In many ways, it has been a long, strange year in America.

The same can be said about 2021 on the Iron Range.

But while COVID-19 dominated the headlines, locally there was more to the story than all doom and gloom.

And for a while, life returned to something approaching normal after 2020 changed the way we did everything.

Parades returned. Businesses reopened. Masks were put down.

Some of the changes were only temporary, and as summer rolled into fall, COVID — and it’s ever changing variants — once again took over the headlines.

Still, life went on in northern Minnesota.

The following is a brief look at some of the many local news stories that found their way to the front page of the Mesabi Tribune in 2021.

 

January

• A former Hibbing teacher admitted in court to sending lewd images to children in June 2020 and was ordered to undergo a psycosexual offender assessment before a February sentencing hearing. Jordan Michael Kochevar, now 28, plead guilty on Dec. 31, 2020, to two counts of sending sexual materials to children over the popular social media app Snapchat. A former sixth grade teacher at Lincoln Elementary School, he was placed on administrative leave by the Hibbing School District in mid-June. The school board accepted his resignation effective July 16.

• On Jan. 11, Bill Hanna, former executive editor of the Mesabi Daily News and an award-winning journalist, died at his home in Virginia/Mountain Iron.

He was 70 years old.

Hanna had been with the Mesabi Daily News, now Mesabi Tribune, from the mid-1980s until 2016, when he had a life-changing heart attack. He successfully underwent a heart transplant in 2017, receiving the heart of a young man who had died tragically. Later Hanna was diagnosed with terminal cancer, for which he had radiation and chemotherapy until December. He had been in hospice care since Dec. 24.

Hanna had been with the paper more than 30 years, joining the staff in the mid-1980s and serving as managing editor. He later was named editor and for the last several years had been executive editor. Among his awards was the Herman Roe Editorial Award given annually by the Minnesota Newspaper Association, in memory of Roe, publisher of the Northfield News.

 

February

• The Hibbing City Council voted 7-0 to buy new riot gear for police officers.

Also at the meeting, councilors passed a policy to authorize and require officers to wear body cameras. Hibbing Police Chief Steve Estey on Wednesday, Feb. 10, appeared at City Hall to ask for permission to buy $26,998 worth of “protective safety equipment” from Streicher’s police supply store in Minneapolis.

The council approved his request to purchase 23 black “riot duty” helmets with visors and gas mask shields; 23, 36-inch wood batons; 23 Avon PC50 “crowd control rated” gas masks; 27 canisters of “riot agent CS/CN/OC” AKA pepper spray; 28 “body riot” shields; forearm and elbow protectors, shin guards and gloves. The council also greenlighted his purchase of a “launcher: LMT 40mm 4-shot” and 100 double loop flex cuffs, among other items.

 

March

• The City of Virginia ended its COVID emergency plans in a step toward normalcy. Other cities soon followed.

• After seven years of working with the Hibbing Fire Department, Rossi Gangl became the new fire marshal of the nearly 30-member department.Hibbing’s fire marshal is responsible for public information, fire code inspection of 637 businesses, and public education, particularly teaching children about such things as fire safety, prevention and escape plans. And, of course, conducting fire investigations.

 

April

• Seventeen former residents of Mesabi Academy, a now-closed juvenile facility in northern Minnesota, have received $1.495 million as part of a legal settlement.

The former residents and their families sued Mesabi Academy’s parent company, Pennsylvania-based KidsPeace, in 2017, a year after APM Reports published a series of stories detailing abuse and neglect of kids at the Buhl, Minn., facility. KidsPeace closed Mesabi Academy a month after the stories were published.

 

May

• The Chisholm School Board selected a Side Lake Resident as its top pick to fill the superintendent and elementary principal position being vacated this spring.

In a unanimous vote, the board selected Adrian Norman out of the three finalists and has since made a tentative offer.

• After four decades of serving northern St. Louis County, the Virginia Family Resource Center announced it would suspend its emergency shelter services at the end of June, officials said.

The Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota has been using county funds to operate the 10-bed shelter in Virginia.

• St. Louis County attorney Mark Rubin announces that two St. Louis County sheriff’s deputies who shot and killed a Virginia man during a foot chase in the Mountain Iron woods on Dec. 5, 2020, were justified in doing so.

Rubin said the deputies, Ryan Smith and Matt Tomsich, “had been placed in a situation which necessitated the use of deadly force in the course of their work,” according to a news release. “Their actions taken in self-defense of themselves and each other” resulted in the death of 19-year-old Estavon Elioff.

Elioff died of “multiple gunshot wounds,” Rubin added, citing the autopsy from the Midwest Medical Examiner’s Office.

• A Minnesota Department of Natural Resources conservation officer died on duty after a two-vehicle crash near Grand Rapids.

Officer Sarah Grell, 39, of Cohasset, was identified by the agency Monday night as the victim of the crash. She was a 16-year veteran of the DNR and leaves behind a husband and three children.

“The sense of loss we feel right now is indescribable,” DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen said in a statement.. “We are heartbroken for her family. Our deepest sympathies and concerns are with them. Officer Grell leaves behind an incredible legacy of service to Minnesota’s people and natural resources.”

• State mineral leases for the Mesabi Metallics project in Nashwauk were officially terminated by Minnesota regulators after the company once again failed to meet several construction milestones and financial obligations, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources announced.

 

June

• Authorities charged a Hibbing man, Blake Andrew Stangel, 51, in the murder of 71-year-old Courtney Fenske in 2017. Law enforcement identified him as a former renter of Fenske and obtained a sample of his DNA. The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension said his DNA matched a sample found at the dated crime scene just southeast of Hibbing.

• Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan announced that Bhupesh Pattni, of Virginia, will move into the top seat in the courtroom after Sixth District Judge Mark Starr retired from his seat earlier in the year after serving more than 13 years.

• Huber Engineered Woods of Charlotte, N.C, in June announced plans to build a $440 million oriented strand board manufacturing plant in Cohasset. The 750,000 square-foot facility would employ 158 directly and support 300 to 400 construction jobs.

• Heliene, Inc., in June announced a $21 expansion of its solar photovoltaic module manufacturing facility in Mountain Iron. The expansion, named the Sen. David J. Tomassoni Solar Manufacturing Facility, will create 60 new jobs.

 

July

• Multiple fire departments responded to the fire around 10:55 a.m. between Pep’s Bake Shop and Rocks The Jewelers on the 300 block of Chestnut Street.

Firefighters attempted to reach the fire from the inside but safety concerns halted those plans.

Flames roared through the top of the building, evacuating nearby businesses and closing off a block of downtown Virginia as crews fought the blaze and bystanders took photos, videos and provided water bottles to first responders.

• Iron Trail Motors made the largest donation in the history of its company Tuesday to secure naming rights to the new Miners Event and Convention Center in Virginia.

The $1.1 million contribution to the project over the next 20 years was revealed Tuesday night at the Virginia City Council meeting.

With the naming rights secured, the MECC will be known as the Iron Trail Motors Event Center.

• The annual Ely Blueberry/Art Festival was forced to close early when a massive windstorm ripped through town — just after the first day of the annual celebration had concluded — with gusts reaching more than 70 mph. About two-thirds of the vendor booths set up at Ely’s Whiteside Park were moderately to completely damaged, along with much of the handmade merchandise.

 

August

• Longtime St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin announced his announcement, effective Sept. 30. It comes a little over a year before his current term as St. Louis County Attorney is set to expire, but, as Rubin wrote in the letter, “43 years is enough. I’m going to join my wife Nancy in retirement.”

The Duluth native, who was elected County Attorney in 2010 and re-elected twice since, started his career as an Assistant County Attorney in 1978, and with the exception of two years spent in private practice during the late 1980s, he has worked in that office ever since.

• The lightning-caused fire broke out Aug. 15 about 10 miles southwest of Isabella. The Greenwood Fire, as it would be called, burned for much of the fall as dry conditions and wind pushed it hard. Hundreds of fire fighting personnel from across the state and country fought the blaze, which would eventually burn nearly 30,000 acres. There were several other wildfires in the area during the fall, a few of which caused temporary closures of the BWCAW, and parts of Superior National Forest.

• A new building for the East Range Academy of Technology & Science began construction adjacent to Lake Country Power in Mountain Iron. The 24,000 square-foot energy efficient school replaces a facility in Progress Park and temporary space in Uptown Virginia.

• Hibbing’s Inclusive Community Playground has its Aug. 12 grand opening at the Greenhaven Elementary School. More than $250,000 was raised in the last two years with the main goal of constructing an inclusive playground. The project initially stemmed from a $10,000 overage in the Greenhaven Parent Teacher Organization (GPTO) budget in April of 2019.

 

September

• A headline in Mesabi Tribune reads: “Workers are on a ‘mad dash to the finish line’’ as the Iron Trail Motors Event Center nears completion in Virginia.

While “icing-on-the-cake finish work’’ still has to be done, the $38 million center will begin its grand opening ceremonies and events the following Monday.

While ground was technically broken on the $2.5 million Dr. Ben Owens Stadium/Cheever Field project in August, officials and students from Hibbing High School made it official during a short ceremony at the complex in September.

“It’s been a long and exciting journey to see this much needed project that benefits our students and community finally come to fruition,” Hibbing Superintendent Richard Aldrich told a crowd of about 75 people, which included members of the band and choir, some faculty and staff, members of the school board, and Sen. Dave Tomassoni, among others.

• Virginia native Sen. Paul Gazelka in September announced his candidacy for Minnesota governor. Gazelka graduated from Roosevelt High School in Virginia in 1978, was captain of the basketball team and later worked at Minntac Mine in Mountain Iron.

• In an effort to slow the spread of COVID, the Hibbing School Board passed a formal resolution mandating masks for all who enter the district’s buildings for the 2021-22 school year.

The resolution passed on a 5 to 1 vote with no discussion, with only board member Mike Egan voting no.

• A week later the Rock Ridge School Board narrowly approved putting required masking into place after a lengthy discussion and comments from a crowd of more than 100.

After a motion to implement face coverings (masks) by board member Matt Sjoberg and supported by board member Tom Tammaro, the vote was 5-4 in favor. Brandi Lautigar, Bill Addy, John Uhan and Pollyann Sorcan voted against. Board members Murray Anderson, Tim Riordan and Stacey Sundquist voted for the new RR COVID-19 policy.

• Iron Range native Kim Maki was sworn in as St. Louis County Attorney.

Maki, who has been the head of the county’s civil division since 2012, replaced Rubin, who announced his retirement in August.

• The Mesabi Tribune announces that two longtime employees were taking over lead positions at the paper. Jim Romsaas was named editor and Jesse White was named managing editor.

 

October

• The Rock Ridge School District was sued by a group of concerned parents seeking a court order to cease implementation of its COVID-19 mitigation plan  — and specifically the portion which requires students to wear face coverings/masks while in any district facility or attending any indoor event.

The complaint was filed Monday afternoon in Sixth District Court in Virginia, as was a notice of a motion for a temporary restraining order. Later in the month a Sixth District Judge in Virginia denied the restraining order and shortly after that the parent group ended their lawsuit.

 

November

Nearly three years after shooting and killing 34 year-old Jeryel McBeth outside of a home on Third Avenue in Hibbing on Christmas day 2018, Jerome Spann has been sentenced to life in prison without possibility of release.

Spann, who shot and wounded a second individual the night in question, McBeth’s nephew Jamien Stuckey, was also sentenced to 36 months for second degree assault, with credit for 1,059 days served, which Sullivan said would run concurrent with the murder sentence.

Spann was found guilty by Sullivan in September of two counts of murder — first-degree premedicated and second-degree murder and another count of second-degree assault — after a bench trial.

 

December

• Northeastern Minnesota's six taconite plants were projected to finish 2021 with about 38.7 million tons of iron ore pellets produced, up from 30.1 million tons in 2020. Production in 2022 is expected to be about the same as 2021.

• The Nashwauk-Keewatin School District in December received support from the Minnesota Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation for construction of a new $42 million PreK-12 school. District voters on February 8 will cast ballots on a local referendum which would help fund construction.

• Hibbing Public Utilities in December re-fired a biomass boiler which burns wood chips to provide steam and electricity to its customers. The boiler had been idle for several years.

• Blue Cross said it will sell its 60,000 square-foot customer service and claims processing center in Virginia. With decreased need for a large physical space, Blue Cross said the company is looking for a smaller space on the Iron Range.

• A team working on bringing a maternity home to Hibbing was delivered some good news last week. On Dec. 20 the Board of Directors for the non-profit Together for Life Northland approved a proposed expansion of the Star of the North Maternity Home to open a second location in Hibbing. A timeline and specific details of the expansion are still in the works.

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