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Headwaters Science Center: Laddie, Jim Elwell to retire in February

Laddie and Jim Elwell are planning to retire in February from leadership posts at the Headwaters Sciene Center. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

In 1992, a group of Bemidji residents discussed the possibility of establishing a science center in town.

Most of those who were interested grew up in cities where the science centers were major attractions.

"To my amazement, 30 people showed up," said Laddie Elwell, Headwaters Science Center executive director.

That was the beginning, but now, 19 years later, Laddie and her husband, Jim, the HCS finance officer are ready to retire in February and make way for non-volunteer officers.

"I think the center needs new blood, someone with science center connections," Laddie said.

She said after the initial local meeting, she Jim traveled to a meeting in Boston on the subject, with the Association of Science Technology Centers when they heard that the Pacific Science Center of Seattle, Wash., had science center start-up grant money available. The hitch was that the deadline for application was the very next day.

"What it was was half price for all the exhibits," Jim said of the grant.

However, HSC had to pay the other half, and Laddie personally signed a contract to pay the Seattle organization $77,000.

"That was a crazy thing to do," she said. "I don't think the center had $1,000."

"That's a lot of spaghetti dinners," Jim added.

The next step was to find a science center space. The old JCPenney building on Beltrami Avenue Northwest was available, but listed at $500,000, Laddie said. The late Rosemary Given Amble had some connections with the real estate company that listed it and somehow got the price reduced to $100,000.

"We opened officially March 6, 1994," Laddie said.

The HSC has paid off the mortgage now owns the building free and clear. The center now employs nine full- and part-time workers.

The couple recalled some of the adventures that came up during their tenure as HSC officers. There have always been animals at HSC, but the first was a seven-foot-long python named, appropriately, Monty. One day when the Bemidji Public Library was using part of the science center space for a book sale, Monty Python escaped from his cage. HSC staff spent two hours nonchalantly looking under tables for the snake hoping it wouldn't slither out and cause a panic. They eventually found him heading for a hiding place in the basement.

Although Laddie and Jim are stepping down, they continue to look forward to the future for the science center. The city has set aside land in the railroad corridor near Minnesota Avenue Southwest for a new center, which has been designed as a multipurpose attraction with areas dedicated to science, the arts, the American Indian community and early childhood education.

Science, arts and culture under one roof," said Jim. "The idea is this becoming a real tourist destination."

There are a couple of funding bills circulating in the state Legislature, Laddie said, although she doesn't expect them to be successful this year.

"We have to keep it alive," she said.