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Neighbors old and new celebrate 50th annual South Lake Irving Fish Fry

Community members gathered to celebrate the 50th annual neighborhood fish fry on Tuesday hosted by the South Lake Irving Association, as a part of a yearly National Night Out event.

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Bemidji Police Chief Mike Mastin, left, serves up during South Lake Irving Association's 50th annual fish fry on Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022, at Roger Lehmann Park.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer
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BEMIDJI — Pat and Bill Kelly hardly imagined that the small fish fry they helped start in 1972 would still be going 50 years later, let alone that it would help bring over 100 friends and neighbors together to celebrate the South Lake Irving community.

But on Tuesday, Aug. 2, as groups of adults laughed and caught up and children tossed beach balls and played with new friends, it was hard to deny that they had helped create something special.

“It certainly was not like this at all (50 years ago),” Bill said. “There was just a group of people who said we needed to get neighbors together, so we said let’s get together.”

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Former presidents of the South Lake Irving Association Bill and Pat Kelly listen to Richard Lehmann speak during the association's 50th annual fish fry on Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022, at Roger Lehmann Park.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer

Organized by the South Lake Irving Association, the fish fry is now one of several events throughout Bemidji that celebrate National Night Out, drawing in community members to Roger Lehmann Park for good food and even better company.

“That’s the nice thing about neighborhoods that can get together like this,” said Richard Lehmann, the neighborhood association’s current president, “it gives the opportunity for people to meet their neighbors.”

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Richard Lehmann, president of the South Lake Irving Association, speaks to attendees during the association's 50th annual fish fry on Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022, at Roger Lehmann Park.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer

People who used to live in the neighborhood mingled with those who currently call it home, swapping stories and getting to know each other.

“It’s fun to see all the kids we don’t know and a lot of people we still remember,” Pat said.

Pat and Bill no longer live in the neighborhood, which they called home for 53 years, having moved to a different part of Bemidji a couple of years back to, as Bill joked, “shovel less snow.”

But the South Lake Irving Association made a point of inviting them back for the 50th anniversary since they served as the organization’s first presidents and played such an important role in getting the fish fry started.

“If it wasn’t for the people who came before and set the stage, (the fish fry) wouldn’t have happened,” Lehmann shared. “I think this neighborhood can take great pride in that we kind of set an example of how neighborhoods can get together.”

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Bemidji police officer Anthony Olson, left, chats with Doug Hood during South Lake Irving Association's 50th annual fish fry on Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022, at Roger Lehmann Park.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer

Alongside the fried fish, long tables of potluck staples were laid out for the meal, and later in the evening, there was a short game of trivia and drawings for a few door prizes.

And as a part of National Night Out, attendees were also able to chat with their local first responders and children were given brief tours of the fire engine that came especially for the occasion.

“I think it’s just really cool to have any first responders, just to be out in the community and say 'hey we’re here' and meet people,” said Henry Steever, a member of the Bemidji Fire Department who attended the event.

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Bemidji firefighters show an attendee the inside of a fire engine compartment during South Lake Irving Association's 50th annual fish fry on Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022, at Roger Lehmann Park.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer

While the fish fry wasn’t always a part of National Night Out, something that was first created in 1984, the presence of firefighters and law enforcement has become a well-loved staple at the event.

“I can remember my kids looking at the fire truck at these picnics and now my son is a firefighter,” Pat exclaimed.

While the picnic has changed throughout the years, with the addition of first responders and the ebb and flow of neighbors moving in and out, one thing has remained constant: the sense of togetherness and community pride that the event instills.

“We’re very proud of our neighborhood and how important getting together as a community is. This is what makes small-town America so great,” Lehmann said. “It’s a labor of love when you do this kind of stuff.”

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Children play on the playground during South Lake Irving Association's 50th annual fish fry on Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022, at Roger Lehmann Park.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer
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The South Lake Irving Association's 50th annual fish fry was held on Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022, at Roger Lehmann Park.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer

Related Topics: BEMIDJI
Nicole Ronchetti is a reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer, focusing on local government and community health.
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