Sometimes, a story about people you’ve just met can leave you smiling for days.

Months later, I still get a mood boost when I think about Levi Mohr’s fourth birthday.

There’s no reason the story should have stayed with me. I didn’t know the family, and we spoke for less than 10 minutes. But that moment of happiness came April 16, nearly a month into COVID-19 lockdown. It had been a month of quiet streets and shuttered shops, a month of carrying a piece of paper in my camera bag saying I was an essential worker, a month of uncertainty and stress.

Levi’s mother, grandparents and great-grandparents decided to turn a birthday bummer into a new adventure. His birthday swimming party at the YMCA was canceled. Instead, he fished for presents off the balcony of the family’s apartment. The celebration included a birthday song, cheerful greetings and so many smiles.

It was one of many events that highlighted the resilience of local residents in the midst of a pandemic. Solon Springs students gathered outside their homes in April to wave at teachers and bus drivers they hadn’t seen in person since March. Local teachers held runs and walks to let students know they would get through distance learning together. Northwestern High School graduates were honored with a drive-thru diploma ceremony.

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Nearly a month after Levi’s birthday, families drove past their loved ones at Harmony House assisted living with signs, balloons and classic cars. They hadn’t been able to hug or sit face-to-face with their family members for months. The closest they got was waving at one another through the window. So they held a parade.

From community parades to businesses that paid forward meals and groceries to window displays of bears, Northland residents shared hope. And they made this reporter smile.

Summer

There are stories you never want to get. On June 3, photographer Jed Carlson and I were assigned one. A lost child at the mouth of the Middle River in the town of Lakeside. A 6-year-old boy, the same age as my grandson.

When I go out to chronicle a community story, there’s often humor, joy. This story was just pain. In a moment, a family had lost their son.

Then I looked on the beach. I watched the volunteer firefighters walking together through the water, searching. My heart hurt; I can’t imagine how they were feeling. Yet they did the job. It wasn’t the first time they’d been called to help during a family’s worst moment, and it wasn't the last.

Members of the Lakeside, Amnicon and Maple Volunteer Firefighters search the waters of Lake Superior at the mouth of the Middle River for a 6-year-old boy who went missing Wednesday, June 3, as a boat from the Wisconsin DNR searches in deeper water. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
Members of the Lakeside, Amnicon and Maple Volunteer Firefighters search the waters of Lake Superior at the mouth of the Middle River for a 6-year-old boy who went missing Wednesday, June 3, as a boat from the Wisconsin DNR searches in deeper water. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

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I have so much respect for the firefighters in Douglas County. The summer drowning came after a winter filled with structure fires and a little over a year after searchers located a drowning victim in the Middle River. When the community has a need, they’re there.

If I found any good in that day, it was in the people who stepped up to help: The volunteer firefighters, the two pastors who came to be with the family. That day reaffirmed my respect for the brave men and women who see something bad taking place and offer their hand.

Fall

I blame our photographer, Jed Carlson, for this story.

He happened to mention during our 9 a.m. newsroom meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 3, that there’s a man in Poplar who puts up flags for Veterans Day. Maybe we should give him a call.

So when our newsroom meeting the four of us sitting 6 feet apart in a Superior garage broke up and I got home, I gave the man, Charlie Bergsten, a call.

It turns out his flags were already up, as Nov. 3 was election day. Would I like to stop by for a picture and a chat?

Mind you, we were scheduled to drive around Douglas County to visit a handful of polling sites on a day that would see the county’s biggest turnout numbers in recent history. So of course I said “yes.” Two birds, one stone, you know.

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Speaking of birds, the minute we pulled into his driveway, a pileated woodpecker decided to fly into his garage. It tested the windowsill with a few taps, then rested quietly as Jed and I got some pictures of it.

We went out to the field across the highway from Bergsten’s house to see the beautiful array of flags. He puts them up a few days a year to honor local veterans, then packs them away until next time.

Charlie Bergsten looks over his U.S. flags that will go on display on Veteran’s Day in his garage near Poplar Tuesday, Nov. 3. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
Charlie Bergsten looks over his U.S. flags that will go on display on Veteran’s Day in his garage near Poplar Tuesday, Nov. 3. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

The display was beautiful, the sentiment heartfelt, and the bird’s visit was a rare treat.

But what made the day special for me was seeing Mr. Bergsten. He was a math teacher at Northwestern High School for decades. More importantly, he had been my math teacher. Somehow, he convinced me that I could wrap my brain around analytical geometry and advanced algebra. And I did, briefly, thanks to him.

I asked him what name he preferred to go by in the article: Charles or Charlie Bergsten. But to me, he’ll always be Mr. Bergsten.

One of the greatest perks of the job is covering the people and places of rural Douglas County, where I grew up. So thanks, Jed.