U community plans memorial for 3 students lost in Dinkytown fire

Hank Long

A memorial site to celebrate the memory of three University students who died in a Dinkytown house fire last September was approved Wednesday by the Minneapolis Park Board.

The site, consisting of a plaque alongside a river birch tree adorned with ribbons, will be placed in Van Cleve Park as part of a ceremony to remember the lives of Brian Heiden, Amanda Speckien and Elizabeth Wencl.

Van Cleve Park is on the corner of Como Avenue Southeast and 15th Avenue Southeast, less than a block from where the house fire occurred.

The ceremony will be held at 11 a.m. April 22 at the park. The University and Minnesota Student Association have invited surviving family members and close friends to plant the University-donated tree at the ceremony.

The plaque will state: “This tree was planted in memory of our neighbors and friends on April 22, 2004 – in the spirit of community through hope, friendship and respect.”

“(The event) is a great opportunity for the University, the neighborhoods and the student organizations to recommit ourselves to having a good relationship,” said Jan Morlock of University Relations who helped organize the event.

The idea for the ceremony and memorial stemmed from several community members, said Greg Simbeck, neighborhood coordinator for the Southeast Como Improvement Association.

“We wanted to do something to commemorate the students who perished in the fire and to recognize that they were residents of the Southeast Como neighborhood,” Simbeck said.

The idea for and planning of the ceremony was a cooperative effort among the association, the University and MSA, said Tom Zearley, housing and facilities chairman for MSA.

Zearley said community members came up with the idea soon after the fire, but the plan hit a temporary snag when the city park board initially rejected the idea of a plaque next to a planted tree.

“They didn’t want a bunch of these popping up all over the place in a bunch of different parks,” Zearley said about the park board’s initial reluctance.

MSA, association members and University officials lobbied the park board and told it the importance of the memorial site.

City Park Commissioner Walt Dziedzic, who represents the Southeast Como neighborhood, was very helpful in getting the measure approved, said Sam Ero-Phillips, an MSA member who helped get the memorial approved.

Simbeck said the process overall was a positive experience for the community.

“I think it will be a good symbol of the community and the students of the community coming together and maybe signaling some new beginnings and relationships,” Simbeck said.