SHELL LAKE, Wis. (WCCO) — The back roads of Shell Lake in northwestern Wisconsin have long been a deer hunter’s best-kept secret. At the turn of the season, you’ll never fail to find 69-year-old Dale Parks in his second home, on a deer stand in the middle of his 100-acre family property.
“I am always looking at trees and different things as I go by,” said Parks.
Parks has been hunting for nearly six decades, capturing hundreds of deer in his lifetime, so imagine his astonishment when the biggest prize of his life found him.
“It had to land right in the wheel track, or I wouldn’t have ever seen it. It was just a note rolled up and I happened to see white and a little bit of ribbon,” he recalled.
Attached was a deflated pink balloon and after reading the words inside, there was no “camouflaging” the hunter’s emotion.
“It almost brought tears to your eyes as you went on through. It had just to float down through,” said Parks.
Somehow, in the thick expanse of Parks’ property, a letter postmarked for heaven landed at his feet. It was dated Aug. 28, 2010. The letter read:
“Hi Annie. It’s me, Mia!
I wish you were here to play with. Oh, and I’m sure your friends want to play with you too! You do not know what’s going on in earth, so I’m going into 3rd grade and I got the teacher that I wanted, her name is Mrs. Acker. I know Mrs. Acker because she was my sister’s 1st grade teacher at another school.
I forgot to add something, when I heard my Mom say Annie died I started crying, and I’m sorry that I didn’t go to your funeral or your grave. So I really hope you had a great 7 years of your life. And your family really misses you and I miss you too, and I hope everything in Heaven is good.
Bye. I love you!”
“It’s like a needle in a haystack,” said Parks. “What happened to this little girl that she was dead at 7 years old?”
Parks brought the letter to his deer hunting group, Whitetails Unlimited, where one of the members just happens to be the editor of the town’s newspaper, the Spooner Advocate.
“Jaws were kind of down here and all these burly woodsmen had lumps in their throats and tears in their eyes. A very touching moment,” said Editor Bill Thornley. “If you don’t get choked up after reading that, there’s something wrong.”
Who was Mia? How did Annie, her beloved friend, die? Thornley researched area schools, but found no Mia. Local obituaries showed no trace of Annie.
That’s when he decided to print Mia’s letter and the farewell became the front page of the Spooner Advocate. The headline read: “Her name was Annie, and she was loved.”
Thornley said he was flooded with e-mails and calls.
“It was kind of a hard story to write. If you have kids you want to go and hug them after you read something like this. Everybody wanted to know. It had the same effect on people when we printed the letter. Never had so many positive reactions to it,” said Parks.
The community mourned and nearly six weeks passed until finally, Thornley received an e-mail from Annie’s grandmother, Renee Bahneman.
“Her grandma sent pictures and there was just this beautiful little girl. You thought, ‘What did she do to deserve this?'” asked Parks.
The e-mail read:
“I am Annie Bahneman’s grandmother. Annie died Aug. 21, 2010 and was buried on Aug. 27th. Mia was a friend of Annie’s from our lake cabin at Lake Koronis, in Paynesville, MN. I think Mia wrote this letter and let if fly from Edina, Minn. on Aug. 28th! Annie died very suddenly from Primary Amoebic Meningoenchephalitis. Primary Amoebic Meningoenchephalitis is an extremely rare brain infection.
Annie Bahneman was a sweet strawberry blonde from Stillwater. Her family says the illness took her life four days after her first symptoms. She died with a pink sunset outside her hospital window.”
Her parents, Bridget and Chad Bahneman, declined an interview, saying the grief is just too difficult for them right now, but said they are touched by Mia’s letter.
They explained the rare illness on their public Caring Bridge page.
“Since Annie’s death, we have learned that she experienced an extremely rare form of meningitis called amoebic meningitis. She had the 1st known case of amoebic meningitis in Minnesota. Annie loved to swim and the beautifully warm summer we have experienced in Minnesota this year lended to many swimming opportunities. As is typical with adventurous 7 year olds, she was constantly trying to master new skills. One of these skills was learning how to do handstands in the water. She would come up grinning, laughing, and asking about the quality of her work. The suspicion is that during one of these playful moments that she got exposed to amoeba in the water.
We said goodbye to Annie with a beautiful celebration of her life on Friday, August 27th. The visitation, funeral, and luncheon were held at the Church of St. Michael in Stillwater. We then were joined by family and friends in a walking parade from Saint Michael’s to Fairview Cemetery in Stillwater. At the end we released balloons in honor of Annie.”
But Mia Schultz, a third grader from Edina, couldn’t be there that day.
“I didn’t go to her funeral, so I felt really bad inside,” said Mia.
Mia remembers the first day she met Annie. It was outside their family lake cabin, and they were inseparable from the start. She also remembers the last day she saw her best friend, not long before her death.
“The last day I saw her was on her birthday,” said Mia. “I wish she was still alive now.”
So the day after the funeral, Mia asked her parents if she could say her own goodbye. She picked up her pencil, certain that in her careful print, their summer friendship would never fade.
“It took me about a half an hour, because I put all my love in it,” explained Mia. “When I had a hard time spelling the words, I would just ask my mom, ‘How do you spell grave? How do you spell funeral?'”
They were words Mia never had to spell before. She asked her parents to help attach her letter to a pink balloon, her own balloon for Annie.
“Everything she does, she does with big heart and big spirit,” said Mia’s mother, Micheline Schultz. “All heart and all soul, she feels really big and really deep. It’s like she had all her love in that balloon. This is really about a love story.”
And so from their front yard in Edina, the Schultz family said a prayer and let go. Mia watched as the pink balloon sailed over the tops of trees.
“It went all the way up there, and it took it like five minutes, and then it was gone,” recalled Mia.
Out of the hundreds of balloons that were released in memory of Annie that weekend, Mia said she wasn’t so surprised that her balloon rose above the rest.
“I want her to know it was fun having her, that I loved her. I thought since God was hearing it and saw it, I thought it was going to last,” said Mia.
Her mother credits much of the mystery to the man the letter eventually found.
“Things like this happen all the time, but they remind us that there is that awe and wonder, and are we paying attention? Dale Parks was that day,” said Micheline Schultz.
Parks has his own theory.
“Something higher up that determines this. You couldn’t direct it this way. Awful heartwarming to find out where it come from,” said Parks.
Thornley said in the 35 years he’s written for the town paper, Annie’s story is the most emotional and memorable of them all.
He said no one in their Wisconsin towns knew Annie, but now, they wish they had.
“It grabs your heart. This little girl sent a message to her friend and the wind blew it to somebody who could find it and tell her story,” said Thornley.
In fact, wind carried Mia’s wish exactly 115 miles from her yard in Edina to the hidden, wooded trail in Shell Lake.
The innocent words reminded an entire community about the capacity of love, the magic of young friendship, but above all, what can be possible when you set your sights on the sky.
Annie had the first known case of Amoebic Meningitis in Minnesota. When WCCO-TV told her family this story would be aired again two weeks after its original air date, they sent this statement to share:
“We’ve also been overwhelmed by the general response to the story. Annie was an incredibly gentle, kind, funny, sensitive, yet spirited child. We hope Annie will continue to inspire people as much now as she did during her lifetime.”
WCCO-TV’s Lindsey Seavert Reports