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Blizzard of 1966 presents miraculous birth stories

GRAND FORKS -- Could it be that being born in a blizzard prepares a child for just about anything in life? The sons of two women who gave birth at the former St. Michael's Hospital in Grand Forks during the historic blizzard of March 1966 provide...

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Mrs. Kirk Blecha, (foreground), State Street, a registered nurse, with her son, born Sunday, March 6. She walked 10 blocks to the hospital Thursday, worked two 8-hour shifts, then checked in as a patient to give birth.Mrs. John Nelson, Princeton Trailer Court, with her daughter, born Sunday, March 6. (Grand Forks Herald File Photo, March 1966.)

GRAND FORKS -- Could it be that being born in a blizzard prepares a child for just about anything in life?

The sons of two women who gave birth at the former St. Michael's Hospital in Grand Forks during the historic blizzard of March 1966 provide some evidence of that.

Steve Johnson, who is observing his 50th birthday today, grew up to win the 1983 North Dakota High School Hockey Championship with Grand Forks Central High School and the 1987 NCAA Hockey Championship with the University of North Dakota.

Four years after his birth, Cole Blecha's family moved from Grand Forks to Oregon. There, he grew up to be an high school all-state athlete in football, basketball and baseball.

Their mothers still have vivid memories of their harrowing journeys just to get to the hospital as the blizzard raged.

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Maggie Johnson, an 18-year-old newlywed at the time, was due to deliver her first child on March 6, 1966. She and her husband, Gary, were living in a basement apartment in the 100 block of Lincoln Drive.

With the storm approaching on March 2, 1966, and Gary working the night shift on the Northern Pacific Railway, Maggie's mother asked her to stay with her at a home in the 1400 block of Ninth Avenue North, which was a few miles closer to the hospital.

"I think Gary might have suggested it since he was working nights," she said.

Just in time

After a rather uncomfortable night, Maggie went into labor the following day.

They left the house at about 11:30 a.m., taking her mother's car with Maggie lying down on the back seat. But with the storm raging, they didn't get very far. They got stuck on 10th Avenue North, near the present-day Darcy's Cafe.

"Some kids came by and were going to try to push us out," she said. "I remember putting my hand up and trying to wave to them. I didn't want to scare them."

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Eventually, a snow plow arrived to plow a path in front of them.

"(Gary) must have got a snow plow and a driver from the railroad. They tried to plow ahead of us," she said.

It worked for a while until the snow plow became stuck near Memorial Park Cemetery.

"We couldn't go any farther. We couldn't turn onto Columbia Road," she said. "We walked some. I know Gary carried me part of the way. When we got closer, they put me in a wheelchair."

She finally checked in at 3 p.m., about the time that her physician, Dr. Richard Helm, arrived on a snowmobile.

Her son, Steve, was born at 4:02 p.m., weighing 8 pounds, 15 ounces.

"The next day, my folks walked to the hospital," she said. "I remember I had never seen my mom in long pants before. She had long pants underneath a dress.

"When they got to the hospital, they weren't going to let them in to see us. They said it wasn't visiting hour. And they had walked a couple of miles through the snow. I did get to take them down the hall so they could see my baby.

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"It's probably a good thing it was my first child, because I didn't know what to expect," she said.

Stranded and delivered

Though she was nine months pregnant, delivering a baby was not foremost in Cheryll Blecha's mind March 3, 1966, during the height of the blizzard.

"I was bound and determined I had to go to work. If I couldn't get to work, nobody could," she said in a phone interview from Arizona.

Blecha, who was a registered nurse at St. Michael's Hospital at the time, and her husband, Kirk, lived on State Street just off University Avenue.

"University Avenue was plugged up with snow drifts. My husband walked along with me," she said.

The 10-block trip took more than an hour. Once at the hospital, she and other nurses worked rotating shifts through the blizzard, catching sleep when they could.

"We had a system of rotating beds," she said. "We were all stranded there. We had taken over the nurses quarters.

"The house was full; there wasn't a single empty bed. We had patients in a classroom. They were well enough to go home, but nobody could go home. We put them to work because we were really busy."

The hospital was affiliated with St. Joseph's School of Nursing, a Minneapolis school that had an affiliation with St. Michael's and hospitals in Fargo and Jamestown, N.D.

They kept up the hectic schedule -- working a shift, taking one off, then working again -- throughout the blizzard.

When the storm began to let up on Saturday, Blecha checked herself into the hospital.

"The storm had stopped; my water had broken," she said.

She called her husband to bring in the suitcase she already had packed.

"He forgot there was one packed, so he packed another one," she said.

Their son, Cory, was born at about 2 a.m. Sunday.

In 1970, the family moved to Oregon, where they still live.

Toboggan power

Blecha remembers another woman who had a baby just about the same time as her son was born.

The two and their newborn babies were featured in a photograph that was published in the Grand Forks Herald on March 8, 1966.

However, attempts to track down the woman, who was identified only as Mrs. John Nelson of Princeton Trailer Court, were unsuccessful.

She had traveled part way to the hospital in the blizzard by toboggan before riding in a van. The the van later got stuck and a bulldozer was used to clear the way between North Sixth Street and Columbia Road, where the entire caravan got stuck.

The men accompanying her then used the toboggan as a stretcher, carrying her to the hospital late that Saturday afternoon.

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