A week to remember
Eleven Marshall High School seniors spent an intense week at Boys State and found it to be an experience they will probably benefit from throughout their lives
Eleven young men from Marshall recently had the opportunity to take part in the 70th annual American Legion Minnesota Boys State program held on the campus of St. John’s University in Collegeville, and for many of them it was a life-changing experience.
Boys State is a unique program that brings together high school seniors-to-be from across the state. Passionate volunteers — oftentimes veterans and past Boys Staters — share valuable insight and guide the participants early on, but then the young men take over and lead the mock political process themselves.
“Going into Boys State, it was really hard to know what to expect,” Daniel VanKeulen said. “I heard from my brother (Alex) that it was very worthwhile but not the most fun thing in the world, but I also heard from other people that it was one of the most life-changing things in their life. What I found, as time went on throughout the week, is that you got out of the week what you put into it. I decided to commit to having fun, ran for office and made lots of friends, so it became one of the most fun weeks I’ve had in my whole life.”
Cole Remme agreed.
“I also didn’t know what to expect, but if you go into the week thinking it’s going to suck, then you’re not going to have any fun,” Remme said. “But if you say, ‘This is going to be worthwhile’ and you come in wanting to learn, you will learn. And it was a lot of fun.”
Ben Leek said he didn’t end up holding a lot of offices, but he really liked how hands-on the experience was.
“The first day was a lot of counselors telling us how the week was going to go,” Leek said. “Then when Tuesday rolled around, the counselors just kind of stepped out of the way and we started running everything. The rest of the week, we hardly even knew they were there.”
Leek, a citizen of the mock city of Duluth, said he especially enjoyed the county meetings.
“Being a delegate was pretty fun for the city and county caucuses,” he said. (This experience) made me think about city government and things like that differently. We didn’t learn a whole lot about the federal government, but we learned a lot about state, county and city.”
VanKeulen said he learned that city and county government affects people most directly.
“Federal government, they’ll pass laws, but they don’t typically affect you as directly as county and city government,” he said. “The Republican and Democratic parties are very split, so not as many laws are passed. But in county government, things really get done. So if you want to see change in your life, then you have to start with the local and county government.”
Remme said he also learned that change doesn’t necessarily have to happen from the top down.
“There’s a lot of things the county and city government have control of that I wasn’t aware of before, like the age a person can buy cigarettes,” he said. “Here in Marshall, I think it’s 18, but one of my town members said people had to be a lot older to purchase cigarettes in (his hometown of) Anoka. It was cool learning that not everything comes from the direct top, like from the federal government. Cities and counties can make a lot of their own changes.”
Nolan Schultz said he “really loved the experience” at Boys State.
“We got to learn about the evolution of government — how a lot of the power lies in the local governments rather than way up at the top,” Schultz said. “I really enjoyed learning about that. It really explained the system of democracy, whether it be how it works or how it doesn’t work. It also really laid out what every position does and why everybody is important.”
Schultz said the experience made him realize that anyone can make a difference.
“You’re able to make big impacts in democracy,” he said. “It really brings it down to the ground and helps you understand how you can interact with it.”
During his time at Boys State, Schultz became part of the House of Representatives and was on the tax committee.
“I really loved my time there because I got to work with bills and the lobbyists who were there,” Schultz said. “Our committee, we all knew a decent amount about taxes and we got to decide whether laws put to us should be passed on so that they would be voted on by the whole chamber or if a bill needs amending to make more sense or if it’s not worth the trouble of sending it on. It was, honestly, an exciting time in the state legislature.”
Daniel Bauer learned firsthand about lobbying. His group even came up with a pretty clever name.
“The name of our lobbyist group was BORING, which stands for Best Organized Ridiculously Intellectual Nincompoop Group,” Bauer said. “We were the BORING Lobbying Firm and we had to compete against another firm to try to get more bills through the House and Senate and get signed by the governor. We had to strategize on how to get bills through the House and Senate, to get money for them over the other firm.”
Bauer said he liked being a delegate for his party.
“I was a voting member for both the county convention and the state convention,” he said. “I helped refine our platform. It thought it was fun.”
VanKeulen said the mock county of Kittson had a major budget problem that they were tasked with solving.
“Our county was nearly $1 million in debt every year, so we wrote a bill and sent it to the BORING Lobbyist Group,” he said. “We tried to swindle them. It didn’t end up going through, though, so we had to make some major budget cuts, which if the Kittson County population were really affected by what we did would not be very happy. But we were required to get our budget to either zero or have a surplus. We were not allowed to have a deficit by the end of the week.”
Despite being mock scenarios, VanKeulen said it was still difficult to make cuts. As a county board member and the chair, he also faced extra challenges during meetings.
“I had to lead a meeting using parliamentary procedure, but I also had to give my own opinion because I was part of the county board,” VanKeulen said. “I was one of three people who actually voted on all the matters. It was definitely the most stressful part of the week for me, but also the most fun.”
As part of Crow Wing County, Remme said a flooding scenario created some interesting backlash.
“Rock County comes up to us and they’re like, ‘Hey, we have flooding and our people are dying. We need some money,'” Remme said. “We had $200,000 in our emergency funding, so gave them $200,000. They’re like, ‘Thank you.’ Then one of the counselors came up and said our transaction was illegal because we can’t transfer our county tax money to another county. It has to be a loan and we just donated it.”
Remme said Crow Wing got fined $200,000 by the federal government.
“So we were $400,000 in the hole,” he said. “We were trying to get a bill passed that would give us more funding.”
Trey Weber said fellow Boys Staters showed their support through applause when they learned about the situation.
“After each board explained what went on, we got applause from everybody for being the nice people,” Weber said.
“But it still cost us $400,000,” Remme added.
VanKeulen said he thought it was neat that the flooding scenario was based off real-life events.
“There was a real flood in Rock County a few years ago or something,” he said. “The numbers we worked with were pretty accurate. It reflected what the actual government was like.”
VanKeulen said he gained a lot of respect for people who work in government or are public servants.
“When it comes to making the hard decisions, you can’t make everyone happy,” VanKeulen said. “It’s impossible, so the responsibility on your shoulders to make those decisions — it would be a very stress-inducing job. So I gained a lot of respect for those kinds of people.”
Remme acknowledged that it was hard enough to try and balance a budget, but when different scenarios were thrown at them, it became even more challenging.
“We had this emerald ash borer, the little bugs that borrow into the ash tree, so we had to figure out if we wanted to have a controlled burn to kill them all or release predatory wasps,” he said. “What we ended up doing is wrap trees. You’d wrap the trees and then the ash borer would die inside the trees.”
Weber said the solution saved millions of dollars.
“It heard it was a chemical that goes into the trees and when the bugs burrow in, they die in there so it can’t spread,” Weber said. “The provided solutions were to spray this pesticide to kill the bugs on the trees, you can cut down the trees or you can do a preventative option where they won’t go to certain trees. Each of those would’ve cost millions of dollars, so we found our own solution for $20,000.”
The Boys Staters also learned a lot about citizenship and respect.
“The number one thing they stressed at Boys State was flag etiquette,” VanKeulen said. “There were so many veterans there, so we had to be extremely respectful to the flag. We had a book on flag etiquette and we had a test in the middle of the week that had flag etiquette on it. And whenever the flag was present on the stage, you were always supposed to salute the flag whenever you walked up onto the stage.”
Weber said there was also a color guard ritual before every assembly.
“They’d bring the flags down from the top of the theater and march across and post them,” he said. “I thought it was pretty cool.”
Weber noted that the ceremony was even conducted “on Flag Day.”
The future leaders also learned about bipartisanship and the importance of voting.
“Both parties were pretty similar,” Isaac Timmerman said. “The planks were practically the same.”
While participants were put into mock cities, with two cities representing one county, they were also divided into two parties — which they found, were not much differently from each other.
“We all got separated into two parties — the Federalists and the Nationalists — and we both made our own party platforms and they ended up being almost identical,” VanKeulen said. “It was cool to see.”
Nolan Meyer said he had the opportunity to help create planks for the good of his party.
“I really enjoyed talking with my city and the caucus to try and put together what our party wanted to believe,” Meyer said. “We made planks and platforms for our party. It was so much fun. I loved it.”
VanKeulen noted that “in today’s day and age, we tend to get caught up with the idea of a Republican platform and a Democratic platform.”
“A lot of people don’t actually stop and think about what they really want to see,” he said. “If you identify as a Republican, you’ll tend to see that they are favoring a certain bill and then you’ll favor it yourself when in reality, a lot of people believe the same thing. If you take away the partisan platforms, you’ll find that a lot of people are actually bipartisan when it comes to issues.”
VanKeulen said that was “totally evidenced” by the process at Boys State.
“The fact that hundreds of boys from all over the state of Minnesota, whether it be metro where it’s really Democratic or rural areas where it’s very Republican, we all came together and made very similar platforms,” he said.
Schultz said in the mock Boys State Legislature, a lot of the bills that were passed were through bipartisan efforts.
“One of the speakers mentioned that you don’t hear a lot about bipartisanship in the chambers, the House and Senate on the federal or state level, is because it’s not an interesting headline,” he said.
Timmerman was among the young men who signed up to be a registered voter while at Boys State. All of the Marshall representatives said they thought voting was important.
“Voting is extremely important,” VanKeulen said. “It lets your voice be heard. That’s the heart of democracy — it’s a government for the people, by the people of the people. It’s not just Congress making the decisions. We elect the officials that run for office. If you want the elected officials who are going to pass the bills that people want to see passed, you have to exercise your right to vote. That’s one of the most important things you can do as a citizen of the United States.”
Remme said he felt it was more important to vote for candidate over party, adding that voting in Minnesota is as easy as it gets. Weber said absentee voting in Minnesota doesn’t even require residents to give an excuse.
“You can just fill out an absentee ballot because you want to,” Weber said.
The young men said the ease of voting was one of the reasons why Minnesota is ranked highest in voter turnout.
“There’s almost no reason not to vote because of all these options,” VanKeulen said. “A lot of counties also allow same day registration.”
While they learned that they didn’t have to be an elected official to make a difference, many of the Marshall representatives helped campaign for their city, county or state officials.
“I was in Minneapolis,” Timmerman said. “There were a lot of outspoken people in my city. I didn’t get to hold many offices, but I still had a lot of fun. I helped with a lot of lobbyist groups, with writing bills to try and get passed through Congress. There was one on nuclear energy that I thought was pretty interesting.”
Riley Berg, representing the Boys State city of Minneapolis, was elected lieutenant governor. Jack Slavik, representing St. Cloud at Boys State, was elected governor.
“Jack was my roommate,” Meyer said. “I helped campaign for him.”
Remme and VanKeulen also had close connections to top Boys Staters. Both of those mock senators will be representing Minnesota at Boys Nation in Washington, D.C.
Timmerman said he also enjoyed listening to what the many speakers had to say.
“There was a ton of great speakers,” he said.
Schultz said he thought the band and music experience at Boys State was great.
“They were able to take these people from all across the state and make a band that was really great within a five-day period, with only an hour of practice a day,” Schultz said.
Along with Schultz, Remme, VanKeulen, Leek, Bauer and Ignacio “Nacho” Larios were part of the band.
“It was really challenging music, but it sounded really cool at the end,” VanKeulen said.
Meyer and Nick Dunn were members of the Boys State choir.
“The choir director was really, really good,” Meyer said.
Participants who weren’t in band or choir had a little more free time over the course of the week, but Meyer said he thought being in the choir was worth it.
“Choir was really fun,” he said.
Timmerman said the band and choir concert on the final evening “was really good.”
“My favorite part was when you guys did the medley of all the different (military) branches,” he said.
Athletics was also scheduled into the busy routine. Leek and Dunn chose to play softball every day, while Meyer, Schultz, Weber, Timmerman, Remme and Trevor Fales selected volleyball. Larios, Bauer and VanKeulen played basketball.
“We were the most competitive,” VanKeulen said about the city of St. Paul. “For three days in a row, we didn’t lose a single game in any of our sports.”
VanKeulen said St. Paul ended up winning the championship in basketball and teased that the one point he scored made all the difference.
“We won 26-25 and I scored one point, so without me, we would’ve lost,” he said.
VanKeulen said their star player actually had to go head-to-head with his twin brother, the star of the runner-up team.
“We had Carter Hansen from Russell-Tyler-Ruthton and they had Cooper Hansen,” VanKeulen said. They were our star players — kind of like a twin rivalry battle.”
While the Marshall delegates learned about civic duty, Americanism and an appreciation for democracy — the missions of Boys State — they also made a lot of friendships.
“You’ll meet a lot of friends,” Remme said.
Meyer said his city is planning to get together sometime. VanKeulen said Boys State was unlike anything he’d ever been part of before.
“I went to Washington, D.C., last year with the Boy Scouts — there were about 40 of us — and we spent about two weeks together,” VanKeulen said. “And in one week, I became more close with the boys at Boys State than I did with the Boy Scouts over two weeks. You just spend so much time together and you have to rely on each other — you have to rely, elect and trust each other.”
All of the Marshall seniors-to-be expressed gratitude to the Marshall American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) for sponsoring them — they sponsored 10 of the students, while Meyer was sponsored by the Litchfield post.
“I think Marshall sent the largest number of people,” VanKeulen said. “There were 11 of us, which is half of a city. It’s a really high honor to be here, so we’re really grateful.”
The young men also plan to encourage others to attend the week-long program.
“It’s super-impressive to have on your resume, it’s a great leadership event and it’s fun,” VanKeulen said. “I can’t see much of a downside to it. I hope they keep going because it’s a really great program that helps shape us into very knowledgeable citizens.”