MPR News' most memorable stories from 2019

Shawna Olson and her 19-month-old daughter Ariya.
Shawna Olson and her daughter Ariya of the Brokenhead Ojibway Nation of Manitoba, Canada, stand in their Jingle Dresses at the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Grand Celebration Powwow in Hinckley, Minn. earlier this year. "Ever since I've been walking, that's how long I've been dancing," Olson said.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

Whew, what a year it has been.

Politics and impeachment have filled our airwaves and our headlines on But it’s the collection of stories about the beauty of our state, our strength of our will and the resiliency of our people that round out our most memorable stories of 2019.

Once-threatened peregrines flying high across Minnesota

By Euan Kerr

A peregrine falcon chick rests in the hands of Kurt Mead.
A peregrine falcon chick rests in the hands of Minnesota Department of Natural Resources interpretive naturalist Kurt Mead at Tettegouche State Park near Silver Bay, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News file

I have had a soft spot for peregrines ever since my first story for what was then National Public Radio back in the 1980s about the nesting pair on the top of the Multifoods Building in downtown Minneapolis. So it was great fun to head up to Tettagouche State Park over the summer to watch the banding of chicks nestling on a ledge on one of the magnificent cliffs overlooking Lake Superior. The sound was great as the chicks complained and the parents dive-bombed the climbers sent to borrow the youngsters for banding.

And on top of that we had the great Go-Pro recovery story, as the video camera our photographer Derek Montgomery put on a climber’s helmet first went for an unexpected dip, and then made an even more unexpected recovery. Derek’s still shots are amazing too.

Cold got you thinking about where to retire? Arizona is tops for snowbirds

By Martin Moylan

Portia Ramos (left), Jawn McKinley (center) and John Neville (right)
Jawn McKinley (center) and John Neville (right) lived in Minnesota for three decades but moved to Arizona after retirement. Their friend, Portia Ramos (left), who is a fourth-generation Minnesotan, likes Arizona but will not move from Minnesota.
Martin Moylan | MPR News

Some people might expect Minnesota would lose a ton of people when they reach retirement age. But Minnesotans overwhelming just stay put and chill, as need be.

She's one of Minnesota’s hardest-working midwives. Try to keep up

By Catharine Richert

A woman touches her nose to a baby's nose.
Midwife Rebekah Knapp of Fertile, Minn., has attended the birth of more than 800 children, including 2-day-old Justus Snyder and 6-year-old Raya Snyder.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR News file

Within five minutes of my first conversation with midwife Rebekah Knapp, I knew I wanted to profile her. For starters, she lives in Fertile, Minn. (How many midwives do you know who live in Fertile, Minn.?)

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We ended up speaking over the phone for an hour about her practice, her work with Amish families, and her views on Minnesota’s unusual licensing rules for midwives who deliver babies at home.

In August, I spent the day with Rebekah going from appointment to appointment. This assignment brought me to places I’d never been before, introduced me to isolated communities I’d never met before, and took me outside my comfort zone as a reporter in a million other ways.

10 years after viral video, St. Paul's 'JK wedding' couple still dancing

By Nancy Yang

Kevin Heinz and Jillian Peterson with children Calvin, Vivian and Baron.
Kevin Heinz, Jillian Peterson and their three children earlier this summer.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News file

I’m pretty sure I’m responsible for 2 million of the 99 million views this video has racked up over the last decade. A few years ago, another reporter introduced me in passing to the “J” in the wedding video, and I couldn’t help but wonder what she and “K” were up to now. Were they still married? Did they ever watch the video? Did they get to meet the cast of “The Office,” which spoofed the clip?

With this story, I got all those answers and more. It turns out they are living their best lives with their three beautiful, precocious children in St. Paul.

Excuse me for a minute, I’ve got to go and watch viewing No. 2,000,0001 of this video…

NFL catch? Twin Cities native preps for a shot at the pros

By Jim Bickal

Jesper Horsted carries the ball in a game against Harvard in 2018.
Princeton University wide receiver Jesper Horsted carries the ball in a game against Harvard University on Oct. 20, 2018.
Patrick Tewey | Courtesy of Princeton Athletics 2018

Roseville native Jesper Horsted was finishing his senior year at Princeton University and hoping to get a shot at playing in the NFL. I’ve long been fascinated by how professional football teams evaluate players ahead of the draft. Jesper shared some interesting insights into the physical and psychological tests the teams use and how athletes prepare for them.

The piece was setting up a “pro day” workout at Princeton where Jesper would be able to demonstrate his ability to representatives from some NFL teams. He pulled a hamstring muscle during the workout and didn’t end up being drafted.

He was invited to training camp by the Chicago Bears, but was considered a long shot to make the team. He made some impressive plays during preseason games and was offered a nonroster spot on the practice squad.

When a couple of the other tight ends on the Bears got hurt, Jesper was promoted to the active roster. On Thanksgiving, he made a spectacular touchdown catch against the Detroit Lions during a nationally televised game.

'Pure love on the dance floor': Celebrating the jingle dress tradition

By Tim Nelson

Mikah Whitecloud of the Red Lake Nation and Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.
Mikah Whitecloud of the Red Lake Nation and Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma has been a Jingle Dress dancer her whole life and has over 570 jingles on her dress, all hand rolled from the lids of Copenhagen tobacco tins.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

My favorite stories are those that touch on what’s uniquely Minnesotan and this really spoke to me, as I learned about the origins of this Native American tradition. But I also got to literally walk among the dancers at the pow wow in Hinckley, see some of the very earliest examples of the dresses at the Mille Lacs Indian Museum and talk with one of the nation’s premier scholars on Native American history, as well as a prolific jingle dress artist.

Every single Minnesotan has reason to be proud to live where this rich tradition began and goes on so vitally today.

Football Gophers drill down on sleep and win

By Emily Bright

Gophers players celebrate defeating the Maryland Terrapins.
The Minnesota Gophers celebrate defeating the Maryland Terrapins.
Hannah Foslien | Getty Images file

A timely story when the Gophers were just about to break the top 10 (for the first time) that combines sports with academic research on the power of sleep. This story had an actionable tie-in to something every person can do: Get more sleep to improve performance.

Requiem for Lobo, the misunderstood killer wolf of Bemidji

By John Enger

Lobo's stuffed remains on display at Morrell’s Chippewa Trading Post.
Lobo the wolf's stuffed remains were displayed for decades in a glass box outside Morrell's Chippewa Trading Post in Bemidji, Minn.
John Enger | MPR News

The body of Lobo The Deer Killing Wolf stood for decades in a glass box in Bemidji, getting progressively more decrepit. Now he’s been laid to rest.

I find the story memorable for two reasons. By the end, Lobo’s taxidermied face was startling, and a bit nightmarish. Hard to forget. But when I dug a bit deeper, his narrative was heartbreaking, and riveting in it’s own right. Lobo became famous for killing dozens of deer. He was considered a monster. The real story is one of fear and persecution. Local tribe members view his stuffed body as a metaphor for the colonization of their people.

ChangeMakers: Black Minnesotans making history

By Evan Frost and Christine T. Nguyen

Retired Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page sits for a portrait.
Retired state Supreme Court Justice Alan Page was one of the Minnesotans spotlighted in our ChangeMaker series.
Evan Frost | MPR News

In celebration of Black History Month, we profiled 20 black Minnesotans — from a black improv group to a retired Minnesota Supreme Court Justice — who are making history right now across the state. Each profile explored what being black in Minnesota means to them, their background and their hopes for the future.

It was important for us to take a step back and let each person tell their own stories in their own words as a way to combat problematic narratives. A priority for us as journalists is to bring our audience as close to our communities’ stories as we can, and sometimes that is best achieved by removing your own voice completely.

Missing Wis. teen Jayme Closs found alive

By Matt Sepic

Barron, Wis., school bus driver Amy Stone.
Barron, Wis., school bus driver Amy Stone, put a tree in her yard to honor Jayme Closs while she was missing. It remained until she was found alive.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

The escape from captivity of teenager Jayme Closs, who was kidnapped and held for 88 days by a Wisconsin man, was a remarkable ending to a tragedy that began with the murder of her parents in October 2018. I reported on the early efforts of Jayme’s neighbors to find evidence related to her disappearance, her courageous escape on Jan. 11, and the subsequent prosecution of her captor.

These tragedies, particularly when children are involved, can be physically and emotionally exhausting to cover. It was great to have a wonderful team of editors, producers and fellow reporters at my side to ensure our coverage was accurate, informative to our audience, and respectful to Jayme and her family.

Search for Jayme Closs
Barron County (Wis.) Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald speaks during a 2018 news conference.
Jerry Holt | Star Tribune via AP 2018

Update: At the one-year anniversary of her abduction, Closs, then 14, issued a statement and said she was feeling stronger every day and was thankful for the kindness and concern expressed to her from people all over the country. Her captor, Jake Patterson, now 22, is serving a life sentence in the murders and abduction. He was transferred to an out-of-state prison for his safety.

56 feet above Lake Superior, lighthouse buyer finds the beauty of life on the edge

By Dan Kraker

Three people walk to a lighthouse.
Coast Guard seaman Meyin Klin (left) and Petty Officer Eduardo Gutierrez (center) walk with Steven Broudy (right) to the Superior Entry Lighthouse in October in Superior, Wis.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News 2018

There is no driveway, not even a sidewalk, to Steven Broudy's new home away from home.

To get there requires a long drive through a narrow canopy of trees, then a 10-minute scamper down a third-of-a-mile-long breakwater at the end of Wisconsin Point — first over mammoth boulders, then along a thick concrete pier that juts 9 feet out of the water.

There, rising nearly six stories above Lake Superior, stands the Superior Entry Lighthouse, built in 1913 to help guide ships into the Duluth-Superior harbor. And now it’s his.

Update: Broudy said his family and friends still think he’s “a little crazy.” The work, he said, is going a little slow but is steady. “We're in the final steps of securing an architect who has extensive historical restoration (and even, lighthouse restoration) experience.”

Once the plans are drafted and they are approved, the work on the lighthouse can move forward. “Ideally we can get done in time to secure a front-row seat for the freeze, come winter of 2020!”

UnitedHealth clients needed more mental health care; United said no

By Alisa Roth

DeeDee Tillitt remembers her son Max as always wanting to help others.
DeeDee Tillitt (left) remembers her son, Max. His story is part of a 50,000-person class-action lawsuit in California challenging UnitedHealthcare's standards for behavioral care.
Courtesy of DeeDee Tillitt

UnitedHealth is the largest private insurer in the country, and it’s been fascinating to watch the fight over how it covers clients’ behavioral health care. I was amazed when these stories aired just how many people I heard from — from all over the country — who had had bad experiences getting their mental health care paid for. And it wasn’t just clients; I heard from a lot of providers, too, saying they’d had trouble registering to work with them.

Update: Plaintiffs in this case are waiting on a final decision from the judge about what changes they can expect. This fall, three treatment centers — one in Florida and two in California — filed a lawsuit suing the company for over $5 million in claims they say the company wrongly denied. They are hoping to get class-action status for that case, too.

Josie Johnson's memoir details life of a gracious fighter

By Marianne Combs

Dr. Josie R. Johnson has a new memoir out called "Hope in the Struggle."
Civil rights activist and education advocate Dr. Josie R. Johnson in 2019.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Getting to see American history through the eyes of Josie Johson — someone who spent her life working on it from abolishing poll taxes to the election of Barack Obama — was an absolute honor. Her memoir brings into sharp relief how much has changed in the last century and how far we still have to go.

And her own actions — day in and day out for more than seven decades — show how much one person can accomplish when they act with love.

Hmong immigrants helped save this prairie town, but now their children are leaving

By Jon Collins

A man and woman stand under a tent outside to get food from aluminum trays
Kou Thao (center) and his wife, Khou Lor (right), select food during the open house celebration for the Agape Hmong Alliance Church in Walnut Grove, Minn.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News file

This story was a collaboration between MPR News and the Sahan Journal, which my friend and colleague Mukhtar Ibrahim relaunched this year to focus on serving immigrant communities in the state. It was an opportunity for me and photographer Christine Nguyen to get out of the Twin Cities and profile a community that burst preconceptions about who is a rural Minnesotan.

As journalists, we often gravitate to stories about “firsts” or other novelties. But Hmong American people had decades-long roots in the region. They’d risen to positions of leadership. The grocery store stocked fish sauce near Hamburger Helper. So, Walnut Grove became a story about the universal struggle in rural America, between young people seeking out opportunities elsewhere, and the elders trying to preserve the communities they knew.