2016 top newsmakers

Staff reports
The Star News editorial staff has selected the following individuals as the 2016 Newsmakers of the Year.

John Cunningham
Elk River Fire Chief John Cunningham issued a challenge to the Elk River community on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terroristic attacks on America.


It was the year’s statewide and national headlines about racial unrest, attacks on gays and various forms of bullying and self-destruction that led Cunningham to call on all 23,000 Elk River residents to recognize who they are makes a difference and that it’s important to recognize those around us who make a difference.
As the 15th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, approached, the headlines got more troubling, and patriotism appeared to be fading in America.
“I remember watching the news unfold and seeing the death count rise as the news broke that there was an active shooter in a nightclub that was targeting gays,” Cunningham said. “For me that hurt.”
As a gay man, Cunningham found himself incensed. In talking to others about the Orlando shooting, the killing of Dallas police officers and the stories behind other tragic headlines, a host of issues – from bullying, discrimination, racial tension and socioeconomic disparities and addictions – came up.
“These are real issues that affect real people,” Cunningham said. “We need to get back on track as a country to acknowledge that we have much more in common with one another than differences.”
Cunningham issued this challenge: “As the community’s fire chief, I am issuing a challenge to everyone that calls Elk River home — that we empower people to live, dream and succeed in a culture of appreciation, respect and love. Let Elk River serve as a beacon of hope worldwide, because this is a fire that we never want to put out.
“So join me on this challenge to acknowledge people who have made an impact on your life and share those stories with me and our community and the world.”
The chief asked Elk River residents to visit erblueribbon.com to learn how they can meet this challenge. Information is available on the city’s Twitter, Facebook and Instagram pages; the handle for the pages is @ERBlueRibbon.
Cunningham’s hope is that people share their stories by tagging them with #erblueribbon.
Cunningham was first introduced to the blue ribbons after working at Ground Zero in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center. Seared into his mind are the actions of a young girl who broke free from a barricade, ducked underneath caution tape and ran up to him and a fellow friend and firefighter and handed them a blue ribbon that said, “Who I am makes a difference.”
“That moment I will never forget because it’s true,” Cunningham said. “Every single person can make an impact on the life of someone else; regardless of how small (an) act of kindness might seem, it can make the biggest difference in the lives of others.”

Ron Hustvedt, Julie Beaver, Erin Rehnblom


The National Council for the Social Studies named Ron Hustvedt Jr., a sixth- and seventh-grade teacher at Salk Middle School STEM Magnet Program at Salk Middle School in Elk River, Outstanding Middle Level Social Studies Teacher of the Year.


A teacher for the past 19 years, Hustvedt’s teaching is based on a spirit of student-centered inquiry where students regularly engage in asking meaningful questions and then acquiring, organizing, processing and coordinating appropriate information to take meaningful action.
This is not the first time Hustvedt has been a nationally recognized teacher of the year. In 2014, he was named the Magnet Schools of America Teacher of the Year. Hustvedt has also been the recipient of the Social Studies Teacher Team of Merit from the Minnesota Historical Society as well as the Minnesota Middle School Social Studies Teacher of the Year from the Minnesota Council for the Social Studies.


Meanwhile, two Elk River Area School District teachers were among the 11 finalists for Minnesota Teacher of the Year.
They were Erin Rehnblom, a first-grade teacher at Otsego Elementary School, and Julie Beaver, a precalculus and algebra teacher at Zimmerman Middle and High School.
Elk River Area School District officials believe this is the first time the district has ever had two finalists at once.

Jane Bunting


Jane Bunting resigned from her seat on the Elk River Area School Board, necessitating an August primary to fill her vacated post.
The Rogers woman did not seek a fourth year as chair woman of the seven-member board earlier this year, having decided such a leadership position had to take a back seat to her and husband Jay Bunting’s burgeoning business.

Mark Bezek and Bruce Watkins
Superintendent Mark Bezek announced his resignation on June 22 from the Elk River Area School District.


The 59-year-old administrator retired from his 34-year career as an educator in Minnesota and began a new one in Wisconsin, having accepted a position at the Somerset School District.
His 10-year anniversary with District 728 was on July 1. He started the summer of 2006 after the Elk River Area School Board had reached a settlement agreement to part ways with his predecessor, Alan Jensen.


The Elk River Area School Board selected Bruce Watkins, a former St. Cloud superintendent, to lead District 728 for the coming school year. He was the unanimous choice July 29 after interviewing what board members described as three really good candidates.
Before making a decision, they wrestled with who, of the two best, most experienced candidates – Watkins and former Anoka-Hennepin School District Superintendent Denny Carlson — should be their pick.

Jody Kreuser and Gail Ivers

Star News file photos Gail Ivers (right) donated a kidney to Jody Kreuser in 2016.
Star News file photos
Gail Ivers (right) donated a kidney to Jody Kreuser in 2016.

Gail Ivers gave the gift of life in 2016.
Ivers donated a kidney to Jody Kreuser in August. Kreuser’s kidneys were failing due to polycycstic kidney disease and Ivers stepped forward as a donor.
Ivers, of Zimmerman, and Kreuser, of Elk River, both work at Twin Lakes Elementary School in Elk River.
In an interview in September, Kreuser said: “Every single morning I thank God for Gail. I just feel so fortunate and so grateful.”

Jamie Dorff
Former Elk River resident Jamie Dorff spoke at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in July.
Dorff’s husband, Pat, was an Army helicopter pilot who died in 2004 in Iraq. He and a co-pilot had been on a search-and-rescue mission when their helicopter went down.


Dorff, who now lives in Texas, talked about how an increase in the amount paid to fallen veterans’ family members, from $12,000 to $100,000, helped her family. Hillary Clinton worked on that legislation as a senator.
“She stood up for the principle that a family’s personal tragedy must not be a financial tragedy as well,” Dorff told the convention.

Lori Johnson
Lori Johnson, who worked for the cities of Elk River and Otsego for three decades, has left for a job in Minneapolis.
Johnson resigned as Otsego’s city administrator in September to become the deputy chief finance officer for the city of Minneapolis.
Prior to working for Otsego, Johnson was Elk River’s city administrator.

Gregg Peppin


Gregg Peppin was elected to the Elk River Area School Board in a special election in August to fill a post previously held by Jane Bunting.
Before being elected, Peppin was critical of Superintendent Mark Bezek administration’s recommendation and the School Board’s subsequent vote to purchase the Minnesota School of Business for a school district office.
Since getting elected he has been studious and was recently able to reduce the school district’s levy and budget in a series of 11th hour discussions.

Nick Hoffman, Jill May, Sunday Burquest
Three people with ties to the Elk River area were part of national TV shows in 2016.


Nowthen native Nick Hoffman’s television show “Nick’s Wild Ride” premiered July 1 on the Outdoor Channel. The show features Hoffman traveling the world to explore the sights, sounds, food, culture and music of the places he hunts and fishes.


Jill (Pederson) May won the NBC competition reality TV show “Strong.” The show’s focus was on being healthy, fit and strong, and May’s body fat dropped from 31 percent to 12 percent and her resting heart rate from 84 to 55.
She is a Zimmerman native and 1998 graduate of Elk River High School now living in Willmar.


Sunday Burquest, a breast cancer survivor from Otsego, competed in Fiji on CBS’ “Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X” as a member of the Gen X team.
Burquest also is a pastor at Living Word Christian Center in Brooklyn Park.

Blake Hillman

Blake Hillman, who grew up in Elk River, helped the University of Denver men’s hockey team advance in March to its first Frozen Four in more than a decade.

File photo Blake Hillman third hockey player in Elk River history to be drafted into the NHL.
File photo
Blake Hillman third hockey player in Elk River history to be drafted into the NHL.

Hillman, a freshman defenseman, scored in both the West Regional semifinal and the final, and he and his teammates competed in Tampa, Florida, for a national championship.
He was named the West Regional’s Most Outstanding Player.
Then in June, the Chicago Blackhawks selected the Elk River grad and current Denver Pioneer in the sixth round, with the 173rd overall pick. Hillman is only the third player in the history of Elk River hockey to get drafted, along with Paul Martin, who recently played in the Stanley Cup, and Dan Hinote. Nate Prosser and Joel Otto both played in the NHL, but neither was drafted.