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Minn. Woman Forms Friendship After Son’s Death

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(credit: Jupiter Images)

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BAYPORT, Minn. (AP) — When Adrienne Johnson answered the doorbell at her Bayport home, she found a stranger standing outside.

The stranger — Bill Pederson of Mauston, Wis. — said he had been visiting a cousin and had noticed the U.S. Marine Corps flag flying in Johnson’s front yard. It was Nov. 4, 2010 — six days before the Marines’ 235th birthday.

Pederson, a former Marine, said he stopped because he “wanted to greet the Marine and wish him a `happy birthday.”‘

Adrienne explained that “the Marine” was her 19-year-old son, Dane, who had died in a motorcycle accident in 2005. She said she had just that morning visited his grave.

“I stood there in shock, wondering what to say or do next,” Bill recalled. “I told her how bad I felt and that I was sorry for her loss. I told her, `Semper Fi.’ “

For Adrienne, the visit was a sign from God.

“The day that you stopped at my door was such a wonderful reminder of our dear son,” she wrote in a letter to Pederson a few weeks after his visit. “I (was) wondering how many people still remember him. Then, as if heaven sent you, you showed up at our door to wish our son a Happy Marine Birthday. You’ll never know how much you touched me.”

Adrienne Johnson, 62, is a retired real estate agent who grew up in St. Paul’s Crocus Hill neighborhood. Her husband, Bob, owns Marketing Incentive Resources in Oakdale. The couple lives in a white house at the top of a hill on South Sixth Street. Their daughter, Allison Advertisement Quantcast Genz, lives in Cushing, Wis., and has three children.

Bill Pederson is 65. He grew up in Starbuck, Minn., and served from 1963 to 1966 in the Marines, where he was trained as an electronics technician. He is a retired ATM serviceman. He and his wife, Lorna, have two sons and three grandsons. Their son Paul served in the Marines from 1987 to 1993. The license-plate holder on Pederson’s Chevrolet LTZ crew cab four-wheel-drive pickup truck reads “Once a Marine, Always a Marine.” A “Semper Fi” sticker is on the trailer hitch.

“I am a Marine — there are no former Marines,” said Bill, who wore a Marine Corps baseball cap, T-shirt and sweatshirt when he stopped by to visit Adrienne again recently.

“Marines, they hang together,” he said. “It’s a tight-knit group. There are only two people who understand Marines — and that’s Marines and the enemy. It’s hard to explain — unless you’ve been there. … I think a mother, especially a mother who has lost a son, could understand. This kid was gung-ho. It’s just a shame.”

After that day on the doorstep, Bill wrote to “Leatherneck,” the Marine Corps’ monthly magazine, about meeting Adrienne. “She said, `Thanks for stopping. You made my day!”‘ he wrote. “It is hard to explain, but I felt a bond with that mother and was glad I had stopped. You just never know.”

The editors picked Bill’s letter as “Letter of the Month” for January and sent him a $25 check. Bill told his cousin Karen Lampi, who lives in Bayport, about what had happened. She told him about Dane and a place in Bayport named after him.

Bill decided to donate the $25 to Dane’s Place, a shelter house for families in transition. He found Bob and Adrienne Johnson’s address online and mailed them a check.

“Even though we have never met, (Dane) will always be my brother,” Bill wrote to them.

Adrienne said she was shocked to get the letter — and the check. She immediately wrote back, in a letter dated Jan. 27.

“Our son had never seen combat and had only been a Marine for about a year,” she wrote. “He lived to serve his country. In his first years of high school, all he wanted for Christmas was to receive Marine T-shirts. He knew even then that he would be a Marine. He pre-enlisted during his senior year of high school and was off to boot camp at Fort Pendleton in June of 2004.

“Thank you so much for your donation to Dane’s Place. It is a wonderful reminder of the love our son had for people who had less than him. Our Dane was beautiful inside and out. He made me laugh. I still laugh but not as often. I’ll never get over this loss, but people like you make it a little easier.”

Bill wrote back Jan. 29: “Thanks, you made my day. It was very interesting to hear more about Dane. … Like all Marines, had Dane and I met we would have had much to talk about even though I am 40 years older than him. It doesn’t matter that Dane was a Marine for only a year. He is a Marine … ALWAYS!”

Bill and Adrienne traded more letters and e-mails.

Bill learned that Dane was a lance corporal who was a military police officer attached to the 4th Marine Aircraft Wing. Adrienne learned more about Bill and the string of events that led to his stopping by her house. He was in the Twin Cities to pick up his brother-in-law for a hunting trip and was spending the day with his sister, who lives in Minneapolis. After spending the morning at estate sales, they decided to drive out to their cousin’s house in Bayport.

“All of your words are heaven sent,” Adrienne wrote in an e-mail dated Feb. 8. “Dane was a very kind and gentle soul. He was nice to people that others would not be. He accepted everyone with all their warts and wrinkles. He was a hunter of all game and a fisherman. When he shot his first deer, he told his dad how great it was, but when he talked to me, he cried. It wasn’t a clean shot, and he heard the sound of the deer dying.

“When 9/11 occurred, he nailed the U.S. flag to the side of our house. On the 4th of July, he would put up U.S. flags in the back of his truck and drive around. He was a proud American.”

Bill’s next e-mail had the subject line “We remember.”

“I get goose bumps reading your letter,” Bill wrote. “Almost as good as listening to the Marines Hymn!”

Bill was on his way to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to pick up his son Paul for an ice-fishing and cross-country ski trip when he stopped at Adrienne’s house recently. Adrienne greeted him with a hug.

“This is the last picture that was taken of Dane,” Adrienne said, pointing to a framed photo on the fireplace mantel. “We had gone up to Nelson’s Resort (in Crane Lake.) … It was maybe three days after that he died.”

“He looks like a Marine — trim and fit,” Bill said.

The two spent several hours talking about Dane, flipping through family photos and poring over his Marine Corps scrapbook.

Adrienne explained that Dane’s nickname was “Daner” and that she had picked his name because it was unique and strong.

“He was such a good man,” she said. “When he was a little boy, he saw a commercial on TV about children who didn’t have anything, and he said: `Mom, Dad, we’ve got to do something. We have to start sending some money.’ And from that day on, we’ve sponsored somebody.”

Adrienne said being accepted into the Marines was a dream come true for Dane.

“He would sit and talk to his grandfather for hours about World War II and being in the service, and it was just something he knew he wanted to be,” she said. “His grandfather was in the Army, but to Dane, the Marines were the elite.”

From the scrapbook, Adrienne pulled out Dane’s letters from boot c Bill asked if she had the first one.

Adrienne found the envelope postmarked Aug. 12, 2004, with its single piece of spiral notebook paper inside, and began reading aloud:

“Hey Mom. How are you doing? How are you holding up? Same here, but it’s getting better because I am getting in better shape, a lot better, so now I am doing everything very well. Yesterday I ran three miles in 23 minutes, which is pretty good. I miss you so much and, as it is for you, some days are easier than others, but others really suck. … I wish I could be there for the cool fall weather. I love that. It’s warm here and soothing, but definitely not like my Minnesota. Well, I love you Mommy and miss you a lot. Be strong and write and send pictures! Eight weeks left! Love, Daner”

“He is guarding the pearly gates right now,” Bill said. “There’s an old ditty that goes `When I get to heaven/To St. Peter, I will tell/Another Marine reporting, sir/I have served my time in Hell.’ “

Dane, who was a reservist in the Marines, had graduated from Stillwater Area High School in 2004 and was attending Century College. He loved to go hunting, fishing and snowboarding, his mother said. He was also an avid runner and was on his way to Afton to go for a run the day he was killed, she said.

The accident occurred Aug. 30, 2005, in Lakeland, just south of Interstate 94. According to police reports, Dane was riding a motorcycle south on Washington County Road 18 about 6:20 p.m. when he hit the broadside of a sedan going east on Eighth Street. Dane was wearing a helmet but died of his injuries at the scene.

“The car pulled out in front of him,” Adrienne told Bill. “He went over the roof. He was killed instantly. Typically, he would have taken his truck, which would have made such a difference. But his truck wasn’t working correctly, so he got on his motorcycle.

“It was a hot, hot, hot day, and he was in the best mood. He’d been kind of down for a while, but he and his girlfriend had kind of rehooked up, and they had gone to the Minnesota State Fair. He came home and said: `Mom, I’m feeling so much better. I think we’re on the way back.’

“That was the last time I saw him.”

When Dane didn’t come home, Adrienne said, she started calling him and leaving funny messages on his cell phone.

“Then I heard the knock on the door, and the doorbell rang,” she said. “There were three of them — one was a chaplain, one was a policeman. …

“Three months after Dane died, my mother died. Seven months after my mother died, my father died. It’s been a journey, but I have a wonderful family and people like you,” she told Bill. “You know people get signs from God — and some people say it’s a bird or this or that — but I have my Bill angel, and I am so blessed.”

Bill told Adrienne that when he drove by her house Nov. 4, a strong west wind was blowing and both the U.S. and Marine Corps flags “were standing out.”

“I would never have seen them otherwise,” he said. “Today, you could just barely see the flag on there, because they’re just hanging. You wouldn’t notice it unless the wind was blowing.”

Adrienne said she was feeling fragile that day, after visiting Dane’s grave at Hazelwood Cemetery in Bayport.

“I try not to go too often because it’s so hard,” she told Bill. “For the flags to be flying, Dane knew I needed something that day. When you came to the door, it was just almost like recognition from him.

“Anytime someone speaks of Dane and acknowledges his life is such a confirmation to me that he is still with me,” she said. “I want you to know what having you in my life has meant to me.”

Bill asked to learn more about Dane’s Place and said he would like to volunteer at its annual fundraiser this year — a pig roast held the last Saturday of June.

Adrienne explained that the house — owned by Bethlehem Lutheran Church and supported by other local churches and the community — has hosted several families since Dane’s death, including a family from Sudan and a family left homeless by Hurricane Katrina.

“We’ve tried to bring in people that in some way — within a year’s time — we can make a difference in their life, whether it’s finding employment or just needing a break from life,” she said. “The family that’s in there now were homeless. It’s a mom with a 19-year-old and a 14-year-old. She’s had lots of struggles in life, and we’ve given her the opportunity to make it better. I kind of sponsor them in that I became their friend; I try to help them in any way I can and give them rides or just see that their needs are met.”

She explained that her work at Dane’s House had given her a reason to live again.

“Dane would have done that,” Bill said.

“Yes, he would have,” she said. “Dane would have done that.”

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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