Little town with ambitions of a ‘modest’ plan to honor veterans exceeds ‘wildest dreams’
Erhard: Known as the little town with the biggest July 4th celebration in the territory now has another claim to fame.
Erhard has more permanent tributes to veterans than the population of the community itself.
Etched for all eternity in stone, there are 167 names proudly displayed at the Erhard Veterans Memorial. And there are more names pending, as families continued to purchase stones to honor their veterans.
The small city’s population might hit 150 when the 2020 U.S. census is completed.
The crowd that gathered for the May 25 dedication of the Erhard Memorial also exceeded the town’s population. Between 200 and 250 were on hand for a program that featured several speakers, plus the Pelican Rapids VFW and American Legion Color Guard.
Overwhelmed by the entire project is Gene Nygaard, an Airman from 1959-1961. He was visibly awestruck as the large crowd assembled, under cloudy, threatening skies May 25.
“It’s unreal how many donated,” said Nygaard. “…Never in my wildest dreams…”
It all started as a modest project; maybe a few thousand bucks. Optimistically, they set a goal of 42 paving stones to veteran families at 100 bucks a piece.
By Memorial weekend 2019, upwards of $27,000 had been contributed by donors too numerous to mention here. Already, a fourth row of pavers is planned. Since the memorial is intended for veterans throughout the area–not just Erhard–theoretically, every veteran family in Otter Tail County can place a name. That could extend the memorial to about home plate of the nearby Erhard ball diamond.
Nygaard is one of Erhard’s “Big Four” involved in the memorial project. If you ask who’s in charge of the outfit, three of them point at Nygaard. Meanwhile, Nygaard points his finger at the other three: Ron Stadum, Ole Nelson and Ole Anderson–all veterans; all with Erhard connections.
There are no clipboard-carrying, pencil-pushing, college-educated officers in this quartet. Just enlisted military “lads” from rural Minnesota; four guys who got the job done as a team of equals. Stadum was a sailor, 1964-68; Nelson, a Rothsay grad and Army veteran, 1962-65; and Anderson , U.S. Army, including Vietnam 1964-65.
“One more mission” is how son Tom Nygaard described the work of his father Gene and Erhard’s “Big Four” on the memorial project.
Appropriately, Tom Nygaard, a career Army veteran himself, shared master of ceremony duties with Army veteran Andy Anderson, Ole Anderson’s son. Both of the sons are 1984 graduates of Pelican Rapids High School.
Also at the podium for the dedication:
• The Rev. Brad Soenksen, of Grace Lutheran Church–located a brief march from the veteran memorial.
• Col. Debra Hanneman (retired), who served 35 years and retired to Fergus Falls. But she was a “local girl,” growing up near Long Lake in the Erhard-Maplewood hill country.
She asked two things of the audience: Go out of your way to thank a veteran for their service, and secondly, to pray to God to protect those who are actively serving.
• Verlyn Anderson, who is Ole’s brother–both rural Erhard farm kids. Verlyn’s path went in a different direction, as he spent a career at Concordia College and is a noted scholar and authority on Norway and Norwegian immigration to the United States. His message recalled the lesser known history of Norwegian freedom fighters, who conducted commando raids on “heavy water” plant in Norway during World War II. The facility produced agricultural fertilizer product t, but the chemical make-up was also necessary to produce the atomic bomb. If Adolph Hitler had been successful; in producing and processing the material from Norway, Germany may have won the Sec0nd World War.
The dedication was not without somber moments this Memorial Day weekend, as Tom Nygaard delivered a teary-eyed, impassioned reminder of the tragic number of veterans who are victims of suicide–as many as 22 per day.
“It’s a serious issue we all need to think about,” said Nygaard. So emotional was the moment for Nygaard, that his wife finished the message. She challenged veterans to conduct “buddy checks” on fellow veterans to ensure their well-being, and to encourage them to seek support and help when needed.
As the dedication program wound up, the skies began to clear. Cake, home-baked goodies and coffee were served.
And flags blew gently in the wind overhead.
When the little town of Erhard hosts its big July 4th celebration, the flags will be flying again–and even more veterans may be honored with paving stones at the Erhard Veterans Memorial.