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Earth Day: John Maattala's lasting legacy as an environmental advocate

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John Maattala often seemed larger than life.

A booming voice. A ready smile. A big heart.

He had a passion for helping people and was a tireless advocate for recycling and the environment.

This Earth Day, Maattala won’t be the familiar voice explaining the benefits of recycling or touting the tidy landfill just outside Brainerd. He died June 28, 2011. He was 57. He died about a month after he was diagnosed with an invariably fatal brain disorder that affects about one person in a million per year worldwide with just 200 cases annually in the United States.

Maattala, a longtime solid waste technician at the Crow Wing County landfill, had an inside view of the American consumer. The landfill offers volumes of data about what people buy and throw away. Even if it was a final spot for the unwanted, Maattala saw the beauty there as well. He rescued paintings from the throw pile and hung them inside a building landfill until it resembled an art museum. He found bikes that still had life in them and gave them to Kinship Partners.

After seeing a puppy destined for the pound, he convinced his at-first reluctant wife and sons to just take a look. They did and the black and white puppy, Minnie, was soon a member of the family. He looked at the positive side of life, although from his own history it would have been difficult to blame him for not taking that high path.

Maattala was born in Crosby to a large family which hit troubled times after his mother died. He was just 11. His younger siblings went to live with relatives while his older ones struck out on their own. When he was 16, his father died sending him on a path to foster homes and finally to living in a car while he attended his last year of high school. Then Crosby-Ironton coach, John Davies, looked after him.

After high school, Maattala joined the Air Force where he worked as a fuel specialist and later in the hazardous materials supply unit.

He once spent hour upon hour with a crew working by hand to clean up 20 tons of contaminated soil after an F-16 fighter pilot jettisoned a fuel tank in a remote wooded hillside in Europe. A citation for the effort called it an example of American ingenuity and strength of purpose.

Maattala found a calling as an advocate for recycling in the military and later as a civilian.

After more than 22 years in the service, the Gulf War veteran retired and came back to Crosby and Crow Wing County. He was looking for a job in the environmental field. John Ferrari, a fixture on the county board, told Maattala about a job opening. And in 1996, he joined the county staff.

“He was a great man,” said Darleen Wood, who along with Doug Morris, worked closely with Maattala for years at the Crow Wing County solid waste office. “We worked hard, but when it came time to laugh we laughed hard. I can’t say enough about him.”

Wood described Maattala as a strong family man and friend who found everything he was looking for when he met his future wife in Finland. He was stationed in Turkey then and visited family in Finland during the Christmas holiday. He met Marja-Leena Lehmikangas on New Year’s Eve in 1980. They were married six months later. Maattala passed away a few days shy of their 30th wedding anniversary.

Marja-Leena Maattala said her husband really got into recycling while they were stationed in Germany. A few times a year, the Germans would put out things they no longer wanted and neighbors could pick up treasures off the curb for reuse before the leftovers were collected for disposal. Maattala was able to implement shelves of items for reuse at the landfill’s Household Hazardous Waste Facility.

He loved motorcycles, cars, boats and practically anything with a motor. He may have been most proud of the multiple stations set up in the county so people could safely get rid of used motor oil.

“I think that was a big accomplishment,” Marja-Leena Maattala said.

About a year ago, Maattala, the man who was up by 4 a.m. everyday to exercise, was home and suffering from a stomach ache and feeling light headed. Multiple trips for medical treatment left him misdiagnosed. He got worse instead of better. His feelings of dizziness were attributed to vertigo and then to strokes. Then his memory began to fail.

Finally, a trip to Cuyuna Regional Medical Center in Crosby put him on the right track to see a neurologist. The prognosis was stunning. When the doctor pulled up a chair, they knew it was bad news.

The doctor believed Maattala was suffering from a rare and invariably fatal brain disorder — Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. That diagnosis, later confirmed, came in May. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, 90 percent of people die within a year of the onset of symptoms.

“At first you were totally numb,” Marja-Leena Maattala said. “Then you think he has only so many days, weeks or months to live.”

Maattala died about a month later. He knew what to expect after seeing a brother-in-law succumb to the same disease.

Family and friends came to visit, made the Maattala home in Baxter accessible by wheelchair, brought food and comfort. It was then Marja-Leena Maattala said she realized how many people her husband had touched.

“He was always helping everybody else,” she said. “He really always thought about everybody else.”

He didn’t wait to be asked, but showed up with lawn mower or snowblower when he knew someone needed a hand.

“I’m so grateful I had them,” Marja-Leena Maattala said of family and friends as she petted the coat of the now 11-year-old dog her husband saved from the pound.

“I miss him a lot,” she said.

Photos of her husband look out from the living room walls. Ever practical, when they got home after the diagnosis, Maattala went over every possible detail they would need to know, such as turning off the water to the house, after he was gone and urged them to write the directions down.

Ever the early riser, Maattala’s routine before he became ill was not to miss the daylight. He was up and making them breakfast each weekday morning as Marja-Leena Maattala finished getting ready for work.

Their family enjoyed traveling and cherishes the memory of a trip to Finland four years ago. Marja-Leena Maattala said invariably on their excursions, her husband had to see how different places handled their recycling. He’d take photos and make the landfills a must-see stop along the way.

“Then he’d always say ‘Crow Wing County’s recycling program is better than what you guys have.’”

And it remains part of his legacy of work here on this Earth Day.

“He was always willing to assist people,” Morris said. “He truly loved helping the residents of Crow Wing County, the place he was born. He has helped make the county a cleaner and a better environmental shape due to his actions.”

RENEE RICHARDSON may be reached at 855-5852 or Follow on Twitter at

Renee Richardson
Richardson is a Pacelli High School graduate from Austin, Minn., who earned an applied science degree from the University of Minnesota, Waseca, with an emphasis in horse management. She worked extensively in the resort industry. She received an associate’s degree from Central Lakes College, where she was editor of the Westbank Journal student newspaper, as well as a summer intern at the Dispatch. She graduated from St. Cloud State University summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in mass communications and interned at the St. Cloud Times covering business while attending SCSU. She's been with the Brainerd Dispatch since 1996.
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