Alpha Dog!

ImageForest Lake teen is building a top team of dogs for winter dogsled races

  • Article by: KELLY JO MCDONNELL  , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 23, 2013 – 10:34 PM

Ashley Thaemert was 10 years old when her grandfather built her first wooden sled.

The 17-year-old Forest Lake High School senior has been hooked ever since.

She gobbled up books about mushing, watched shows and insisted people help her out and teach her about racing. Not just any racing — racing dogs.

“I was fascinated with them,” Thaemert said. “Mushing and being with the dogs is one of the only things in the world that can really get me excited and talking. I could talk to someone about it for hours and never run out of things to say.”

That enthusiasm bubbles over into her busy teenage life. Thaemert is adamant about making time for her dogs in between school, a job and her other activities, including her spot on the Forest Lake Area High School danceline team.

When Thaemert started to build her team four years ago, she reached out to a Princeton breeder of Alaskan malamutes, some of the biggest, strongest dogs of the mushing world.

Her first puppies included Suka and London.

Her team now consists of four additional dogs, Saffron, Echo, Akira and her dad’s dog, Nanuq, each with their own personality.

“Suka is my big, calm giant boy, but he gets extremely excited about mushing and starts jumping around like a puppy again as soon as we hook up. London is a hyper sledding fanatic, and there’s no calming him down when I go to hook the dogs up. He has to be hooked up last, because he pulls so hard and gets so excited that he breaks stuff. Echo is my speed racer dog, and Akira is the crazy one. She’s been the challenge to train, as she’s wicked smart and a little Houdini. But she’s a fantastic working dog and pulls really hard,” Thaemert said.

From the beginning the slight, 100-pound Thaemert had to work to be “alpha dog.”

“They need to know who’s in charge or there will be fights and lots of problems. When they were little I would flip them all on their backs and hold them down lightly to establish my role as alpha,’’ she said. “These are big dogs, they can pull up to 300 pounds, and they are very close to wolves with the way they operate as a pack. If you have a dog that can’t calm down, you’ve got a real problem.”

But handling dogs doesn’t seem to be a problem for the teenager, said her mentor Ken Davis, competitive musher and owner of Elfstone Kennel in Twig, Minn.

“I was impressed right away,” Davis said, “especially with the type of dogs that she has. These are big, strong dogs…. They’re built for the Arctic and bred to run all day long. However, they’re not built for racing or speed.”

Davis explained that Thaemert is trying to train her dogs to race, and has done well. She placed second in her class in her first race last October in Wausau, Wis.

“She’s one of those kids that is rare in my book,” Davis said. “She’s going to go somewhere.”

Trying to trying to balance her busy schedule is a challenge.

After school, she hustles home to take care of the dogs, and then hooks them up for training. It takes her about 20 minutes to hook up the dogs by herself, but half that if her brothers Skyler and Logan and sister Carissa help. Her parents, Christopher and Mary Kay Thaemert, as well as her grandpa, Craig Thaemert, support her efforts, too.

After training for a few hours, she heads in the house to start homework. “It gets to be a late night,” said Thaemert. “Next year should be easier after I graduate.”

Thaemert works part-time at the Chuck & Don’s Pet Store in Forest Lake. She said it brings in a free bag of food once a month — it takes around 30 pounds of high-calorie dog food a week to feed her team. She said her job also has helped her learn how to better care for her dogs.

So, what’s next? Graduation, some travel and pursuing a degree in veterinary orthopedic surgery, she hopes. And racing.

Thaemert is expanding her team by adding two puppies to be ready to race by next winter. She would like to work toward larger races, such as the Beargrease in Duluth, the St. Paul Winter Carnival Race or the MushforaCure on the Gunflint Trail.

“It’s the most peaceful feeling — there’s nothing in the world like it,” she said. “I don’t even know how to put it into words. It’s just one of those things.”

Nature Center Guru retires….

Siah St. Clair: “A place like Springbrook brings out people who feel passionately about this place.”

Departing director St. Clair reflects on 35 years at Fridley nature center

  • Article by: KELLY JO McDONNELL
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • March 12, 2013 – 4:17 PM

The job description of a nature center director isn’t an easy one. Duties can range from conducting classes with third-graders on aquatic invertebrates to repairing a plank on the boardwalk. From speaking at a Rotary club and writing grant requests to repairing a broken toilet.

No one understands the complexity of the position better than Siah St. Clair, who’s done those things and more during his 35 years at the Springbrook Nature Center in Fridley. He will be retiring as director in April.

He reflected on his experiences in a Q and A session last week.

Q: What changes have you seen through the years?

A: Technology. When I started, there was only one typewriter in the whole place, and it was the secretary’s typewriter. I would dictate, and she would type the letters. That doesn’t happen anymore.

Recently I was leading a hike on birds and pointed out a robin’s call. Thirty seconds later, we heard another robin call behind me, but it’s someone’s bird app on their phone, and they were playing the robin’s song on their phone. Everyone was listening to the app [thinking it was the real thing]. That’s a change.

But a lot of things have really stayed the same, like leading a hike on birds. People are still just as fascinated with birds today as they were 40 years ago. Or learning about wildflowers or prairie habitats. The part where you actually have people outdoors, identifying a mushroom, or a tree … all of that is the same.

Q: What about challenges — then and now?

A: The challenges have stayed the same. The challenge is always finding enough resources to accomplish your needs. We’re constantly increasing our ability to find resources. So we’re writing grant proposals, figuring out improved ways to bring revenue into the center to pay for materials we need. I think we’ve gotten better at it over the years, bringing in more revenue and finding more resources than we did 20 or 30 or 40 years ago.

Other challenges are also the same: how you maintain the prairie; storage for props used for classes that we teach; finding part-time and full-time naturalists — those kinds of challenges continue. You get more resourceful because of your experience. Or maybe you’re not as intimidated, as you’ve done it so many times.

Q: What is the accomplishment you’re most proud of?

A: I can think of three people who were full-time naturalists [at Springbrook] who went on to become directors of their own nature centers. I think that’s a good feeling; you’ve worked with people and had them able to move on into a position where they are now directing a nature center of their own.

Also, over the years, the use of the center has increased tremendously, way beyond what anyone had ever dreamed, and it’s part of my job to try to plan for how we’re going to address that increase in use. We’ve met with the Springbrook Nature Center Foundation and community groups and a plan was developed: Improve the outdoor classroom in the front of the park, and create space inside the building.

We’ve gone to the Legislature and requested bonding funds, and we’ve made it through three times. We made it to the governor’s desk three times. We were vetoed three times, but that was a big accomplishment to just get there. We’re working at it again this year.

It’s not just looking at the needs of today, but the needs for the next generation and how we can address that.

Q: What were the lessons you have learned along the way?

A: I’ve learned over the years that it’s hard to take credit for much. A lot happens, but there are an awful lot of people involved in making it happen. It’s never just yourself that’s doing that. It’s all these other people.

A place like Springbrook brings out people who feel passionately about this place. It’s the place that brings the people in, and makes them so committed. It’s a privilege to simply be in the middle of all of that, and to work with all those people who have a commitment to see the nature center continue in a vibrant way.

Q: Your favorite memory?

A: One night, during one of our summer camp kid/parent nights, we took the kids and their parents for a walk back in the park. I remember it was June, late and quite dark, when we were leading 20 children and 40 parents down into the woods.

We came out into a clearing in a meadow near one of the ponds, and it just happened to be a hatch night for the fireflies. There had to be 10,000 fireflies in this little meadow, and they were all flashing. Everyone just stood in awe of these thousands of fireflies that were flashing. You could have heard a pin drop. I’ll never forget those fireflies.

Another one isn’t a favorite, but one I’ll never forget: It was July 18, 1986, and I had taken my family on a vacation in Michigan. I got a phone call and was told to turn on the TV. And there was the famous Springbrook tornado, being filmed live. It was on the front page of the Star Tribune the next day. I had to leave my family and get on a plane and come back. I’ll never forget that date.

Q: What’s your funniest memory?

A: We have animals here at the nature center, snakes, frogs, salamanders, hissing cockroaches and tarantulas. Occasionally, for some reason or another, a few escape.

A number of years ago we had purchased new tiny baby tarantulas so we could use them in our programs. At the time, they were smaller than your thumbnail, but one of them escaped. About two months later, one of the female staff came running out of the ladies’ room. Let’s just say she was agitated. This little tarantula, which was now three times the size, came walking up out of the floor drain. I ran in there and captured it. We named the little tarantula Houdini. She’s quite large now, and we use her for programs all the time.

Q: You’re retiring after 35 years. Now what?

A: I do have some plans. I do nature photography, and I’ve planted a wildflower garden at my house. I have offered to continue to help with a number of activities at the nature center, though. There’s a bird banding program on Sunday mornings; a garden club and a photography club that meets every month; there’s a butterfly count, a dragonfly count, and we do a frog-calling survey that takes several nights. I’ve offered to help with those.

It’s hard to get my head around it. I’ve been working full time as a naturalist for 41 years. I can’t remember being unemployed since I was 16. But I’m trying to figure out what to do when you don’t have a job!

Kelly Jo McDonnell is a Twin Cities freelance writer.

The Grieving Child-MN. Parent Magazine


As I stood in the quiet Iowa cemetery, I watched my 10-year-old son as he flitted around my Father’s tombstone.  Grandpa had suddenly and unexpectedly had an aortic aneurism this year, and before we knew it, was gone from our lives.  My sons Grandpa was a larger than life personality, and while I wrestled with my own grief, I worried about the large void left for my son, who was 10 and had been very close to his Grandpa. The whole experience was so sudden and a blur, and I wondered if I had traumatized his grief process since I was still running to catch up with my own.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Hayden catching the glowing fireflies that had popped out during the twilight hours. He was cupping them to his mouth, saying something, and then releasing them into the air. As I shuffled closer, curious, I over heard him whispering to the fireflies “Protect Grandpa”, before releasing them.  That bittersweet moment is etched into my memory, and for some reason, left me feeling a bit more peaceful. Perhaps Hayden was coping better than I had thought. Better than his Mother, anyway.

Grief is a tricky business, for both adults and children. And let’s face it; nothing prepares you for this business until your knee-deep in it.  But don’t make the mistake in thinking that kids don’t grasp the grieving process. Kids can grieve at any age, and it depends on their age, developmental stage and life experiences.

Inez Bersie-Mize, a licensed family therapist with Midwest Center in St. Paul, agrees that the child’s age makes a big difference. “Their cognitive abilities, and the ability to understand and comprehend makes a big difference,” she explained, “around 7 and 8 they still have that magical thinking, that the person could come back, or that ‘Grandpa looks like he’s sleeping’. It’s very common for that age to have that thinking. Their capacity to tolerate pain, and whom they have around them also makes a difference. Their relationship to the person who died comes into play.  Kids are very tuned into their sense of pain, and if they think the person died, had a great deal of pain or trauma, then they’ll have a harder time getting over it then someone who died in their sleep.”

Come to think of it, son Hayden’s first questions about Grandpa’s passing was pain-related.  Questions such as “Did it hurt?”  “Did Grandpa know what was happening to his heart?” Other kids, who have witnessed someone battle an illness, deal with different questions.  When Molly Sproull lost her Father to bone cancer, her son was 6 and daughter was in 3rd grade. “My Father was in hospice, so we all knew it was coming,” Sproull remembered, “So Ben got to say goodbye. I didn’t really pay much attention growing through the process. He was on his best behavior (during the illness) because of what I was going through. But after the funeral, that’s when he really started acting out.”

Sproull said the calls from teacher started coming soon after the funeral, and involved throwing objects and reacting to other kids. “I look back, and I realize he was grieving,” said Sproull, “he was just not himself.  I always tried to answer his questions (about Grandpa) without scaring him. It was hard. My daughter Abby had more tears. She understood a bit more, and I didn’t really see any negative reactions with her. She was more Mothering to me, asking if I was OK. She recognized I was grieving, even as a 3rd grader.”

Bersie-Mize said that’s the fine line that parents must walk while going through their own grief process. “It’s better to explain it then to hide it,” stressed Bersie-Mitze, “they need to know what’s happening, what the wake will look like, and have a choice to go or not to go. They need to be informed. A lot of kids fear crying, but when everyone else is crying, it helps them make that decision. They need to be informed.”

Brent and Christie Cuttell, Cottage Grove, are advocates of being informed. Brent lost his Father last year after an extended illness, and the couple’s three children range in age from 7 to teenagers.   “Kids grieve in a similar sense that we do, but it’s more pronounced. Everything a child does is more pronounced…they are louder and faster than we are, and their minds are sharper,” said Brent Cuttell, “youngest son Camden was 7 and a half when Grandpa died. He’s a visual kid, so whenever he sees a red hat, like his Grandpa Cuttell used to wear, he gets emotional. He’ll say ‘I miss Grandpa’, or “That guy in the red hat looks just like Grandpa’. They figure out that stepping stone – you have a Grandpa, you might even have a Great Grandpa. Now that Grandpa’s gone, that void is filled with Dad or Mom. That stepping stone and known, rock solid entity is gone.”

Christie Cuttell, who is a social worker at Psyche Recovery, Inc. in St. Paul, says her knowledge of the grief business helped her cope with her own family’s journey. “Americans are horrible at death and dying,” she explained, “we don’t like to talk about it, we don’t plan for it, yet it’s the only thing that is absolutely sure. It’s very frustrating when you work on death and dying. The more open we are with our kids and each other, the smoother it is going to go.”

She said youngest son Camden’s grief comes and goes in short waves and bursts, usually associated with visual triggers. “At first he was very careful not to grieve in front of us,” remembered Christie, “he didn’t want to upset people more. But when he went back to school and the teacher had given him an assignment to write about feelings, Camden could only get through 2 sentences, before he burst out crying.  I do think kids generally grieve better than adults. They are not at all selfish. Their genuine, and to them, it’s very literal.”

The Cuttell’s said their older teenagers took on a different grieving pattern.  “Myles, being the boy, was more non-verbal,” remembered Christie, “but his actions were kinder. He was not causing trouble, and would let things go that he usually wouldn’t. He was just quieter. Daughter Abby just cried her brains out, night and day. The teenaged kids had a very difference connection with Grandpa, as they are so much older than Camden. They saw Grandpa healthy, and he wasn’t sick in their memories.”

“Some of it is really just talking with them,” explained Bersie-Mize, “it really is. It’s OK that it hurts or that it’s scary. It’s OK to say those things to kids. The more they are involved in the planning, the better. It’s important not to exclude them from your own grief. Explain how you feel inside, so they don’t feel alone or isolated.”

Through the whole process, watch for warning signs of something deeper than “healthy” grief. “Watch how long they are staying in grief,” explained Bersie-Mize, “and if they are functioning in school and with friends. Are they isolating, or getting angry. Things like that should not be ignored, and sometime professional support is needed.”  Other factors to watch include inability to sleep, or loss of appetite, acting much younger for an extended period, repeated statements for wanting to join the dead person, or excessively imitating the deceased family member.

She went on to explain that it wasn’t until around the 1950’s or later that children were included at all in the whole grieving process, and until then was kept very separated from the whole ordeal. “Including them in the process, perhaps picking out flowers, or writing poems to put in the casket, are all closure activities. Talk about how sad it feels, and the hurt inside. Let them see the tears.”

With our family, we included all the grandsons as much as we could in the planning, and communicated what would be going on during the wake and the funeral itself. Hayden had the choice of viewing Grandpa during the wake. He sat in the back of the church in the last pew for a short time before making up his mind and marching up the aisle resolutely next to me. We also let each of the grandsons choose a “Grandpa treasure” from his dresser, and they all carried them in their pockets during the funeral. I noticed Hayden rubbing his Grandpa’s favorite pocketknife during the funeral.

After our visit to the cemetery that day, Hayden asked if Grandpa had known we were there visiting him, or if he was too busy up in heaven.

I guess only the fireflies and my dad really know the answer to that question.

Side Bar:

Kids books that help cope with grief:


The Fall of Freddie the Leaf – Leo Buscaglia


The Next Place – Warren Hanson


The Old Coyote by Nancy Wood


Papa’s New Home – Jessica Lynn Curtis

Iowa Corn & Wine

River valley holds simple pleasures

  • Article by: KELLY JO McDONNELL , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 13, 2012 – 3:24 PM

This time of year, a mention of Iowa conjures up spent cornfields and soybeans harvests. But lush wine vineyards and rolling hills? Look closer at the northwest corner of our neighbor to the south, and

Photo: Cy Dodson

you’ll be surprised by what you find. Two sister towns, Peterson and Linn Grove, nestled next to the Little Sioux River, offer a charming getaway to enjoy a little history and the simple things in life.


Peterson has the distinction of being Clay County’s first settlement, established in 1856 on the floor of the Little Sioux River Valley. Its neighbor city, Linn Grove, home to a historic dam, has been around since 1910. Both are as picturesque as a vintage Iowa postcard. And both sit right on the Iowa Glacial Trail Scenic Byway, a 36-mile loop that begins in Clay County on Hwy. 10.


Fall suits this corner of Iowa perfectly. To see the area’s splendor up close, check out the wonders of the prairie at the Prairie Heritage Center, a few miles outside Peterson. The center offers environmental education and features a birding bonanza room with crafts and displays, including a section on the folklore of birds and how to “talk turkey.” Buffalo also roam the adjacent 160 acres (1-712-295-7200; http://www.prairie

History is plentiful. Peterson Heritage Inc. can help set up a tour of Peterson’s historical gems — its office is located in one of the historic houses, the Boarding House of 1882. Other sights include the Fort Peterson Blockhouse, a fort constructed in 1862 by Civil War troops, and the Rock Forest School, one of the county’s first frame schoolhouses (1-712-295-8889; www.

Jim’s History Barn in Peterson is an “American Pickers” dream. Owner Jim Hass has filled a restored 1928 barn from wooden floor to rafters with collections of western memorabilia, mounted wildlife, rows of military items from the 1700s through World War II and thousands of other items. Admission is free, and a bonus is that Hass is a font of knowledge on the area’s history (1-712-295-6551; http://www.peterson

Just a few miles from Linn Grove and Peterson farmlands is InnSpiration Vineyard, which covers 6 acres and whose tasting room overlooks a pond. Owners Paul and Sheila Thomsen have created a Midwest wine lover’s oasis, complete with acoustic music on weekends and annual grape stomps. Be sure to try the winery’s Touch of Sun, Squirrely Shirley or 2010 Frontenac Dry (1-712-296-4966;

Normally, the towns of Peterson and Linn Grove hover around a few hundred residents each. But if you roll into Peterson on the first Saturday of October next year, be prepared for the Hiney Wine & Arts Festival, which can draw 2,000 people. Crowds converge on Kirchner Park to browse artists’ wares and taste samples from beer and wine booths.


The InnSpiration Bed-and-Breakfast sits across the pond from the winery, and its four bedrooms feature queen beds, cozy fireplaces and double whirlpool baths. We stayed in the Lake Room, which overlooks both the rows of grapevines as well as the busy farm fields. From your deck, you might hear the soft bleating of sheep from the pastures. Breakfast included eggs Benedict, homemade jams, juice from the grapes and fresh honey from the owners’ beehives (


The area isn’t flush with the sort of dining choices we enjoy in the Twin Cities, but local eats aren’t hard to find. Lon’s Lounge is the place locals mention first for burgers and beer. It opened last October in Peterson’s quiet downtown. You’ll find owner Lon Frerichs waiting behind the bar as you enter. The Lon burgers were a finalist for the area’s “Best burger” in a contest by a local radio station (225 Main St.; 1-712-295-7006).

If you’re looking for a down-home breakfast, head to Sue’s Diner, right across the street from Lon’s (224 Main St.; 1-712-295-6231).

As many locals will remind you, it’s not a bad idea to call ahead before you make a trip. As Jim Hass at the History Barn explained, in this area, “businesses are open by appointment … and sometimes by chance.”


For more information about visitng the region, go to the website of the Clay County visitors bureau at http://www.explore

Kelly Jo McDonnell is a freelance writer based in Lino Lakes.

Lake of the Woods

Respite on the Lake of the Woods

  • Article by: KELLY JO McDONNELL , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 1, 2012 – 12:52 PM

With 135,000 miles of shoreline and 15,000 islands, Lac des Bois, otherwise known as Lake of the Woods, deserves its legendary reputation for scenery, fishing and relaxation-inducing powers. But if you can only taste a bit of it, the Sioux Narrows in Ontario is satisfyingly sweet.


The Narrows got its name from the rocky, narrow channel that separates the south shore of Long Point Island from the Canadian mainland. A new bridge on Hwy. 71 has replaced a wooden bridge, which locals say was the longest single-span wooden bridge in the world. A fun little village is anchored on either side — voilà! The Sioux Narrows.


One word says it all: fishing. Lake of the Woods is best known for its walleye population, but northern pike, perch, crappie, panfish, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, lake trout and lake sturgeon also swim the waters. When the temperatures turn crisp, then it’s time to home in on the muskellunge, which are starting to bulk up for winter.

One doesn’t have to be a hard-core fisherman to experience these waters; there are lodges that offer boats and fishing guides who can take you to the honey hole of the day. Our guide was not only savvy at fishing, he knew the region’s history and pointed out abundant wildlife — which is another perk of Lake of the Woods.

Spotting local critters is downright easy here, and it’s a good idea to keep your eyes on the shoreline. The area is home to deer, bear, moose, eagles, wolf, lynx and fox, not to mention loons and many species of songbirds and waterfowl.

Kayakers love the shores of Berry Lake, Dryberry Lake, Black Lake, Blindfold Lake and Andy Lake. There are also many smaller rivers to explore. If you require a little more excitement, a tour company such as Green Adventures can help you out. Located right outside of Kenora, it can set you up to go rock climbing, kayaking, canoeing or paddleboarding (

The Eco History tour offered by Totem Lodge is new this year. It includes a tour of ancient rock paintings and a World War II prisoner of war camp, where Canadians held German POWs. The guides also point out the lake’s diverse ecology, as well as the best wild rice patches and berry-picking spots. Participants, who don’t have to be guests of the lodge, can even add geocaching to the package. (Call 1-800-668-6836 for details.)


The Sioux Narrows area has a healthy selection of accommodations.

We nestled in at Totem Resorts; owners Eric and Sandra Brown also own neighboring lodges Yellowbird and Wiley Point. The cabins at Totem don’t disappoint — they offer the knotty pine, rustic feel but also have such amenities as air conditioning, color TVs and screened-in porches. Our little cabin was charmingly named “Little Joe.” Yellowbird Lodge & Chalet has a more luxurious feel, with a wedding party prepping for their big day on its shores during our visit. Fisherman parties tend to choose Wiley Point, the most secluded of the three (1-800-668-6836;

If you’d rather float, there are houseboats for rent. One company, Floating Lodges of Sioux Narrows, offers sprawling 60-foot houseboats as well as a cute 40-footer complete with picnic table on the top deck (1-800-743-5171; www.


Locals recommend Big John’s Mineshaft. Not only is the food comforting, the view of the lake is fantastic as the Mineshaft sits right on the water at the Narrows bridge (20 Paradise Point; 1-807-226-5224). You can also find locals at the Dockhouse Sports Bar, the hot spot for wings and pizza (Hwy. 71; 1-807-226-3625).

But the Lake of the Woods experience isn’t complete without an old-fashioned fish fry on shore. Ours was included in the trip we arranged through Totem Lodge. The guide prepared lightly battered fresh fish, seasoned potatoes and canned baked beans, all cooked over an open flame, serving us a meal from a true Up North restaurant.


Visitors can find information at and, a site maintained by the Township of Sioux Narrows-Nestor Falls.

Kelly Jo McDonnell is a freelance writer based in Lino Lakes.

From shepherding to fishing….


After 46 years in the ministry, Fitzgerald retired this summer from the Church of St. Genevieve in Centerville. And while he’s scaling back on the “fishers of men” duties, he’s continuing with his other favorite job — fishing for fish.

, Star Tribune

Retired priest goes from shepherding to fishing

  • Article by: KELLY JO McDONNELL
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • August 7, 2012 – 11:02 PM

The Rev. Tom Fitzgerald understands the verse from Matthew’s gospel — “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” — on several levels.

After 46 years in the ministry, Fitzgerald retired this summer from the Church of St. Genevieve in Centerville. And while he’s scaling back on the “fishers of men” duties, he’s continuing with his other favorite job — fishing for fish.

“Fishing can teach us so much,” Fitzgerald said. “You never know if you’re going to get anything. You can’t assume anything. It teaches you that you can’t assume. And it teaches you patience.”

And on days when the fish don’t bite, “you can just be there and fish and enjoy the scenery … and it just feels good to be alive,” he said.

“When you get out there on the lake, it’s just a very peaceful thing.”

Fishing has always been a part of Fitzgerald’s life, dating to no-frills trips with his father as a child.

“My Dad took me fishing at Turtle Lake, and we used to rent a boat for a $1 a day and row,” he said.

“My father was a railroad man, so we could have gone any place on the train, but he wanted to get away from trains on his days off,” Fitzgerald said. “So we went up to Camp Lake by Mille Lacs and we’d fish. That was always our vacation.”

A calling to the church

Fitzgerald, 72, graduated in 1958 from St. Agnes School in St. Paul. He was a counselor at the Catholic Youth Camp (CYC) and attended St. Paul Seminary.

He was ordained in 1966 and served at the Cathedral of St. Paul until 1973, when he was appointed pastor at St. Michael’s in Stillwater. Stillwater was home until 1987, and his next assignment was pastor at St. Rita’s in Cottage Grove.

It was 1999 when Fitzgerald came to Centerville as St. Genevieve’s 23rd pastor. He’s been there ever since.

“I like to set down roots,” he said with a laugh. “It takes a while to get to know all the people. It’s been 13 years at St. Genevieve. I come, I stay, and then I leave.”

Fitzgerald’s love and knowledge of fishing is well known among the St. Genevieve parishioners.

The chef’s secret

He has a reputation for cooking up homemade sunfish dinners after he’s been on the lake. Each year, his sunfish dinner is raffled off at the St. Genevieve’s Parish Picnic silent auction — for big money.

The top bidder gets a sunfish dinner party for eight to 10 guests, prepared, served and blessed by the chef at his lakeside home by the church.

“No secret to it,” he said. “Just grind up saltine crackers, and dip them in there, don’t use egg. It’s a dry batter, but very light. And fry it really hot until brown and crispy. Then you taste the fish, and not the batter!”

Now the retired priest lives in White Bear Township. Fitzgerald said he’s getting used to being able to fish on days besides Thursday, which was always his day off.

“I still help out [at the church], but there’s no responsibility,” he said. “That’s a huge difference. I can preside over the eucharist, but then I can leave. And I do like that every weekend I’m out somewhere new. I get to go to all the other places, and see the different parishes. Every parish is different, and people are people.”

A fish story

Fitzgerald added that anglers are anglers.

They don’t expect to cast nets into the water and pull up fish just because a priest is in the boat. He remembered a day a few years ago when he really wanted the fishing to be good.

A local TV camera crew was tagging along to do a story on the fishing priest.

“It was the worst fishing of my whole life,” he said. “It was just awful. I pulled up one tiny fish, and that was it. But even though I’ve had some really good fishing days, I’ve had bad ones, too. But it’s still fishing.

“If you catch fish, great. If you don’t, well, you don’t. At least then you don’t have to clean them.”

Kelly Jo McDonnell is a Twin Cities freelance writer.

© 2011 Star Tribune