24-7. That’s the main reason I got off the parks and rec,” he explains. “I always like trying to make the city better. I’ll miss that.”

From indoor to outdoor

Elmer and Janice moved to North St. Paul in 1971, when Burlington Northern Railway (now Burlington Northern Santa Fe), Elmer’s employer, transferred him to the area. Early on, he got involved with hockey, driving the Zamboni at both Tartan and Polar arenas, and joining the hockey booster club.

Ironically, it was the indoor-arena activity that propelled Strohmeier into planning for the great outdoors. Leo Hudalla, council member for the city of North St. Paul at the time, recruited Elmer to serve on the Parks and Recreation Commission as a liaison for the hockey booster club. 

That was 1975. Hudalla went on to become mayor of Oakdale, and later, Chisago City. Bill Sandberg had yet to start his 30-year run as mayor in North St. Paul, followed by Mike Kuehn, who’s headed for double digits soon himself.

But through all the changes at the council level, as well as huge changes in approaches to development, transportation and park use over the years, Strohmeier continued to serve.

“I just stayed on,” Elmer says. “I just enjoyed it.”

Even though Elmer is known to downplay his contributions, council member Terry Furlong praises the value of getting input from someone who so ingrained in the community.

“I think he knew a lot of people,” Furlong says of Strohmeier’s service. “His well-rounded commitment to the city was very beneficial to us.”

A dedication to serve

“He’s typical, I think, of people in North St. Paul who are willing to serve,” Kuehn says, adding he’s known Elmer since their kids played hockey together. “It’s a blessing to have these folks.”

Fondly recalling how he used to take his two sons swimming at Silver Lake back in the ‘70s, Elmer notes that maintaining community resource has been one of his favorite contributions.

Longtime friend and colleague Keith Stachowski observes that Elmer’s efforts have come full circle, as he now takes his grandkids there to enjoy the beach and the trails around the lake.

Elmer’s dedication to improving the trail systems, however, has been his most personal push over the decades. He played an active role in drafting the proposed Lake Links Trail, which would link a network of city trails in Ramsey and Washington counties.

“He understands the value to having good parks,” Furlong says. “It might just be from him and his wife being in the parks all these years.”

Many of Strohmeier’s Park and Recreation colleagues will remember him most for his campaign to add white safety lines to city streets, to separate the bike lane from the vehicle lane. 

“I just like them all over for safety,” said Elmer. “I would like to see the city do more for bike safety.”

New voices, new views

While Elmer is retiring from his role with Parks and Recreation, he’s hopeful about the new energy and direction younger commission members have brought to the table.

“I think most of the people you’ve got on (the Parks and Recreation Commission) right now are real go-getters,” he said.

He’s especially pleased with the work of Sarah Zahradka, who recently joined the committee. She first approached the council to build a toddler-friendly playground at Casey Park in memory of her 18-month-old daughter, Janie, who died suddenly in her sleep. Sarah and her husband, Tony, raised more than $34,000 to fund the project.

Now fully retired, Elmer is adjusting to his new role as caregiver. For a couple who had visions of hiking the Sierras and biking nearly every day in retirement, the sudden switch in pace presents new challenges -- like simply moving around in an old home that’s not handicapped accessible.

Janice, though, makes sure to point out some of the activities that keep them moving forward. They enjoy watching their two grandchildren play hockey and dance. And they’re eager to hit the trails again -- now in sneakers and a wheelchair -- when it gets a bit warmer outside.

Using the text-to-audio feature on her iPad to communicate more clearly, Janice pays tribute to Elmer’s service.

“My husband always enjoyed when a project was finished.”

Erin Hinrichs can be reached at 651-748-7814 and ehinrichs@lillienews.com. Follow her at twitter.com/EHinrichsNEWS.

 

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