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A new year, a new direction: Elwells prepare to retire after nearly 20 years

Jim and Laddie Elwell are stepping down from their positions with the Headwaters Science Center. For nearly 20 years, Laddie has been the executive director while Jim has been the finance officer. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

In spring 1992, as Laddie Elwell prepared for a first-of-its-kind meeting to round up community support for a local science center, she had a statement to make.

"This will not be a museum; it will be a facility for 'hands on' experimental kinds of exhibits, all fun and intellectually challenging."

Now, nearly 20 years later, Elwell is now poised to step down as executive director of Bemidji's Headwaters Science Center. The center, which boasts "45 to 100 exhibits, depending on how you count them," serves 30,000 visitors a year.

Joining Laddie in retirement will be her husband, Jim Elwell, the Science Center's finance officer.

"It's not so much retiring," said Jim Elwell.

"It's about getting a new director, someone with new ideas," Laddie Elwell added.

"We're not retiring; we're stepping back and letting someone else take on the responsibility," Jim Elwell said.

John Mathisen, a retired Minnesota Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist, was among those who planned two decades ago for a local science center.

"It's just amazing that they've been able to keep doing what they're doing all this time," he said of the Elwells. "Laddie is the kind of person that gets things done. She has so much enthusiasm for it; it would be very difficult to find anyone with that kind of energy."

Something for kids

The Elwells, who have never claimed a salary for their science center work, came to Bemidji 40 years ago; Jim was a professor at Bemidji State University and Laddie was an adjunct professor who also conducted research and studies.

Laddie long ago hosted a science fair at BSU and found that there were "very few" scientific resources available in the area for teachers. She soon secured a grant through the Blandin Foundation to work with teachers on science.

Laddie also was working here on behalf of the Science Museum of Minnesota. She went to the museum frequently, and on one trip, she noticed a variety of students from Warroad, Thief River Falls, Northome and Bemidji.

"It just seemed that there should be something for kids up here," she said.

The Bemidji community has always had sports and arts programs, she noted.

"There are kids who love science or what science brings into their lives," she said.

"It was clear that kids needed something more than what they were getting at school to get them really turned on about science," Mathisen said.

The early years

The Headwaters Science Center opened in July 1993 in the former J.C. Penney building downtown. The 26,900-sqaure-foot building was listed at $500,000, but the late Rosemary Given Amble somehow talked the price down to $100,000.

There were three initial exhibits: the bicycle gyroscope, a parrot and a 7-foot-long python named Monty. The parrot belonged to the Elwells and the python was on loan from a teacher whose wife didn't want it in the garage during the summer. The bicycle gyroscope was made by Chuck Deeter for the Science Center.

The three exhibits did not come close to filling the building so volunteers hosted a variety of events to utilize the space. Jim and Laddie both recalled putting a target on the ceiling and holding aeroprop-flying contests.

The building also hosted the Bemidji library's used book sale during Crazy Days as rows of tables were filled with books.

One year, a shopper happened to be holding a book on reptiles so Laddie casually asked if she had stopped by to see Monty. The woman said she had tried, but someone must have taken him out of the cage for feeding.

Nonchalantly, Laddie went to check on Monty, and, sure enough, the cage was empty.

But it was not intentional.

"The worst thing I had to do was tell all those librarians that the snake was loose," Laddie recalled, laughing.

After 90 minutes, they found him in the basement. It was cooler down there, so his movements had slowed down a bit. Staff caught him just in time. Another few minutes and he would have reached the huge pile of Alice in Wonderland mechanical models, stored there on behalf of the downtown Minneapolis Dayton's.

"We never would have found him if he got in there," Laddie said.

The exhibits come

The Headwaters Science Center spent much of 1992 and 1993 fundraising as volunteers aimed to gather enough money to rent the building and to secure additional exhibits.

The Pacific Science Center of Seattle, Wash., had science center start-up grant money available, but the Headwaters Science Center had to pay $77,000. Eleven exhibits from the Pacific Science Center arrived by March 1994.

In July 1993, workers purchased and moved furniture and scientific equipment from the University of Minnesota's old zoology building in Minneapolis.

Later, the Science Museum of Minnesota donated exhibits not used in their new facility.

The Science Center paid off the building in 1999. Memberships, entrance fees, donations, grants and sales from the center's store provide funds for its operation. The budget for the facility in 2010 was $219,000.

The center, since its opening, has become a destination for area schoolchildren. School groups from 25 area counties account for one-quarter to one-third of all visits, according to the science center.

A new direction

A combination of factors led to the Elwells' decision to step back, but they said the main reason is that the Science Center needs new energy to lead the facility into its future.

The center has basically outgrown its current building; the exhibits must be rotated in and out as the floor space cannot accommodate them all.

The Science Center is now campaigning for a new building. 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.

With the new direction comes the need for a new executive director, who is expected to be named next month. The Elwells gave the board of directors a year's notice that they would step down from their positions at the end of January 2012.

"It's been fun," Laddie Elwell said of their tenure. "We've had a lot accomplished."

Looking back

Laddie said that if one was to walk down the sidewalks in 1992 and ask Bemidji residents if the city needed a science center, he would get a blank stare in response.

People didn't care, she said.

And now?

The Science Center recently completed its "I Gave Ten" initiative, challenging the community to raise $40,000 for a matching grant. The center was asking supporters to donate $10 each.

They did that - and more.

"We got all kinds of support," Laddie said.

Businesses donated upwards of $2,000 and donations continued to come in after the grant had been matched.

In all, the initiative raised more than $83,000.

"It's been fabulous," Laddie said. "We met our goal and people are still coming in. We are just overwhelmed with the response from the community."