You can judge a community’s heart by the way it treats our Eddies

The Easter ham and kolatchky were going down easily at my brother-in-law’s holiday gathering. Before Auntie Jan served up the strawberry-rhubarb pie, I mentioned the death of Eddie Wallin, and the stories started.

Eddie
Eddie Wallin and the three-wheel bike he received from an anonymous donor after his old one was stolen in 2008. File photo by Sun Thisweek.

I’m told the same thing happened at Babe’s sports bar in downtown Lakeville after Eddie’s funeral last month. Jeff Reisinger and his buddies exchanged Eddie stories over beer at Babe’s, laughing and recalling the times they shared with a guy you’d remember seeing if you spent any time in downtown Lakeville.

Reisinger’s sister found Eddie’s body when she checked on his apartment after he missed two straight bingo nights at the VFW.  Jeff asked his sister to check on Eddie because he hadn’t received a call from this gentle man we’d refer to these days as “developmentally disabled.” Reisinger, who runs a Lakeville lawn service, said he might have been more inclined than others to watch over Eddie because he had an older sister who was “mentally retarded” – the way we used to describe people with intellectual handicaps.

But while his family might have been sensitized to Eddie’s special needs by their own experience, Reisinger said he and others simply enjoyed banter with the big guy who rode through town on his three-wheel bike loaded up with cans he collected and sold for spending money.

“He called a lot of people in town,” Reisinger said. “Actually, if I was having a horrible day, I’d call him. But you couldn’t get him off the phone.”

At Babe’s, or the VFW, or at the ball fields in Lakeville, Eddie would spot one of the guys he knew since high school, and he’d shout out a nickname he had devised.

“He’d say, ‘Where’s Squirrel Brain?’” Reisinger said. “I was Oscar.”

Sure, the Lakeville gang would make some fun of Eddie, who was 54. But he gave as much guff as he got, and the locals would regularly pass the hat at Babe’s to collect funds they’d dole out to Eddie. They grew up with him and assumed responsibility for someone who was as much a part of downtown as the bars or the Ben Franklin or the park.

When I moved to Lakeville, I was corrected more than once when I referred to the city as a “suburb.” Technically, a city on the outskirts of a big city is a suburb. But some ‘burbs have elements others don’t. Among those elements are historic downtowns and, as someone said at our Easter dinner, history. Lakeville, which was founded as a village to serve the surrounding farms, has history in a way Apple Valley and Eagan, for example, don’t. And one of the people who will always be part of that history is Eddie Wallin.

After moving to Lakeville in 1999, I encountered Eddie many times while he was collecting his cans, chatting with customers at Moen’s Barber Shop, lining up for food at the Wednesday on Main events in the downtown park. My wife, Ann, had grown up on a farm near Lakeville, and her father, LeRoy Zweber, worked for many years as director of buildings and grounds for the schools. Ann said her father used to let Eddie help him when he worked on the school buildings. One day, LeRoy couldn’t find Eddie – until Eddie fell through the ceiling of a room where LeRoy was working.

Exploring the spaces above ceilings can be great fun.

Then there’s the story about the time Eddie’s car died on the way to a softball game in Mankato. The lesson to be drawn from that incident is if the engine starts when your buddies are towing you, don’t keep going.

Reisinger likes to tell about the time Rich Wensmann tossed a $10 bill on the floor at Babe’s to see if Eddie would pick it up. When he did, Rich said the money was his, Reisinger recalls. “I don’t see your name on it,” Eddie said, stuffing the bill into his pocket.

Oscar, Squirrel Brain and the others who grew up with Eddie made sure he had money, especially at holiday time. They dropped their cans off for him and passed the hat at Babe’s or the VFW. When Eddie’s three-wheeler was stolen in 2008, it was replaced by an anonymous donor after Lakeville police officers asked the media to write a story about the stolen bike.

As the father of a son with special needs, I salute those who understand, as Reisinger and many others in Lakeville did, that Eddie might have biked to a different drummer, but he did so with a smile on his face and a song in his heart.

One of the many messages left on the White Funeral Home online guest book was this one from Loren McCaghy of East Hampton, Conn.:

“Eddie will be forever inseparable from the memories of Lakeville for those who grew up there. Whether it was at the store, beach, pool or just around town, Eddie had a special way of making every day just a little bit brighter. Thanks, Eddie, for being Lakeville’s eternal sunshine.”

OK. I promise I’ll try to avoid calling Lakeville a suburb.

Larry Werner is editor and general manager of Sun Thisweek and the Dakota County Tribune. Columns reflect the opinion of the author.