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'My life has changed a lot': Cecilia Toenjes nears end of Miss Litchfield reign
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Nearing the end of the longest reign in Miss Litchfield history, Cecilia Toenjes admits to being a bit conflicted.

After two years of serving as an ambassador for the city — a reign that doubled after the COVID-19 pandemic canceled all Watercade activities in 2020, including the Miss Litchfield program and coronation — Toenjes said she’s ready to see another young woman wear the crown.

Buuut … she’s had a lot of fun and experienced tremendous personal growth during the past two years, which makes stepping down bittersweet.

“My mom told me that coronation was at 3 (p.m.) instead of 7 (p.m.) this year, and I remember saying to her, ‘Three? I wasn’t ready to give up my crown until 7.’ And my mom’s like, ‘You’ve had an extra year. Shouldn’t you be ready to give up your crown?’

“It just goes so fast,” Toenjes said. “Even though I had a whole extra year, it’s been such an awesome experience. And I’m excited for the new girls; I’m excited for them to have that experience. But it shows how awesome of an experience it is — if I didn’t want to give up my crown four hours earlier, after having a whole extra 365 days — for anybody.”

It’s been whirlwind to be certain, even though some activities of her reign were interrupted by the pandemic.

Toenjes had just finished her junior year of high school when she was crowned Miss Litchfield during the 2019 coronation, less than three months after her 17th birthday — a fact that, combined with her pandemic-lengthened reign – makes her the answer to at least one Watercade trivia question.

“I have two things special about running for the ambassador program: I’m the youngest Miss Litchfield they’ve ever had when I was crowned … and I’m the longest-running Miss Litchfield they’ve ever had,” Toenjes said.

A childhood dream

It was a position to which she aspired since childhood. The oldest of Chris and Amy Toenjes’ daughters — their younger daughter, Claudia, is running for Miss Litchfield this year — Cecilia remembers tagging along with her mother to coronation rehearsals, where Amy choreographed program dance numbers for years.

“I remember meeting the girls who would run and them telling me, ‘You know, one day you should run,’” she recalled. “It was always kind of in the back of my head.”

One thing stood in her way, however. A gifted saxophone player, Toenjes enjoyed being a member of the Litchfield High School marching band, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to give it up – even to run for Miss Litchfield.

In the end, though, the draw of a childhood dream won out.

“I was like, will I regret this? Because this was something I’ve wanted to do since I was 8 years old,” Toenjes said. “I have pictures of me wearing the Miss Litchfield crown from when I was 10. I was thinking back, and (wondering), would that girl look to me and be, like, ‘Oh, that’s something I was wanting to do, but I was just too scared to go for it?’”

She decided to run, knowing that if she wasn’t chosen to serve as Miss Litchfield or a princess, she could return to marching band as a “super senior” the following year.

“I have nothing to lose here,” she remembered thinking. “I’ll just do it.”

It’s safe to say, she hasn’t regretted a moment of that decision. If anything, the past year has strengthened her belief that she made the right decision.

Role model

In fact, she enjoyed the experience so much that when Watercade representatives asked her in 2020, if she was interested in serving another year as Miss Litchfield, Toenjes didn’t hesitate. But it was a decision based more on the ambassador program’s future than her own enjoyment of the royal role.

Though COVID-19 canceled most of 2020, Toenjes said, she and Princess Abby Johnson did many of the usual royal roles – they attended parades after being crowned in the summer and fall of 2019. And they made many public appearances and volunteered throughout 2020 and early this year.

“I feel like we’ve satisfied, for the most part, our ‘job’” as ambassadors, she said. “But I wanted to mentor the new girls and focus on continuing this program.

“The biggest turning point (in deciding to extend her reign) was thinking about the girls this upcoming year, and how, if we didn’t do it again, how they would be undergoing this new experience, alone with no leadership and role models,” Toenjes said. “It would be a much different experience than I got and I loved so much. I wanted to give these girls that. That was really what drove to doing it another year.”

And the mentoring role has been enjoyable, she said. Being with this year’s six candidates — Gracie Kellen, Abagayle Shoutz, Shamra Sainz, Haylie Magoon, Emma Pyrlik and Claudia Toenjes — at parades, coronation rehearsals and other public events has given her a good feeling about the next group of ambassadors who will represent Litchfield.

“They really remind me of when I was a candidate, because there was also six of us … and the dynamic between the girls, they all come from very different backgrounds and friend groups and experiences. And they are awesome together,” Toenjes said. “They have really impressed me so much, how they get along, how they talk to people, and how they’re willing to step outside their comfort zone to meet new people. So, I’m definitely excited about this group.”

She’s excited, too, about what lies ahead for herself. After crowning her successor Sunday afternoon, she will begin gearing up for the Minneapolis Aquatennial ambassador competition. It’s another opportunity to improve herself, Toenjes said, and to tout the city in which she’s grown up.

Her appreciation for Litchfield has grown during the past two years, she said, as she traveled the state as part of her royal duties and while she was attending University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, where she’s majoring in exercise science.

“My life has changed a lot. I feel like a lot of personal growth happens when you go to college,” she said. “I’m so much more open to new things. My eyes have been opened to other places. Going to other communities, you just are able to appreciate Litchfield and the awesome town that it is even more.”

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Judging on a different scale, Marching Dragons still find success
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Litchfield marching band director David Ceasar likes to win as much as the next guy. Maybe even more sometimes.

So a season-high score and a Best of Site trophy, along with Best Drum Major and Best Drumline hardware, in the Marching Dragons’ final competitive parade was a pretty nice culmination to a season that started with many uncertainties.

But it wasn’t the judges’ 85.5 rating — or the triumph over three other bands — June 27 in the Lake City Water Ski Days parade that held the greatest meaning for Ceasar. Or, he hopes, the 120 members of the LHS marching band.

Instead, it was the moments before Litchfield ever stepped off on the parade route.

“It was a great way to end it, obviously, to win it,” Ceasar said. “But what became really at the forefront of importance was the camaraderie that was displayed before the parade.”

Traditionally, competing bands warm up individually in preparation for a parade. For Litchfield band members, this can be a particularly intense time of practice as Ceasar and assistant director Kelly Taylor pick apart the show, often repeating one section of a show several times in an effort to perfect movement, music or both.

That changed a bit in Lake City when the four participating bands — Litchfield, Owatonna, Buffalo and Lake City — came together to play their shows for each other and “talk band.”

“That, to me, was the best part of the whole day,” Ceasar said, adding that he enjoyed the opportunity to commiserate with fellow directors in a “no holds barred” way about their shows and band programs. “We won Best of Site, which is nice. But the day would have been complete if we hadn’t, as well.”

It certainly sounds like a more laid back perspective than Ceasar’s usual sharp focus on marching band perfection. He attributes some of that to the lost “pandemic year” of 2020, when high school bands, along with most community festivals and parades, were shut down.

The time off gave Ceasar opportunity to readjust his outlook, even as he fretted over what the year off might do to both band participation and Litchfield’s tradition of marching band excellence.

But band numbers were strong to start this season, and even though there were two classes that had never marched before, the inexperienced members learned quickly, he said.

Band directors and the judging association opted to change the traditional announcement of scores after each parade. Directors received their band’s score and judges’ comments only, while public announcements of parade results only offered ranking of “good” to “superior” for participating bands.

Litchfield’s individual score improved with each parade, Ceasar said, with the exception of an oddity at the Paynesville parade, where the Marching Dragons also earned 85.5 points – equal to their final performance in Lake City. The Paynesville parade, however, had only two judges, while others had the usual four or more. The more judges, Ceasar explained, the more sets of eyes to see mistakes and reduce a band’s score.

Litchfield earned an “excellent” rating in three parades and “superior” in two, in addition to claiming grand champion in Hutchinson. The Marching Dragons also performed in three parades that were not judged — Montevideo, Glencoe and Eden Valley.

For Ceasar, the band’s best show of the year came during the Litchfield Parade of Bands.

“I think when you put everything together, not just certain elements like how well they marched or how well they played … that was our best show,” he said. “There was so much energy there from the other bands there, hometown spectators … the kids just shined. They were soaking up all of that attention and it showed. It was great.”

That being said, it wasn’t their “cleanest” show, Ceasar said, but definitely the kind of show he wants the band to give for the people who support it.

And as he watched his band warm up with three other bands in Lake City before its final competitive parade of the season, that’s what Ceasar says he thought about. Not a winning show, or beating all the other bands — a mindset he’s had in the past. Instead, he wanted a band that performed well, could appreciate and learn from other bands, and had fun.

“I still want to win. Competition drives me,” he said. “But I also want to respect the work and the environment and the programs that have been built by other schools.

“It’s all about being the best you can be and learning more each day,” Ceasar added. “In Litchfield, it’s been a part of our culture for this entire time to be competitive. When I came in behind Keith Johnson and Lauri Cervin, that culture was already there … it seems to fit my personality. But as time goes on, I’m less driven by the need to win than by the need to be good. Sometimes the need to be good equals winning, and sometimes it’s just good.”

That “need to be good” will be on display when the Marching Dragons step off for their final parade of the season Saturday evening in the Watercade Grande Day Parade.

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Walz, lawmakers approve record $52B budget
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Minnesota lawmakers and Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday succeeded in approving a record $52 billion two-year state budget to avoid a government shutdown that would have served as a havoc-wreaking capstone to an already havoc-filled period in the state’s history.

The House remained locked in debate over a tax policy bill after 11:30 p.m. and appeared fated to continue for some time, but the spending bills necessary to keep state government open were all passed by both chambers hours before a fiscal midnight deadline.

After emerging from a chaotic crucible of overnight deal-making Tuesday into Wednesday, all the major players strode into Wednesday evening with a swagger backed by words of imminent success, and Walz said he expected to sign all 13 bills approved by both chambers Wednesday night.

In one sense, they only did their most basic job: They agreed on how to spend taxpayers’ money for state services that range from parks to prisons and highways to health programs.

In another sense, they accomplished — or stood on the cusp of accomplishing — what no other state government has had to grapple with in more than two years: A Legislature evenly divided between two parties.

And that, of course, was only enhanced in a state emerging from a pandemic and still reeling from the traumas of unarmed Black men killed by police — and the reckoning and unrest that followed. After all, until a few weeks ago, the Capitol itself was closed to the public for COVID-19 concerns and fenced off for security concerns, under the watchful protection of state law enforcement and the Minnesota National Guard.

“It was just more difficult,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said to reporters Wednesday afternoon. “We really needed the extra month.”

That extra month (actually closer to a month and a half) followed because Republicans who control the Senate and Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party members who control the House failed to find common ground in May, when the state constitution mandates the Legislature adjourn. The recent activity is the result of a special session — the latest in an unprecedented sequence of special sessions required for Walz to keep his pandemic-related emergency powers.

Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, was short on sleep Thursday morning, but he reported he was pleased on the whole with the outcome of the legislative session, and the quality of the state’s budget bills. But that optimism came with an addendum.

“I would caution folks that we’ve got a $50-plus billion budget, much of it based on one-time money coming out of the federal government,” he said. “So we have to be really careful that we don’t run into a deficit in the next biennium.”

Lawmakers, he said, created a budget that used the one-time money without adding “tails” that would need funding into the future. On the other hand, he is less pleased with the outcome of the tax bill, which he voted against.

“There is some pretty decent tax relief in the tax bill. However, having said that, the tax bill at the end of the session became a Christmas tree,” Newman said. “It was where all the pet projects were sent in order to get them successfully paid for.”

One such project he called out was a $24 million grant program.

“Much of that, I believe, will find itself in the city of Minneapolis to rebuilding buildings because of the riots, and I disagree with that,” Newman said.

“We thought that was wrong,” said Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Acton Township. “We wanted (the grants) to be statewide.”

Newman also highlighted the Rondo land bridge — a cap over Interstate 94 for several blocks that aims to reconnect the Rondo neighborhood. The project will cost more than $500 million, Newman said, and potentially up to $1 billion when accounting for the construction of buildings and parks. The project also turned Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen, R-Glencoe, away from the tax bill.

“I was disappointed to have to vote against it because there were many provisions that I supported including full exemption of (the Payment Protection Program) and (unemployment insurance) benefits from state taxes. These were huge wins that will benefit every Minnesotan,” he said, but called the Rondo issue, “a boondoggle of the highest order and reason enough to vote against the bill, despite the positives also contained within.”

Gruenhagen also voted against the government finance bill.

“It grows the size of government and increases spending at a time when many are still trying to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.

Urdahl said he was prepared to vote for the tax bill, but the rough end to the legislation session soured him on it as well. He questioned why time wasn’t given in the House for representatives to speak on the final version.

“They shut us down,” he said. “They wouldn’t let us talk.”

The bill passed handily, 69-55 in the House and 54-11 in the Senate.

Political veterans weren’t surprised that it took so long, or that it took a harrowing deadline to force intransigent or stubbornly principled lawmakers to compromise.

What was remarkable about this year’s protracted proceedings was that there’s an excess of cash in the state. Since the pandemic began, some $18 billion in federal COVID relief or stimulus funds has flowed into the state. Not all of that is state government money, but as late as May, lawmakers learned how they would be permitted to spend roughly $3 billion in federal funds.

So the financial arguments weren’t the perennial narratives of Democrats raising taxes versus Republicans cutting services. In fact, the new budget — which breaks $50 billion for the first time and is a state record even in inflation-adjusted dollars — was poised to cut taxes by close to $1 billion while still increasing spending all over the place.

Public schools will receive the largest per-pupil funding increases in 15 years with a 2.5% increase to the per-pupil funding formula in the first year and 2% in the second. Urdahl said that while he was happy to see such an increase, he regretted how little interest there was in discussing and implementing new policy. He has for a few years now championed legislation that would require high school students to take a civics test before graduation. The proposal did not make it into law, but another cause he has pushed — a teacher mentorship program — did.

“We lose two to three out of five new teachers in the first five years,” he said. “We’re trying to keep them.”

The biggest obstacles — the ones that kept lawmakers in pitched battles until close to the bitter end — to bipartisan agreements weren’t financial, but ideological and relevant to the moment.

In the end, Democrats claimed several victories, such as reforming how warrants are served and increasing transparency for police misconduct, but fell short of many of their aspirations, such as banning armed cops from stopping motorists for relatively minor equipment violations.

Republicans never eased up on a roughly yearlong campaign to end Walz’s emergency powers, ultimately succeeding when the House voted unanimously to end the state of emergency July 1 as part of a larger budget agreement.

“I have voted more than 20 times to end the peacetime emergency and am extremely pleased that we were finally able to get Democrats to join us in getting the job done,” Gruenhagen said. “Our attention should now turn to rewriting Chapter 12 in state law to make sure that future governors cannot abuse emergency powers ever again.”

Newman, however, believes Walz retaliated when a last-minute addition to the tax bill gave Health and Human Services Commissioners the right to declare a public emergency as a response to the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, and extend certain powers for the duration.