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A Christmas surprise: To be with family in trying times, man drives from Ohio to surprise family in Bemidji

Joe Knutson drove to Bemidji from his home in Ohio to surprise his family on Christmas Eve. Pictured with Joe is his late wife, Anna, who died in mid-November after a five-year battle with breast cancer.

BEMIDJI -- He drove 16 hours to surprise his family on Christmas Eve.

Joyful relatives rushed to greet Joe Knutson as he let himself into his aunt’s and uncle’s Bemidji home Tuesday, catching off guard his family members who previously had been told he wouldn’t make it.

“It was wonderful,” Joe said, speaking by cellphone Thursday as he headed back to Ohio. “We played games. We ate a lot of food. We laughed and we cried.”

Expecting an enthusiastic response to his surprise visit, Joe had decided to record his arrival on video.

“I’ve never done anything like this before,” said Joe, an East Grand Forks, N.D., native. “I just knew my family would absolutely lose it. I thought it would be fun to videotape it and have a good laugh.”

But as they watched the video and shared it with friends and relatives, the response was emotional.

“Instead of laughing, we all started crying,” he said.

Someone suggested he post it on YouTube or Reddit, so he did. By Thursday afternoon, the YouTube video -- which can be found by searching “Christmas Surprise 2013” -- eclipsed 30,000 views.

“I wasn’t seeking fame,” Joe said, quietly emphatic.

He did it for his family, for himself.

It was emotional reunion. Joe’s wife of nearly a decade, Anna, died six weeks ago, just before Thanksgiving, succumbing to breast cancer after a five-year battle.

“It’s still, this whole loss is very raw,” Joe said, struggling to find the words. “The holidays, they just it make that much more… the holidays, they just make that feeling of loss even heavier.”

So, with an eye on the weather forecasts, he decided to head north from his home in Ohio.

“My family lives a thousand miles away from where my wife and I live, and it was hard on my family to not be able to be there every step of the way (through Anna’s illness),” Joe said. “That's why this trip just meant so much for everyone.”

His aunt and uncle had recently purchased a lake home in Bemidji, but they never had shared the address. Joe tracked it down through tax records.
“Lots of cousins were there and other aunts and uncles. It was a full house,” he said. “We are a big, loud boisterous family. We all love each other. Through Anna’s disease, and our journey, it really drew our family closer together.”

The video opens with a monologue, with Joe talking about Anna, his family and his expectations for an exuberant response to his arrival.

You hear his footsteps as he walks up to the house, hear the door as he lets himself in, and then he announces his arrival, “Merry Christmas everybody!”

Squeals of excitement follow as everyone rushes to greet him.

“You stinker butt!” someone says.

Another three minutes of video captures the subsequent hugs, the questions, the tears.

“It was worth every minute,” Joe said Thursday.

Had he not made the trek, Joe said he’d have stayed in Ohio to spend the holidays with Anna’s family, but as his plan took shape, they, too, encouraged him to head to Bemidji.

Joe said he hadn’t initially planned to share the video publicly but did so after seeing how others responded. While he has garnered a bit of Internet fame, he said that was not his intention and he asks that anyone who feels moved to do something on behalf of himself or his late wife consider a memorial to Stewart’s Caring Place, 2955 W. Market Street, Fairlawn, Ohio 44333, a nonprofit that provides support services to families touched by cancer.

See Joe's video here: