It was bound to happen.
And, well, what better time than the present?
Like many cities that name a street near a stadium after a sports star who became famous playing at the venue, Darwin took a step in immortalizing one of its favorite sons last week.
Mayor Josh Johnson installed a new street sign Thursday, temporarily replacing the Twine Ball Lane sign, which marks a short alley that runs just south of Darwin’s iconic twine ball, with one designating it as Weird Alley.
After completing the installation, Johnson sent an email to publicists for “Weird Al” Yankovic to inform him of the change, which is intended to recognize the attention the singer-songwriter has brought to the town of 350 residents through the years.
“We just really wanted to convey our appreciation for Al and what he’s done for Darwin,” Johnson said. “We’re certainly fans here. And we’re excited to be tied to an artist like that.”
That tie, of course, comes from the artist’s 1989 release of “The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota,” a kind of humorous ballad with a record-setting twine ball as its focus.
Yankovic’s song, which runs 6 minutes and 50 seconds, parodies the styles of Harry Chapin’s “30,000 Pounds of Bananas” and Gordon Lightfoot’s “Wreck of the Edumund Fitzgerald” with a refrain that says:
“And all of us were joined together in one common thought
As we rolled down the long and winding interstate in our ’53 DeSoto
We’re gonna see the biggest ball of twine in Minnesota
We’re headin’ for the biggest ball of twine in Minnesota”
Though Yankovic’s song never mentions Darwin by name, the lyrics have prompted thousands of people to visit Darwin through the years, Johnson said.
“It depends on the day, but I tell people that a pretty good estimate in the summer is 100 to 150 a day,” Johnson said. “Some stop and roll down their window and take a photo and leave. But the majority will get out, walk around and get a selfie with the twine ball.”
Rural Darwin farmer Francis A. Johnson, no relation to the current mayor, collected scraps of twine and rolled them into a ball for decades. By the time he died in 1989, Johnson’s twine ball weighed nearly nine tons and stood 12 feet tall. Two years after his death, the ball was moved into Darwin, where it sits under a protective shelter on the town’s main street.
“The vast majority have heard the song,” Johnson said of twine ball visitors. “Anywhere from 30 percent to 80 percent are there just because they’re Weird Al fans, and they become twine ball enthusiasts through their love of him and his music.”
One of many Twine Ball Museum volunteers, according to Johnson, says of the twine ball, “It’s their Mecca. It’s like a required pilgrimage for Weird Al fans.”
All of that is what prompted Johnson to order an extra street sign when the city purchased new signs as part of a Darwin Community Legacy Foundation project. Twine Ball Lane was among the new signs purchased last year, to designate the previously unnamed alley, but the mayor thought Weird Alley was a fitting tribute when additional signs were ordered this year.
“I thought it would be a nice thing to do to thank him,” Johnson said. “I had it for a while, and we thought the timing would be right now, because of him coming to the State Fair.”
Yankovic was scheduled to perform Tuesday night at the Minnesota State Fair Grandstand, a concert that a large contingent of Darwin residents already were planning to attend.
Along with notifying Yankovic’s managers, Johnson also planned to announce the recognition on social media. Funny thing happened though — after hearing from his publicists of the sign, Yankovic beat Johnson to the punch, tweeting through his @alyankovic Twitter account: “Sure, the Grammys and platinum albums are nice and all, but now I know I’ve finally made it: they just re-named the alley next to the Darwin, MN Twine Ball.”
Johnson said he saw Yankovic’s tweet and immediately responded through the @DarwinTwineBall Twitter account: “To celebrate @alyankovic’s @mnstatefair appearance this week and to honor all he has done to promote the Twine Ball and Darwin, Twine Ball Lane will now also be known as Weird Alley. Thanks for everything, Al! This here’s what America’s all about.”
As for being scooped on Darwin’s big news, Johnson chuckled and called it a good thing.
“He’s got 5 million followers,” Johnson said. “It’s pretty exciting to have him initiate it, him unveil the name change. I’m kind of surprised by how much legs it got. But for Al to put it out versus us, that’s brought some notoriety to the Twine Ball account, as well.”
No official action was taken by Darwin’s City Council on the street name change, Johnson explained, because the alley was unnamed, and the naming did not affect any mailing address.
The plan is to have the alley marked as Twine Ball Lane most of the time, he said, but it will rotate to Weird Alley when the artist is on tour and “in the neighborhood.”
“Whenever he’s in the area, or touring within several states, we’ll have the Weird Alley sign up,” he said. “We get a lot of fans who are attending his concerts who stop by during those time periods. And they’re always really, really nice folks. It’s fun to chat with them. It’s neat for us folks in Darwin to be able to welcome people from all over the world and kind of share Francis’ legacy with them.
“And we’re fortunate, too, to have this tie to Weird Al Yankovic,” Johnson added. “There aren’t too many artists with his staying power.”
On a sunny Saturday afternoon, Peter Gray took a three-hour walk around Hutchinson. One thing stuck out to him immediately: a lack of children playing.
“I’m sure there are kids who live here, right?” Gray said. “I saw none playing outdoors. None. Zero. I saw maybe three total teenage boys riding bicycles. Contrast that with when I was a kid, you could not possibly go out on a Saturday afternoon without seeing kids everywhere with no adults around.”
Gray, who has a doctorate in biological sciences, has spent most of his research career studying the effects of declining free play among children, which has been linked to higher instances of mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety in kids. He presented his research to an audience in the Hutchinson High School auditorium Monday night.
He is a founding member of the Let Grow project, which seeks to counter a culture of over-protection and educate people on the importance of free play for children. The project has had some early success on the East Coast in instituting programs that foster child free play.
“We’re working with school systems. So far it’s a relatively small number of school systems, but we’re working with them to relieve some of the problems,” Gray said. “We’ve begun working with a school district in Long Island after the superintendent read our book. He has made a number of changes in all seven elementary schools in the district, and one of the changes is he’s instituted something called Play Club.”
The club is a once-a-week program where kids can come in an hour early and use the entire school and playground to play in. School officials let students from all grades get together during that hour for unstructured free play while teachers watch from afar.
“The teachers have been trained at my advice to not intervene unless there’s an emergency,” Gray said. “If a kid is having problems doing something, don’t go and solve the problem. Let the kids deal with it. It has been a remarkable success.”
There’s been a push to bring Let Grow into Hutchinson schools, said Lisa Ditlevson, a teacher with Early Childhood Family Education. By having Gray present his research, she hopes it will start the ball rolling with administrators.
“Some of my coworkers and I are hoping to get the Let Grow project involved, but we haven’t presented it to administrators yet,” she said. “This is the first step for us.”
Passport to the Parks is another program that encourages children to play outside in Hutchinson. Committee member Andrea Moore said it gives kids opportunities to experience something they’ve never tried before, such as with Books and Baseball.
“With the Books and Baseball event, a lot of those kids had never been to a Huskies game before,” she said. “In my opinion, it’s natural for kids to get outside in fresh air and when they see other kids, they want to play. I’m sure there’s research behind it, but we saw it in action. We saw kids who didn’t know each other and just mixed together and threw balls with each other.”
The decline of free play
According to Gray, the decline in free play isn’t because children don’t want to be outside, but for a variety of social reasons.
“It’s because they aren’t welcome there. It’s because we as a society are afraid of them being out there,” Gray said. “We are afraid for them, and we are in some sense afraid of them, so we don’t allow them to be out playing on their own.”
He stressed that even though there are still instances of child predators and abductions, those instances are extremely rare.
“It’s not strangers on the street,” Gray said. “It’s relatives, priests and teachers. It’s people you would not think would do it.”
With the decline in child free play came a sizeable increase in depression and suicide rates among children. There has also been a decline in creative thinking among children who’ve been deprived of free play. Gray cited continuous test score decreases on the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking as proof.
He also said school has been an increasing source of anxiety among children.
“It’s because of all the testing and comparing one kid to another,” Gray said. “Outdoor activities tend to be involvement in youth sports, which are competitive and you’re being evaluated when you make the team, if you mess up, or if you ruin your team’s chances. ... Instead of just going out to play and have fun, kids are in this situation where they are more or less being directed and judged by adults. That creates anxiety and prevents kids from learning the kinds of skills they need to be resilient and feel they can solve their own problems.”
The decline in child free play began in the 1950s and 1960s, but the biggest dips were in the 1980s and 1990s, according to studies Gray has conducted. He attributes these dips to changing societal values.
“The societal fear of dangers out in the world,” he said. “The truth of the matter is that the world is no more dangerous now than it was in the 1950s. It’s actually less dangerous than it was in the ’70s when crime reached a peak. There’s actually been a decline in crime since the ’70s and ’80s.”
People often cite traffic as a reason for keeping their children from playing near roads, but Gray disagrees. During his walk on Saturday, he strolled down Hassan Street and saw many small houses along the road.
“On my walk there was no traffic on it,” he said. “There are modest houses and yards along the whole way. I couldn’t imagine a safer place for kids to play, traffic-wise. When I was young, there would be kids playing in the street, as well as along it.”
What is each school in the district doing to improve? That was the question on the minds of administrators and Hutchinson School Board members Monday night.
Every year around this time those parties use a quarterly work meeting to discuss goals set last year, and how efforts to meet those goals panned out. Usually the meeting is timed to allow a review of state testing data, but with the embargo of such data pushed back to this Thursday, the scope of topics was more limited than in previous years.
A future story will dive into academic achievements throughout the district once state testing numbers are publicly available.
The following is a snapshot of a few goals and achievements in the district.
Principal Anne Broderius wanted to increase the number of students who meet or exceed spring reading benchmarks from 66 percent in 2018 to 68 percent in 2019, but the number held steady at 66 percent.
While the goal was not met, further analysis found 70 percent of students met the benchmark or made at least a year’s worth of improvement.
The school also wants to continue growing its pre-kindergarten screening program, which seeks to make certain students enter kindergarten with the requisite skills to read, learn and keep up with curriculum as they advance in grade levels in the future. An additional screening date was added last year, and this year another screening date was added Tuesday, Sept. 3.
“We have identified of the 195 kindergarten students registered today ... there are 17 of those students who have not been screened,” Broderius said.
Among the goals at Park Elementary was a way to reduce its three highest behavior referrals: physical disrespect, verbal disrespect and recess behavior issues. Assistant principal Mary Getzke hoped to see the number of referrals decrease by 10 percent. Six staff members were trained to track behavioral issues, bringing the number to nine, with the idea of doing a better job tracking the need for intervention and seeing it through.
However, as a result, there was a 22 percent increase in behavior referrals, as the school started tracking behavior more thoroughly.
Meanwhile, the school wanted to improve communication with families.
“I guess I’m going a bit old school,” Getzke said.
Often teachers interact with parents during classroom meetings or through email. Getzke said sometimes email messages can be missed or misunderstood. So teachers focused on increasing direct contact with parents and the number of phone calls increased 45 percent from 260 to 473.
“I think picking up that phone and calling and having a conversation with parents is really important,” Getzke said.
Thayne Johnson, the district’s activities director, wants 80 percent of students to be involved in some sort of extracurricular activity. The goal is one rarely achieved in schools. Most in the area see 60-65 percent of students engaged in activities. The exception is Waconia, where 84 percent of students are part of extracurricular activities.
“That 80 percent is private school numbers,” Johnson said. “It’s a lofty goal. Even though we didn’t make it, I feel pretty good about 72 percent (last school year).”
The school has come close, with 78 percent of students engaged in the 2017-18 school year.
“(The goal is) connecting kids to the school, to positive adults in their lives, connecting them to their communities, and all the academic, social and emotion positivity that comes from that,” Johnson said, adding that students involved in activities have a higher attendance rate, which is tied to academic performance.
Students who didn’t participate in activities were asked why they didn’t participate. The No. 1 answer was “I’m not interested.”
“I would be very interested to see how our activity fees compare to Waconia,” said Board Member Mike Carls.
Johnson said he would reach out to the school and prepare a comparison. He added that a number of factors play into student participation, including socioeconomic factors such as if families qualify for waived fees, if fees are too high for those who do not qualify, and if the student has to work.
“There are things that play into it outside interest level,” he said.
The Hutchinson School Board will seek a new member to fill one of its six seats following the departure of Board Chair Josh Gehlen.
His resignation was accepted at a quarterly work meeting Monday night.
“The district owes you a debt of gratitude. Thank you,” said Board Member Chris Wilke, who noted Gehlen’s willingness to engage with School Board candidates and answer questions.
Gehlen is moving to Delano and closing on his home Friday. Once he no longer lives in the district, he would no longer be able to serve on the School Board. Gehlen said the move allows him to take a new position in his career, and cuts down on his wife’s commute time.
“Thank you for your service,” Board Vice Chair Keith Kamrath said to Gehlen, “especially during this time on the high school project.”
Gehlen, who was first elected in 2010, said the $45 million high school renovation, which voters approved in a bond referendum, was the biggest undertaking of his time on the School Board.
“Without a doubt,” he said. “It was a huge success, and a great opportunity for me to be involved and see a process most people don’t get to see from the inside.”
He was vice chair at the time, and has served as chair for the past four years. He was treasurer from 2012-2014.
The School Board will discuss the process to fill Gehlen’s seat at its next public meeting Monday, Sept. 9. In the past, when a seat needed to be filled due to a departure, the School Board reviewed results of the previous election and sought to appoint a candidate who received voter support. But in the most recent election there were three seats and three candidates on the ballot, and each candidate now serves on the board.
“Now we are in a situation where we need to appoint somebody,” said superintendent Daron VanderHeiden. “That appointment would be effective until (after) the November 2020 election.”
The November 2020 Hutchinson School Board portion of the ballot will now contain three positions regularly up for election at that time, and one special election.
It will be up to the School Board to determine a criteria for selecting its newest member, but interested district residents can put their name forward with a form available at the office. Board members discussed whether the process should involve a public interview of interested parties, though no decision was made. Board members mostly seemed in favor of undertaking the process as a board, instead of delegating the task to a committee.
The September meeting will be run by Kamrath, as he is vice chair, at least until the School Board elects a new chair to lead the rest of the meeting. The process is similar to January reorganization meetings where the previous year’s chair leads until a new chair is elected.