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Voyageur's Best Features of 2003

Matt Bradford

A community, still reeling, suffers yet another loss
Cromwell-Wright residents are struck another blow
by John Grones  |  August 19, 2003

‘Numb’ is about the only way to describe the community’s reaction after learning that another young person died in a car accident this past week. Matt Bradford, 18, was driving when his car collided head-on with another vehicle on Mon., Aug. 11. Matt, along with his friend, Jessica Hayes, of Sturgeon Lake, was killed. Sarah Huntington of Moose Lake was also in the car, and was injured. The accident happened on Carlton County Rd. 61, near Moose Lake.

Once again, the students of Cromwell/Wright gathered at the Bethany Lutheran Church in Cromwell for a candlelight service to grieve the loss of another friend. It is the fourth death of a young person connected with the school in just over 13 months. “Percentage-wise, it is just unreal,” exclaimed high school principal, JoAnn Bloemendaal-Gruett. It is hard to believe. Four deaths... four seperate incidents... in just 13 months... and a school population, K-12, that averages 300 students.
The age of these students is what has made this past year so difficult. They were only 14 to 18 years old. Joe Niemi died in a swimming accident on July 3, 2002. He was 18. Skye Rinta died in a car accident on Aug. 4, 2002. She was 14. Fred Wachter died in a car accident at age 16. And now 18-year-old Matt.

For one Cromwell student, the percentages are even more staggering. Dustin Rinta has lost three significant people in his life in one year. It started with the death of his sister, Skye, in Aug. of last year. Then his grandpa, Ron Koivisto, died of cancer shortly after, and now his best friend, Matt Bradford.

Dustin, along with several friends and classmates, spent the evening at the church, gathered around a table to remember Matt. It was a scene all too familiar for Pastor Matt Saarem, who has been there for the kids these past 13 months. He, too, appeared a little ‘numb’ over the situation, and struggled to find the words to say in such a time.

Words were not necessary because the kids had heard it all before. They cried, prayed, lit a candle and proceeded to share memories of a friend who everyone described as, ‘the guy who could never get mad at anybody’. “He was the kind of guy that would come to school, notice somebody who was down and try to pick their spirits up,” said classmate Robby Larson.
“It was the smile,” added another friend, Tara Smith.

Everyone nodded, and the stories began to flow about this young man who seemed to always have an upbeat disposition. Dustin recalled that they practically hung out every day. He talked about the ‘Toyota’. Of course everyone knew what he was talking about, except for this reporter. He went on to explain, “It was the pickup without a cab. We went mud-bogging with it one day and Matt video-taped it. We watched it with his mom (Patty) yesterday. That was the first time anybody had seen the video.”

As the memories began to emerge, there were less tears and more laughter. Friend and classmate, Robby Larson, recalled Matt’s artistic side. “Matt was the cartoon guy in class. He drew square bodies with great big watermelon heads. He drew one for everybody in their yearbooks. My favorite was the one with big ears and glasses – that one was me!”

Everyone laughed.

Nickole Caspersen recalled the fact that Matt always called the skinny people in class “fat” and always referred to himself as pleasantly plump... “and fluffy,” added Dustin.

Everyone laughed again.

Then there was Matt’s favorite story that was told in bits and pieces by all his friends, because they had all heard it... several times. Apparently, Matt was staying at a theme park hotel. At some point, he decided he wanted to run out onto the balcony. Unfortunately, the sliding glass door was closed and he went through the glass. He had the scar on his wrist to prove it, and he showed everybody.

“He got free tickets for all the rides the rest of the week,” Tara Smith interjected.

“And it was his fault,” added Dustin. “He was so proud of that one.”

More laughter.

This wasn’t Matt’s only glass incident. It turns out Matt had another story he liked to tell, and another scar to go with it. Robby explained that Matt was playing with his sister in the house. “They were jumping from couch to couch and chair to chair when Matt landed on the coffee table with a glass top. He would show everyone the scar on his knee to prove it. He was proud of that one too.”

When it comes to proud Matt moments, the one that stood out in everybody’s mind was his feat on the football team. Everyone refers to it as the ‘two point conversion’. According to Robby, Matt always felt the team would be best served to put him in as a running back. His natural position was a lineman. “He never felt he was fast,” said Dustin, “but he said he was quick.” Well, after pleading with coach Bergstedt for quite some time, he finally got his chance. It was against Northland Remer, after the team secured a big enough lead. “He wanted a touchdown,” added Dustin, “but he had to settle for a two-point conversion. We watched the game tape after that, over and over, in slow motion.”

Everyone laughed again and Dustin eluded to how proud he was.

As the evening wore on, so did the stories. The table had now grown to include the principal, Mrs. Bloemendaal, and Matt’s grandmother and aunt from Montana. Matt’s grandmother, Gail Bradford, couldn’t help but notice the process the kids were going through to grieve the loss of their friend. She knew they had been through this before. She commented on how important it was for them to share and to laugh and to heal.

Matt’s classmate, Molly Asp, shared a final memory that summed up Matt. “He was everyone’s teddy bear,” and then Grandma Gail shared hers...

“He was a great, big, teddy bear. He gave great hugs.”

Another tear. Another proud moment for Matt.

His funeral was held Sat., Aug. 16, 2003, at Bethany Lutheran Church in Cromwell, and Matt was laid to rest in Lakeview Cemetery in Wright.

For the family, close friends and acquaintances, the Cromwell-Wright community, and the communities nearby who have witnessed the string of tragedies, there can only be a hope that the healing process can begin and go forward, uninterrupted.
In the meantime, they’ll stick together, and support each other, as they’ve always done...

... and share memories and hugs.

This article first appeared in the August 19, 2003 issue of the Voyageur Press.