32 years later, the hurt is still there
Making good decisions is always essential in life and especially when it comes to mixing alcohol and driving.
That toxic mixture of alcohol and driving changed the lives of Roger and Joanne Sorenson of Blooming Prairie forever. It was a drunk driver who killed their daughter Kelly Jo, 32 years ago on U.S. Highway 218, about seven miles south of Blooming Prairie.
Kelly Jo was 19 at the time of her death. “Her life stopped for her and us at age 19 and we will always remember her as 19,” said Joanne.
“This is a death that should not have happened,” Roger says in a voice choked with emotion.
Living a changed life, the Sorensons said they try to think of how Kelly would have wanted them to live after she departed so suddenly. “Today we are doing fine and are not mired in sorrow,” Joanne offers.
Roger has chosen to speak out about the ills of drunk driving and hopes his words may save lives. Roger has become a speaker on victim impact panels that are provided for those found guilty of DUI (Driving Under the Influence). DUI offenders in Minnesota are often mandated by the courts to attend these victim impact panel sessions. These panels are arranged by MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving). Typically, three victims, those who have lost loved ones, serve on the panel led by a Minnesota State Patrol officer.
Roger has spoken to panels in Mankato, Albert Lea, Austin and Waseca. He also participated in a mock crash in Northfield at the high school.
Roger believes his portrayal of loss can hopefully “make something positive out of a negative.”
If the decision or choice is to drink and drive, Roger says the the driver might luckily end up at home, may end up having to pay huge fines, or having to attend an impact panel session, or they might take someone else’s life including their own. “Those who make that decision to drink and drive are taking a big risk,” he added.
Roger related that he has been part of a victim impact panel where an offender spoke about being drunk and killing a father of four children. “His story had a lot of impact,” Roger said.
Roger and Joanne said most who attend the impact panels because of a court order are angry. “They are angry because they got caught, because they had to pay $50 to enroll in the session and because it was a court order they had to be there,” Roger explained. Many of them appear without a driver’s license, the Sorensons said.
Offenders span all ages, the Sorensons said, but most dominantly are those in their 20s.
Roger has chosen to speak for him and his wife and said his 15- to 20-minute talk more recently has become a half hour. “I don’t do it for any motivation other than hoping to save lives,” Roger remarked.
Roger and Joanne reside in a rambler with their energy-packed Dachshund named Addie. As the Sorensons welcome visitors to their home, they laugh and say, “Welcome to our gated community.” They are speaking of a portable gate in place indoors to keep Addie under control. “She adds so much life around here,” Joanne said. The Sorensons have previously owned Dachshunds and had Gertie when Kelly was living with them.
The Sorensons said they became “damaged goods” upon the death of their daughter. “We had to develop a new normal,” Joanne says. “We could never be normal parents again,” Roger pointed out. They have a son Jeff who is three years younger than Kelly would have been. The two siblings were very close, the Sorensons related. “Jeff lost not only his only sibling but his confidante and sibling support system,” Joanne said.
“We’ve heard it all,” says Roger. “People say, ‘Can’t you get over it?’ ‘She is in a better place,’ ‘You have such wonderful memories,’ or ‘God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.’”
The Sorensons said daughter Kelly Jo had just finished her first year at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter. She was working as a certified nursing assistant at the Prairie Manor Care Center during the summer of 1984. A Blooming Prairie High School graduate, Kelly Jo was a member of the BPHS and Gustavus Adolphus College golf teams and also loved to play the piano and act in plays.
“She was an easy daughter to raise; she had such a bubbly personality,” Roger attests. “There was so much potential that was destroyed by the act of one person,” he adds.
“I will always remember her goodness; she continues to live in our hearts,” Joanne quickly interjects.
On the Sunday night she was killed, Kelly was a passenger in a car driven by a friend, Barbara Iverson. Kelly had been asked to accompany her friend in taking a relative to Austin. Both had just finished playing softball in Blooming Prairie.
On the return to Blooming Prairie, the crash occurred on a sharp curve just north of Lansing Corners.
The Sorensons talk openly about the night of the crash, saying their daughter left the house without a purse, thus she had no identification on her when the crash occurred. Roger said. More often than not, the Sorensons would have stayed up, awaiting their daughter’s return. “Mysteriously, we went to sleep and did not awaken until the door bell rang at 4:30 in the morning,” Roger Sorenson said.
The State Patrol brought the news of Kelly’s death after first going to another house, thinking the victim’s parents lived there. The Patrol had identified the driver as Barbara Iverson. She was critically injured and did survive.
The driver of the other car was also seriously injured. In talking about the other driver, the Sorensons choose not to reveal his name even though it is a matter of public record. “This person’s bad decision took our daughter’s life,” Joanne said. “No one knows how many people this driver met that night and he might have taken someone else out, too,” Roger said.
“You can be doing all the right things and run across somebody who does the wrong thing,” Roger says in wonder.
“She never gave us heartaches until she left us,” Joanne said.
Both Roger and Joanne became disillusioned by the court system in the months to come after the crash. “We went to the county attorney and he challenged us to let our daughter rest in peace,” Roger recalls. “We wanted justice; something went wrong here,” he added.
No charges were brought until two years later when a newly elected Mower County Attorney Patrick Oman said he would actively move the case. With the help of the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension building evidence, the county attorney charged the driver with reckless driving, alcohol involved.
The man was convicted by a jury and sentenced to 30 days and jail and a $300 fine. A judge later suspended the sentence providing the defendant be on good behavior. The Sorensons recall seeing the offender and said he showed no remorse and never apologized to the Sorensons. “Had he shown remorse, we maybe could have handled things better,” Roger said.
Joanne said they are often asked if they have forgiven the offender and they reply that they have forgiven him “not to excuse him for his actions but we want to live our lives to the fullest. It’s what Kelly would have wanted,” Joanne said. “I don’t care if he’s alive, dead, in jail or wins the lottery,” she continued. “We do not allow him to be a part of our conscious life any more,” Joanne said.
“Our recovery from this tragedy was made more possible by our faith and by some really good friends, including some not to close friends, who came out of the woodwork,” Joanne shares.
In dealing with her grief Joanne chose to visit a psychiatrist who helped her deal with some of her fears associated with loss. The couple also attended Compassionate Friends grief support group meetings.
She said she thought she could never return to Gustavus but was told by a psychiatrist to visit the campus, daughter Kelly’s dorm and the school cafeteria. The Sorensons made the visit.
Joanne also said she never wanted to drive to Austin again. “The psychiatrist told me to make two to three trips to Austin and feel the pain and suffer the sharp edges. “We did it together,” Joanne said.
The Sorensons were most gratified when Gustavus invited them to attend the graduation of Kelly’s class. They were presented with a degree posthumously. “We were reduced to tears,” Roger said.
Roger often compares their loss with being in the deepest valley and trying to crawl out.
To this date the Sorensons have had no contact with the offender.
The Sorensons also learned that the defendant was later arrested on another DUI charge and sentenced to time in jail.
DWI laws have changed significantly and have become tougher the past 32 years and that has been a good sign, the Sorensons believe.
Attitudes about drunk driving have also changed, the Sorensons claim. “People talk about designated drivers and that’s a good thing, too,” Roger said.
Both are also concerned about distracted driving and said it can be as bad as driving drunk.
Roger taught in the Blooming Prairie school system for 36 years. He taught seventh-grade English and also high school world history. Joanne has been employed as a registered nurse at the Owatonna Hospital since 1981. Both are retired, however Joanne still works part-time at the hospital.
“Kelly’s spirit is with us always,” says Joanne. “It’s hard to describe but she is with me all the time,” Joanne continued.
“Even in recent years when we were on the highest mountain in Norway, Kelly Jo was with us in our conscience,” Roger says with comfort.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Steele County Times is spearheading a special project for the year 2016 on Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) and how it affects families in our area. One story a month during 2016 will examine drunk driving and how it impacts our communities. A special tabloid publication on this topic will also be published in the spring. Our project is called U Booze, U Drive, U Lose.