Rising From The Ashes

Posted on March 29th, 2018 by

Twenty years ago today, March 29, 5:30 PM, Steve Wilkinson’s birthday, the future of Tennis and Life Camps was in question.

A mile wide tornado, the largest in Minnesota history, ripped through St. Peter and Gustavus Adolphus College leaving an eerie nothing in its wake.  90% of all the trees in town and on campus were destroyed.  80% of all the windows on campus were blown out.  Buildings were beyond repair.  600 homes in town were destroyed or severely damaged.  And the Swanson Tennis Center bubble was in shreds with twisted metal and flapping fabric.

View from the inside observation deck in Swanson after the tornado

That day, as the sirens blew, 16 people were playing tennis inside the bubble.  They took refuge in the Aasen classroom, named after David Aasen, one of TLC’s most beloved instructors, and his brother Eric, both of whom had passed away in a Thanksgiving car accident a few years prior.  When the players emerged and looked up, all they saw was sky.  And carnage.  Everything blown to pieces.  Without the Aasen classroom, they, too, would have been gone.

My spouse, Leandra, and I were in Detroit finishing a concert tour (what I did for 25 years during the school year before becoming full time director of TLC) and received a phone message from my mother-in-law saying there had been a tornado in St. Peter.  We thought, maybe a barn blew down.  We flew home, opened the morning paper, and saw utter devastation.

Work crew taking a break outside the Aasen Classroom

We immediately hopped in our car and headed down to help Barb Wilkinson.  Steve was out of town on the Gustavus Men’s Team Spring Trip.  When we arrived at the city limits, police and National Guard were turning everyone away, unless they had a specific person in need.  They let us through and all I remember is trying to find a street that would get us to Barb.  Everything was blocked by hundred-year-old elms that were strewn about like toothpicks.  It looked like a war zone.  When we got there, the weather, which had been balmy when the tornado hit, had turned back to “Minnesota”.  A combination of snow and sleet that left our fingers and feet numb as we picked through the wreckage of the tennis center looking for things to salvage.  It was one of the most discouraging days of my life.

Neal & Leandra following the rules by only exiting where it says “Exit”

Yet, there was Barb, picking up, pulling out, dragging around debris like a lumberjack.  Barb has the physique, as you know, that would never be described as lumberjack-ish.  But she has the strength and heart and the will of one.  Her determination during that day was one of “We will not be defeated”.  And everyone – myself, Leandra, Barb and Steve’s daughters Stephanie & Deb, and friends – gained courage.

Steve always said focus on the things you can control and let go of the rest.  Barb was not focusing on the storm (out of her control), the destruction (out of her control), or what may or may not come to pass (out of her control).  She was focused on “now”.  What can we do “now”?  And we all followed her lead.  She was fearless.  And when we became discouraged, we just had to look at her and marvel before we put our heads down and started picking through more debris.

Even after tornadoes, there is still ball pick-up duty

The question became, though, what happens to TLC?  Quickly the college made a plan to restore campus.  But that meant all summer programs had to be cancelled.

Most camps can be moved to other locations.  There are gyms everywhere for basketball, rooms and facilities for music.  But a tennis camp of the magnitude of TLC with a need for both outdoor and indoor courts, and with residential capability? Moving the entire operation within an eight week time frame?  Impossible.

In the after shock of the breadth of the destruction, every possible scenario crossed Steve’s and Barb’s minds.  Shut down the camp for the summer and leave 40 people without jobs?  Shut down for good?  Move to Mankato and shuttle campers back and forth?  Move to other colleges without indoor facilities?  Nothing was even close to ideal.
 

The remains of the Ylinen Lounge

Then came the call to Steve and Barb from Paul Brosnahan in Winona.  Paul had played with Steve often and admired all he and Barb had done, and would become a TLC family camper with his entire family for years.  He said, “We have a facility in Winona that might work.”  It was the old St. Theresa’s campus that was no longer being used and was going to be vacant that summer.  It had four indoor courts and eight outdoor courts, a slightly smaller setting than we were used to, but otherwise perfect.  AND, it had residence halls.  Meals were cooked for TLC on campus.

Steve and Barb, on a leap of faith, moved the entire operation to Winona, hoping campers would follow.  Remarkably, they did.  And our one summer exile from Gustavus was filled with hospitality, graciousness, and joy.  All from a city that welcomed TLC with open arms.

Barb and Steve Wilkinson carry on TLC’s mission

Steve and Barb kept on every staff member they had offered a job to.  They hauled everything to Winona in U-Hauls.  And TLC rose from the ashes.  The bubble went back up at Gustavus.  The fences were restored, the courts resurfaced, and the following year, we returned to Gustavus.

Twenty years later, here we are, a non-profit, thanks to the generosity of Steve and Barb. They donated this camp to Gustavus so future generations can come together and have fun, and discover what is and is not within their control; to accept what they can’t change and change what they can; to focus on the Three Crowns™ of Positive Attitude, Full Effort, and Good Sportsmanship, even when the world feels like it is falling down around you.

TLC was at risk twenty years ago today. But, thanks to two people who said, “We can do this,” it thrived.

And now, the next bubble is being raised this fall. The remodeled facility will highlight all that TLC has meant to the world. People are coming together like they did after the tornado to raise $4 million for scholarship and facility endowments to ensure that when the next tornado comes through – literally or figuratively – TLC will be protected by those who are carrying on the legacy.

Tornado damage photo credit: Barb Wilkinson

TLC at Gustavus today

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5 Comments

  1. Diane Marsh says:

    I can easily see Barb doing as you described, and Steve and everyone finding the perfect solution. Love your stories!

  2. jim lindsay says:

    I went to Carleton College in Northfeild, Mn. Did the storm hit that area too? I was in the Class of 1965. Jim L

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      Hi Jim, No it didn’t hit Carleton or St. Olaf in Northfield. But both colleges sent busses of students to help Gustavus. It was wonderful to see…

  3. Jeff Vanhattum says:

    Great comeback, TLC!

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