Good Neighbors are easy to find if you live by the Elmers

Posted 7/7/21

[email protected] This is one of those stories that, as a writer, creates all sorts of emotions tumbling around in you. Confusion, anxiety, fear, excitement, admiration, pride, inspiration, …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Good Neighbors are easy to find if you live by the Elmers


[email protected]

This is one of those stories that, as a writer, creates all sorts of emotions tumbling around in you. Confusion, anxiety, fear, excitement, admiration, pride, inspiration, sadness, joy, amazement and so many more that I cannot put into words. I’ve been sitting on this piece for a few weeks now, not really sure how to start, and ironically, I can hear Marie Elmer in my ear, with her thick German/ Luxembourgish accent telling me, ‘Just write one word at a time.’ See, the thing is, I did not know what I was walking into that Wednesday afternoon. It started with Friends in Need Food Shelf’s Former Board President, now Executive Director, Vickie Snyder sending me a simple email back in May.

Bruce I have an article idea for a local community article. Can you call me tomorrow?

VICKIE What does a reporter for a local paper say to that other than ‘how can I help you?” I’m always happy to learn more about the communities we serve and the people in them, let’s do it. But I did not know what ‘it’ was about.

It turns out, Ron and Marie Elmer are some pretty cool people that I was supposed to meet. Not because Snyder said so, because the universe said so. The confusion on what to write about in this article was because meeting these two, along with their daughter Annie Elmer, was such a strange and wonderful experience. I know that they had to be looking at me like I had no idea why I was there. They would have been right; I had no clue. I always have a plan when I go into an interview and for the first time in my life, I had nothing.

I say strange because of me feeling so out of sorts with no plan. The Elmers were so extremely kind and welcoming when I entered their home, a cute little rambler that looked like the ramblers built in the 60’s and 70’s. Their aging pup greeted me and then forgot I was there, the house was decorated with all sorts of clown figurines and paintings, and it had the feel of grandma’s house, so it felt comforting and welcoming.

We sat down at the dining room table to chat; Snyder explained how she met the Elmers. Ron and Marie have been very active donors in their 63 years in Cottage Grove. They have financially supported many local charities as well as physically supported them through in-kind donations of goods and work. Marie became involved with the food shelf around 2000 where she has helped organize donations to people in need. Ron, started knitting hats and gloves for people in need as a way to stay active after retiring as a mechanic.

“The Ninth of June, I landed in the Chicago airport, didn’t know anybody, was 18 going on 19,” explained Marie. “Two weeks before my 19th birthday.”

Then we did the math, that was in 1956, 65 years ago, she met Ron shortly after arriving because they have been married 65 years as well, Ron turns 88 this year.

Their story is an interesting one, one that cannot be properly told in even a fullpage story, but my lack of understanding why I was there started to become clearer as the conversation went on, but the confusion was redirected. As part of an explanation of an upcoming celebration, Marie was overcome with emotion.

“My major concern is [for others] to know that we are good neighbors,” a tearyeyed Marie said. How can that not be known? Their story has been told by other media entities, by countless students and families they have impacted, their neighbors have not changed over all that much, how could the Elmers not be known as great people? More importantly why is this something bothering Marie enough to point that out? Something stuck with me from the introductions made as I walked into the house. When I said hi to the dog, Marie said the dog ‘has cancer too.’ ‘Cancer too’… Meaning another in the home has cancer. Ron has two different forms of skin cancer, one cancer is scary enough at any age, two cancers must be terrifying for both the patient and the family. Then add the fact that Ron is a few years from 90, and it brings to light the feeling around the room. A feeling of time is not their friend.

Add in Annie’s story and you’ll see that this family has dealt with adversity for a very long time. Annie was diagnosed with HIV in the 90’s, she came out with her story in 1996, first to her work, then to the community. The advancements in HIV medicine have been a miracle for Annie, and she herself is following in her parent’s footsteps with being a generous person. Annie has been an outspoke supporter of comprehensive sex education in Minnesota and has been involved with the Red Ribbon Ride, Minnesota AIDS project and others.

The Red Ribbon Ride is a 100+ mile bike ride fundraiser that benefits three HIV/ AIDS service organizations in Minnesota: The Aliveness Project, One Heartland and Rural AIDS Action Network.

Learning this, the story started to come together. These giving folks give no matter what, no matter the adversity, no matter how far down they could be from the hand they were dealt, the look for a positive way to bring others up around themselves because that also brings them up. Spreading joy breed’s joy. Being kind is easier than being mean. A reminder that I needed to hear and see firsthand.

As that lesson was sinking in, Ron chimed in, and gave his story. He worked for American Airlines for 42 years as a mechanic and he knew he would need something to do when he retired. Working second shift, he had mornings free, so he became a meals on wheels driver. That lasted 30 years until the program ended. Inn 2000 he retired, and he thought about the knitting machines he had seen at the state fair. The engineering had always fascinated him. He found one at a liquidation store on Robert Street for $80 and all of a sudden, he was knitting a sweater.

“I went through it and it didn’t look too bad,” he chuckled. “I gave it to a lady at the bar, she called me back the next week and asked me to make one for her granddaughter, the same size, and I was on a roll.”

After that, he found information on an organization from St. Paul that gave you yarn to use to make mittens for St. Paul Schools. They gave him a pattern and some yarn and it was far too complicated, so he created his own design to knit mittens and hats and the rest is history.

“Do you wanna see it?” Ron Asked.

‘IT’ being his knitting machine in the basement. Of course! Down we went to his knitting room, a room that is probably 8×15 in size filled with yarn, his completed projects, and the machine! No, not Bert Kreischer the comedian, the knitting machine. Ron quickly sat down and began explaining how it works and the type of materials that he uses, and he began to light up as he recounts all the stuff he has produced for people from that machine. He figures he has made over 60,000 items in 30 years. 2,000 a year, an average of five and a half items per day. All for free.

Let that sink in for a moment. Over 30 years, the Elmers have given away over 60,000 knitted items they have created for free.

He demonstrated how the machine works and then he showed me his pile of items made, then they gave me a hat and a headband. It is a very sturdy, high quality hat that even fits my big head. I am looking forward to wearing it this winter.

After the machine demo and a few pictures, I was given a quick tour of his memorabilia from American Airlines. Some very cool, one-of-a-kind pieces that he was given upon his retirement. That is when, even though I could have stayed for hours just chatting with the Elmers, I knew I needed to keep delivering the papers as time was not on my side that day either.

We said our farewells and I thanked them for their time and then I sat in my truck for a few minutes trying to absorb all the information I was just given. I had just met some of the kindest and most giving people in Cottage Grove and I would have never been able to do that had I not taken this job and had I not received that simple email back in May. The Ironic part of this is, during my time as a garbage truck driver, I drove by them on Monday mornings for almost four years as they went for a walk, and I had no idea.

What I learned in that time I spent with them was about the impact that even the smallest things done in a great way can have on people. We all can make a difference in this world with a little time and energy, and we really have no excuse not to. We just need to do it before time runs out on us all.