Local community feels like losses piling up

FAIRMONT – “Our deepest sympathies …”

It’s a sentiment Fairmont Opera House manager Kathi Peterson has been using frequently the past couple of weeks, along with many others in Fairmont who are mourning the recent loss of several prominent community members.

Mike Foster, Diane Draper, Essie Edman, Keith Wilken. All were actively involved in the community and all can be linked by their connection to the Opera House and their passion for the arts.

On Thursday, Mike Foster died at age 54, surrounded by his loved ones at his home.

The details of the cancer that took his life, as well as his sense of humor, faith in God, and devotion to his family, were followed by many through his Caring Bridge web page.

Foster volunteered for years at the Opera House, quietly slipping in and out the door to run the lights and sound, often unseen.

“Mike was always willing to help. He was generous with his time, very family-oriented. He and Deb (his wife) were just the perfect couple. They always had good things to say about each other,” Peterson said.

When applying this spring for a grant, she had sent Foster an email, asking him how he would spend $15,000 on technology improvements at the venue, not realizing he had been diagnosed with cancer of the lung, which had spread to his liver and spine.

“I didn’t know he was sick, and here he was, still helping out,” she said.

In addition to volunteering at the Opera House, Foster was involved with Civic Summer Theatre, acting in plays and running the light and sound systems, and he also donated his technical skills to assist Fairmont Convention & Visitors Bureau, Fairmont High School theater productions and Grace Lutheran Church. His civic commitments included membership with the Fairmont Jaycees, Uptown Kiwanis, Fairmont Glows, Fairmont Festival and Events Committee, Salvation Army board, and the Minnesota DFL party.

“Those people, those dedicated, reliable volunteers, are hard to find, and when you do find them, you want to hold on to them and make sure they know how appreciated they are,” Peterson said, her composure slipping for a moment.

The death of Diane Draper, 52, was another hard blow. Draper died at her home in Fairmont on Tuesday.

“That was my flapper dress when I danced with Diane,” said Peterson, pointing to a costume decorating her office. “I think hers was purple.”

That was in the mid-1990s, when the Fairmont Flappers would help with bus tours that came through town to visit Fairmont Opera House. The participants would play various parts and give the history of the venue, sharing many a laugh in the process.

Draper and her husband Jim owned and operated Lake Sisseton Saloon in Fairmont from 2006-2012, hosting many live outdoor music events in the summer months. The family could frequently be seen out their boat, children and grandkids in tow, enjoying Fairmont’s lakes.

Esther Edman, 92, known by her nickname of “Essie,” died July 31 at Ingleside Quality Assisted Living in Fairmont, with her children at her side.

Edman’s role at the Opera House dates back to the historic building’s resurrection in the early 1980s. She was on the first fundraising committee and served on the financial board. Edman also was one of the founding members of the Stage Hands, a group that disbanded just a few years ago.

The Stage Hands were a huge help to past Opera House directors. They helped not with setting up the stage, like their name would indicate, but in other small but important ways. They hosted a style show and card party as a fundraiser for the venue. They cleaned the kitchen and did laundry, lined up ushers and servers for the shows.

In addition to the Opera House, Edman was involved at Grace Lutheran Church in numerous capacities; she raised funds for Fairmont Community Hospital Foundation, served on the board for the foundation and Fairmont Hospital Auxiliary and volunteered at the hospital coffee shop for 45 years; and she was a charter member of Martin County Preservation Society and a Red Rock Center for the Arts board member.

“She was just a sweet, sweet lady,” said Peterson. “She volunteered everywhere.”

Keith Wilken, 68, of Fairmont died July 24 while swimming in Hook Lake near Hutchinson.

Wilken served as Fairmont Opera House board president from April 2006 through March 2010, guiding the venue through a tumultuous time in its recent history, when members voted to dip into the facility’s endowment principal in order to cover operating expenses and pay off debt.

“Keith was always positive, always a smile on his face, always full of ideas,” Peterson said.

When Peterson had to have surgery, Wilken came to visit her and asked if he could pray with her beforehand. That’s when she found out he was an ordained minister.

“It kind of touched my heart,” she said.

She laughed, recalling the time he dressed up in a pig costume for an Opera House pork feed fundraiser. He walked up and down the businesses on Downtown Plaza, encouraging people to come out and show their support.

“And then we lost him. We hadn’t seen him for hours, he was so busy talking to people,” she said, wiping tears of laughter from her eyes.

Wilken was not a man to sit still for long. He enjoyed acting, singing, water sports, volleyball, sledding and more. He was highly involved in Fairmont Evangelical Covenant Church, and served as a leader for 4-H, Civic Summer Theater and Dollars for Scholars.

Speaking of the recent deaths of these Fairmont figures, Peterson said: “They all are people who will be missed, so much, by the whole community.”