Like a lot of Brainerd residents, Mayor James Wallin wasn't expecting many surprises when he tuned into the broadcast of the Brainerd City Council meeting Tuesday night.
He had no idea he'd be the subject of an announcement from Nancy Cross, Brainerd Community Action executive director.
Shortly after the start of the meeting, Cross took to the podium to announce the 2015 Brainerd Citizen of the Year. As she was describing the person's characteristics, Wallin said he was racking his brain trying to think about who it was.
His wife Minna Wallin knew Cross was about to say her husband would be the 2015 Brainerd Citizen of the Year. Minna Wallin said she gave an "Academy-Award" performance at home on the couch, trying to keep the surprise from her husband.
"I said, 'Who do you think that is?'" she said.
"I was trying to think of all the people I know who would be deserving of it that would really fit that description," James Wallin responded. "Then she mentioned my name and I thought, 'You've got be kidding me.'"
Cross then called the Wallin house later Tuesday night, and James Wallin told her simply being elected the mayor of Brainerd is "such an honor." He was first elected to the city council in 1977 and has held the position of mayor since winning election in 1998.
"The good Lord has blessed me in so many ways," he said.
After the news come out, James Wallin said he's been inundated with well-wishes from all over the place. He picked up his smartphone and simply said, "It's getting full." His entire family has been sending their congratulations, and "some have said it's about time and others said it was nice."
He's also been getting congratulations from people on Facebook. "Some people I don't even know on Facebook, for some reason they're on Facebook and I got a note from them," he said.
"All I can say is it's really an honor to not only be mayor, but now to be named the citizen of the year," he said. "I just can't comprehend it. It still hasn't sunk in."
James Wallin said he'd never considered he would be named citizen of the year, "because there are so many other people in this town that have really contributed and given so much to the city."
There's so many caring people in the area dedicated to volunteerism, he said. He rattled off a handful of organizations, admitting "I'm missing a ton of them."
"All of those organizations have many people that volunteer and give their time and their expertise and their help to continue to make this community the community it is," he said.
All of the commissions and committees the city of Brainerd has are "full of people that want to serve and they're very diligent and they do it because they enjoy it," he said.
"A lot of communities don't have the dedication that we have," he said.
James Wallin has been plagued by health issues, which started in June and culminated in a recent back surgery. It's caused him to miss some city council meetings, but he said he'll soon be back in his chair at the council table.
"This is going on my 38th year," he said. "I've probably missed more meetings in the last two months than I have in the last 10 years."
The award goes to people who have contributed and done things in the community by giving of their time, effort and talents, Wallin said. Brainerd benefits from these efforts, which is partly why he calls the region "God's country."
"That's why I've enjoyed living here my whole life," he said.
He's traveled all over the world to Germany, Panama, Sweden, Hawaii, Canada and Mexico, and keeps coming back home to Brainerd.
"I enjoy the city, and to me, we've got so much going for us," he said.
It's true the city was hurting after the Great Recession, but things are starting to rebound, James Wallin said. FedEx Ground's 54,000-square-foot expansion in the city and the 2016 project bringing water and sewer lines to the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport are two significant investments, he said.
He has also been airport city liaison for 20 years and chaired both city council committees. The water and sewer line project was on his radar 20 years ago, so it's good to see it come to fruition.
James Wallin first decided to run for city council during an off-year in 1977. His impetus for running was the lack of a four-way stop at the intersection of North Fourth Street and Kingwood Street near his home. There were frequent crashes at the intersection, he said, so when he was unable to get the council to change it, he decided to run himself after council member Mary Koep brought up the idea.
The election in 1977 was held on Dec. 6, he said, so he spent the winter putting up election signs and knocking on doors.
"I don't know if they disliked the person that was my councilman," he said. "Or if they just felt sorry for me being out there in the cold and knocking on doors."
He got his four-way stop, which greatly decreased accidents at the intersection, he said. He's been able to accomplish a lot during his time on the council and as mayor, "but you never do anything by yourself, trust me."
One of those accomplishments is working to make sure the portion of the C. Elmer Anderson Memorial Highway leading into Brainerd stayed free of billboards, he said. He approached former state Rep. Steve Wenzel about the issue, and he was able to get a law passed prohibiting billboards in the state right of way next to the highway.
"That to me is probably one ... legacy that I'd like to leave," he said. "It is so nice to have that stretch of highway without a billboard on it."
James Wallin also takes pride in the strong relationships he's had with different Baxter mayors, which creates agreement and cooperation between the two communities. That relationship still isn't perfect, he said, "but it never will be."
"I tell people we are one community with two governing bodies," he said. "And we are, because there's nothing that affects one without affecting the other community."
Past Citizens of the Year
Past award recipients are: Elmer Johnson (1974), Marvin Campbell (1975), George Bedard (1976) , Mildred Michaelis (1977), Herb Kessler (1978), Lucille Shaw (1979), Walter Doran (1980), Ray Bang (1981), Jack Echternacht (1982), Pete Humphrey (1983), Ray Madison (1984), Birney Wilkens (1985), Jack Ruttger (1986), Bob Gross (1987), Marv Nutting (1988), Sara Dunlap (1989), Tom Isle (1990), Dick Endres (1991), Bill Van Essen(1992), Hanspeter Borgwarth (1993), Jon Haapajoki (1994), Arnie Johnson (1995), Sister Vivian Arts (1996), Warren Williams (1997), Ruth Gmeinder (1998), Kevin Thesing (1999), Terry McCollough (2000), Bonnie Cumberland (2001), Paul Bloom (2002), Reed Campbell (2003), Steve Esser (2004), Dutch and Irma Cragun (2005), Dr. Thomas Kotula (2006), Karen Owens (2007), Chip Borkenhagen (2008), Arnold "Casey" Stengel (2009), Gary Walters (2012), Bill Musel (2013) and Dr. Kevin Dens (2014).