by Fran Edstrom, columnist
My old friend Bernie Wagnild died on Christmas Day, 2022. Leave it to Bernie to make his exit on a day that would be memorable.
Bernie was one of those guys who went through life with the intention of getting to know everyone he ever encountered, sometimes even a random stranger on the street.
In his native Minneapolis, he knew all the maitre d’s at all the good restaurants. He was buddies with the salesmen at the downtown men’s clothing shops. If you didn’t know the truth, you’d think he was a notorious name-dropper. But he knew all these people — millionaires and politicians, university presidents and religious leaders (he was a lifelong Lutheran but received honors from both Catholics and Jews), the guys in the parts department at his dealerships and probably all the others in town, and the old guy who mowed the lawn down the street. They were his friends and he knew their life stories!
He and Jan, and their three children, returned to Winona in 1975 to open Wagnild Chevrolet, located on Huff Street where Chrysler Winona is now. John and I had started the Winona Shopper (later Winona Post) in late 1971. Bernie always liked to tell people the story about the first time he and Jan socialized with the Edstroms, so I will repeat the story here, but, of course, not as vividly told as Bernie would do.
Wagnild Chevrolet became an important advertiser for the Shopper, and John enjoyed his relationship with Bernie. He came home one evening, probably in 1979 or 80, and said that he and Bernie had been discussing over a beer at the Williams Annex one day after work the fact that they thought their wives would enjoy meeting each other. So John had invited them over for the next Saturday night.
Yikes! We had just moved into my dream home at 677 Washington Street, and it was hardly ready for such important guests. It was a big house, and we had moved from a very small house. We had no furniture, except what we had bought at an estate sale on a farm over on Canada Ridge, and hand-me-downs from John’s mother, who was doing some remodeling.
There was not a stitch of furniture in the living room or formal dining room. I made John move some very nice porch furniture inherited from his mother, from our front porch to the living room. The house had a really nice fireplace in the living room, and we arranged the settee and chairs around it. Add a couple of low-wattage lamps and it was almost charming. We brought in firewood, cleaned the bathroom, and washed the faces of the two daughters.
Here, I have to add that we had a pet, a very beautiful Russian Blue-like cat named La Belle Tinker. She usually ignored all of us, except when we most wanted her to just go away and curl up on the back of the chair in the den.
As John was laying the fire in anticipation of the Wagnilds’ arrival, the cat was poking around the firewood, rubbing against John’s arms, and generally being in the way. John carefully rolled up old newspapers (we had a ready supply) into ersatz kindling, and came out to the kitchen to get matches. I was just arranging a tray of hors d’oeuvres (cheese and crackers), but didn’t want to put it down in the living room if the cat was going to pounce on it and leave embarrassing teeth marks and foot prints. “Where’s La Belle,” I asked. “She was just here,” John replied, as he knelt to light the newspaper.
He had no more than touched the match to the paper, creating an instant conflagration, than the cat, who had climbed into the fireplace and hidden up on the smoke shelf, poked her head out.
John yelled! “Get water! Get water!” Of course, one of the girls had just flushed the toilet, which, as the house was built in 1891, pretty much meant that all the faucets in the house were reduced to a trickle. I got a bucket set up collecting the drips, and ran back to the living room. John was just in the act of grabbing our brand new 4 by 6 foot Persian carpet that we bought from a WSU student from the Middle East.
Now, I know that all the animal lovers out there will gasp when I say that I seized the carpet and yelled, “NO!” Little Cassidy, seeing this, ran to the bathroom and grabbed up the cotton rug, dragging it to the living room. None of us was thinking well, as the bucket was collecting water at the rate that cold molasses comes from the bottle.
John grabbed the cotton rug, attempting to smother the flames. Instead, the flames engulfed the rug. John, visualizing a visit from the fire department and a homeless little family, grabbed it out of the firebox, and screamed, “Open the door!” I ran and opened the front door, and the screen door, and he threw the flaming rug out onto the snow next to the front sidewalk.
When he raced back to the scene of the smoking cat, I finally had enough water in the bucket to help. He threw it on the fire, and as smoke and steam billowed out, the cat streaked out of the fireplace and out the front doors into the winter night.
Now, picture this from the Wagnilds’ point of view. Being a prompt couple, they were just slamming the doors of whatever new Chevrolet they were driving, and walking past a burning rug on the front lawn. (“Now what have you gotten me into, Bernie?” Jan was probably thinking.) As they mounted the front steps, a gray streak, some kind of animal, raced past them, smelling like burning hair. The doors were wide open, even though it was winter in Minnesota.
When they rang the bell, they were met by a frazzled couple, a smoke-filled living room, and two teary little girls, who had just witnessed their darling cat jumping out of the fire and disappearing into the night.
This was the beginning of a wonderful friendship of over 40 years, that survived not only that night but the sale of Wagnild Chevrolet and Wagnilds’ move to Minneapolis, where they opened Valley Automotive in Apple Valley.
We shared occasions both joyous and sorrowful.
Jan and I did, indeed, enjoy meeting each other, and remain fast friends. We mourned when John died, and now are deeply mourning Bernie’s passing. I am anticipating that our friendship will endure for many more years.
Oh, getting back to the end of the fateful night. As the Wagnilds were getting ready to leave after dinner, the cat returned. She seemed unscathed, except for her luxuriant whiskers, which were noticeably frizzled. The rug had burned itself out on the lawn.
It was only as I got into bed, turned out the light and laid my head on the pillow that night that I remembered the fire extinguisher in a cupboard not five feet from the fireplace. “Next time,” I thought, before thinking, “God forbid!”
We had many more memorable nights and days, and there were a lot of stories worth retelling. Bernie was a great guy, a good friend, and one of the more interesting and intriguing of the people I’ve met in what is getting to be a long life.
Rest in peace, Bernie. Or maybe not! I bet there are untold numbers of people for you to get to know up there.
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