Rochester has represented hope for individuals and families for 135 years. It was in August 1883 that a tornado ripped through Rochester on what started out an average, muggy Tuesday afternoon. By 7 p.m., three tornadoes had devastated southeastern Minnesota, leaving 40 people dead and at least 200 injured.
The mayor of Rochester, Samuel Whitten, telegraphed the governor of Minnesota, Governor Lucius F. Hubbard: "Rochester is in ruins … we need immediate help."
Rochester had about 5,000 residents in those days. The tornado destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses. One can imagine the utter shock and disbelief of the survivors. Everyone would’ve been impacted in some way by the catastrophe.
After the storm had passed, Whitten gathered a group of volunteers to go throughout the town, reaching out to those who needed assistance. One can imagine what a hopeful sight it must have been to see those community members and their lanterns ready to help in the pitch-black night.
By the next morning, local doctors W. W. Mayo, William Mayo, and Charlie Mayo were working alongside Mother Alfred Moes and the Sisters of Saint Francis providing emergency medical care to the wounded. A local dance spot called Rommel Hall was converted into a makeshift emergency room. There were only three hospitals in Minnesota at that time outside of the Twin Cities. Setting up a local treatment facility was the only option the community had if they wanted to save lives. For those who needed immediate medical care after the tornado, the emergency center was a beacon of hope.
After the cacophony created by the tornado had passed, Mother Alfred Moes approached Dr. W. W. Mayo with a transformative idea — an idea that permanently shifted the trajectory of Rochester. She said she wanted to build a hospital and requested that he head the medical staff. Dr. Mayo was concerned that Rochester was too small to support the hospital, but Mother Alfred was determined. She and the other Franciscan Sisters saved their money for several years in order to buy the land and eventually the building plans for the clinic.
Six years later, in September 1889, the hospital opened. There was finally a place where surgeries could be performed. Imagine the hope that must have provided to families in this whole part of the state.
These days, Mayo represents hope not just for the people of Minnesota but for folks from around the world. I recently witnessed it in the eyes of a 12-year-old boy and his parents at an airport. It was a Sunday evening and everyone in the terminal had grown weary of hearing about more delays and cancellations.
"The flight to Rochester has been delayed until 7 p.m.," a voice said over the intercom. "We’re waiting for that flight," I overheard one exhausted person say to another. "Me, too," I chimed in.
The family I met that evening had woken up very early that morning to leave their farm in rural Texas. They’d already been on a few planes. Rochester was their final destination. "Do you know any good places we should eat?" the mother asked. "Absolutely, I’ll make you a list," I said, grabbing my notebook.
The 12-year-old walked over to where I was sitting. We sat side-by-side for a while discussing his favorite foods so I could make a good restaurant list. He spoke with a southern drawl that could melt your heart and carried mints in his pocket.
"Ma’am," he said. "Do you work at the Mayo Clinic?" His eyes were wide and curious. "No," I responded, "But I’m a patient there. I go every week for my injection, and they are wonderful people. They helped me when I really needed it."
"Oh, that’s good," he said. "I’ve been to hospitals all over. You know how it goes," he looked away and sighed in exhaustion.
His mom and dad glanced over to us. They were tired, too. Tired and hopeful.
One-hundred and thirty-five years ago, Rochester was a tired, worn, broken community. The residents had been rocked by a terrible disaster. They’d lost their friends, family members, animals and homes. And yet, they kept going. They rebuilt. And some banded together toward a common goal of reconstructing Rochester into a place of healing.
"If we get to the hotel early enough, I’m goin’ swimmin’," the boy said a few hours later, as we all boarded the plane.
He was a kid who just wanted to go for a hotel pool swim. Hope floats, after all.
We are a city of healing and hope, and we have been for 135 years. What a legacy we have been given.