Austin Has Changed Packers Red-and-white Binds City Together
The home team has time for one final shot. Down by one, only 1.7 seconds left.
Everyone in the gym has the same thought: Get the ball to the kid teammates call “Sub-Zero” because he’s so cool under pressure. The kid who spent the previous day sobbing when his basketball idol died in a helicopter crash. The kid who changed his uniform to No. 24 to honor Kobe Bryant.
Yeah, get the ball to Agwa Nywesh.
The inbounds pass floats in the air. Agwa leaps and snatches it, then leaps again and scores. The remaining ticks come off the clock and a hundred students storm the court to mob the hero.
They take turns hugging him. White kids, and African kids, and Asian kids, and Hispanic kids. Rich kids, poor kids. All celebrating. The big victories, they bring people together.
“This is the city where you want to be when that happens,” Agwa says. “They show so much love.”
This is Austin. The new Austin. Once nearly all white, it has a new face now.
Six years ago, the coach wondered how a community that adores basketball would handle a new reality. Austin Packers basketball historically has been two things: very good and very white. Now only one applies. There are moments this season when all five players on the court are of Sudanese heritage.
That change reflects a multicultural flowering in Austin, a town of 25,000 and home to the giant Hormel Foods headquarters, 100 miles south of the Twin Cities.
From 1% minority population in 1980 to 31% today, the town’s transformation has been profound. Immigrants from six continents call Austin home. Schools count more minority students than white students, with 48 different languages being spoken in classrooms. A medley of ethnic dining options and food markets surround the Spam Museum along Main Street downtown.
“It’s the wave of the future,” says Tom Stiehm, a former 30-year Austin cop who became mayor in 2006. “You can either ride that wave or you can drown. I tell people, it doesn’t matter what you like. This is going to happen, and you better acclimate yourself to it.”
It’s hard to find a city in Minnesota that has changed more than Austin in the past two decades. Immigrants from around the globe arriving to work at Hormel and adjacent Quality Pork Processors created civic challenges, doubt and resentment.
At government meetings, residents shouted at elected officials, “Why are they here?!” and “They’re taking our jobs!” Ethnic groups felt isolated. “Silo effect” is how some describe the walls that sprang up.
Progress, a Lutheran pastor told his congregation one Sunday last year, moves at the speed of relationships.
Relationships don’t come easy for people of different languages and nationalities. Yet two colors, so many here will tell you, united them through it all: red and white, the Austin Packers. The Hormel exec’s kid and the meatpacker’s kid, they wear the same uniform.
“We’re all in this together,” says former Hormel CEO Jeff Ettinger, whose four children played sports at Austin High. “We need to embrace the opportunity.”
Basketball games remain an event, loud and lively. The crowd is filled with senior citizens quick to share a story about their grandson’s playing days. That includes 91-year-old Flo Ostergaard and 85-year-old Dolores Overby, best friends who always sit at center court. Ruth and Sheldon Lukes graduated in the early 1950s and never miss a home game either.
“We love this team,” Ruth says after a December game.
This team looks nothing like Packers teams of generations gone by. But it’s still their red and white, still their Packers.
“You talk about the basketball team,” Mayor Stiehm says, “all these guys sitting around the bars saying, ‘Look at our boys.’ That was one of the best things in the world to happen for this town, the basketball team taking off like that.”
“We used to say it’s the smell of money,” Austin High’s activities director says, laughing.
Her grandfather Edward worked in the plant’s hide cellar, a proud member of the P-9 union. His job was to trim the hide with, as Quednow remembers, “a big knife.”
He had strong hands and a stronger work ethic. He left the house by 5 a.m. every morning. At Edward’s funeral, his boss told the family that he didn’t miss one day of work in 38 years.
Edward owned a modest house and bought a new car every three years. He would come through the door in the evenings, grab a crate full of baseballs and pitch batting practice to his son at the park.
Generations here have similar stories. Sons followed their fathers who had followed their fathers. Boys would graduate from high school and become packers, or P-9ers, union men.
Packers sports became as much a part of Austin’s fabric as Hormel’s employment cocoon. No school has made more trips to the boys’ basketball state tournament than Austin High’s 32 appearances, the first in 1913. The Packers baseball team has the second-most appearances in the state tournament with 20.
The high school is a three-story, red-brick landmark built in 1921, three blocks from downtown. A new gymnasium opened in the early 1990s. Before that, games were held in Ove Berven Gym, an intimate den with wooden benches straight out of the movie “Hoosiers.” Old-timers reminisce about the nights when that place would rock.
Some of those same people offer (with a wink) tales of boys with great athletic ability moving to Austin after Hormel almost magically found their dad a job because, well, the Packers needed a point guard that year. True or not, it never fails to get a laugh.
A labor strike at Hormel in 1985 changed Austin and left wounds still evident today. The company demanded a 23% wage cut as rollbacks hit the struggling meatpacking industry. Nearly 1,500 union workers walked off the job.
The 10-month strike ripped the town apart as hundreds of workers crossed the picket line. Family members on opposite sides refused to speak. Minnesota’s governor deployed the National Guard to keep order.
In June 1986, hundreds of P-9ers went back to work; many did not. Hormel’s lines kept humming, remaining Austin’s anchor as a Fortune 500 company.
People came from all over the world to fill those jobs, creating an Austin that hardly resembles what Stiehm found when he started as a beat cop in 1976.
“It was all white,” he says. “I don’t mean almost all white. It was all white.”
Didumo Alemo picks a special spot to share her story. The 14,000-square-foot Spam Museum is hard to miss on Main Street. An all-glass entrance topped with large yellow letters welcomes visitors. Tour guides refer to themselves as Spambassadors, and a 390-foot conveyor suspended from the ceiling transports 780 cans of Spam in a circular display.
A native of Ethiopia, Alemo grew up in the Gambela region. Her father was a political leader directing a liberation movement when he was killed by soldiers.
After his death, his children went to a refugee camp in Kenya. Alemo got married at 16 and had her first child a year later, a daughter. Babaye became very sick when she was 9 months old. Alemo walked four hours with her daughter in her arms until she found a hospital.
“She became homecoming queen,” Alemo says with a proud smile.
Homecoming queen of Austin High, 2011.
The first chapter of this American dream story started with a resettlement program that brought Alemo first to Minneapolis, then Worthington, then to Austin in 2000. She found a home at Hormel, initially as a meatpacker and now as a slicer operator.
Alemo has nine children ages 25 to 4 — four kids from her first marriage, five with her current partner, fiancé Loch Othow. Six of her children were born in Austin, including Agwa, the basketball star.
Alemo speaks four languages. She works seven days a week, only occasionally taking a day off. She tries to swing as many double shifts as possible, extending her workdays to 16 hours. She also takes GED classes at night twice a week. She has passed three of the four tests required: math, science and social studies. Language arts remains, and she plans to complete that this spring.
Days are hectic between work, school, kids, cooking dinner and caring for an 11-year-old son with autism who has challenges communicating and recently suffered a seizure. Once the kids are in bed, she does homework, typically until 1 a.m. The alarm goes off every morning at 6 a.m.
“She doesn’t relax,” Agwa says.
Agwa is one of Minnesota’s best players. A 6-foot-3 senior point guard, he’s a deadeye shooter and a tenacious defender, and he plays with a flair that reflects his magnetic personality.
Like his sister, Agwa was chosen for the homecoming court this year. He wears designer glasses and stylish clothes and has the kind of cheery smile that makes a person want to smile back. Everyone knows Agwa.
He signs autographs around town and poses for selfies after games with classmates. An older white couple stops him one December night to talk basketball as he’s leaving a restaurant after a game. Agwa gives them fist bumps at the end of their conversation.
“I like talking to people,” he says. “You have to care for everybody.”
Basketball success runs in the family. Babaye played college basketball at Iowa Central and Governors State University in Illinois. Older brother Ajuda was one of Austin’s first Sudanese stars. He scored 24 points in the 2014 state championship game and now plays professionally in Macedonia.
Agwa and Ajuda Nywesh share a dream: Make enough money playing professionally to put an end to Mom’s 16-hour shifts.
“All of our moms and families have been through a horrific story,” Agwa says. “For us, working hard in sports is [an avenue] to find a job in a sports field and give back to our parents.”
Kris Fadness keeps a loaf of bread and jar of peanut butter in his office inside Austin’s gymnasium. If any of his players are hungry, they know they can stop by and make a sandwich.
This is how Austin makes it work. People extending a hand with gestures big and small.
Things that seem routine elsewhere are challenges for Austin’s sports programs. Rides to practice. A healthy breakfast. Academic expectations.
Many immigrants working at Hormel don’t speak English as a primary language. Some never attended school. Large families often share one car. Older siblings responsible for child care while parents work extra shifts might miss practices, if they are able to play sports at all. Some families simply can’t afford sports participation.
“The people who have in this town really do a wonderful job of taking care of the people who don’t have,” says Fadness, Austin’s basketball coach since 1997.
Take Suzy and James Hebrink, for example. They have seven kids, all athletes. Suzy coached women’s basketball at Riverland Community College in Austin for 16 years.
One day, she saw a ninth-grade Sudanese player slipping all over the court. He was playing in skateboard shoes. The couple bought him new shoes anonymously. Then they thought, why not do this every year?
Their son, Tate, played football and basketball at Austin. Two of his closest friends growing up were Sudanese. Those kids spent so much time at the Hebrink home that “we refer to them as 8 and 9,” Suzy says.
Then there’s Clint Walters, who moved to Austin in 2016 after being promoted to Hormel plant manager. His children became Packers, including Kyra, a senior who plays volleyball and basketball. The parents worried about how their three school-aged kids would adjust to a new town. Then Agwa showed up.
“He adopted us,” wife Kris Walters says. “He’s always been kind of our family since we’ve been here.”
Austin’s basketball family is tight as well, led by the patriarch Fadness. Known as “Fads,” he’s a 55-year-old coaching lifer with a bald head, black-framed glasses and a love for trapping, pressure defense.
From tiny Houston, Minn., Fadness played two seasons at Luther College in Iowa. His coach then gave him two options: Stay on the team or become student coach of Luther’s JV team. He found his calling.
After winning a state title at Caledonia, Fadness moved to Austin and now has 369 wins and six state tournament trips in the past eight years.
Fadness and his wife, Sandy, raised three kids in Austin, all adults now, giving the coach even more time to serve as a father figure to his players.
Summer camps often cost families hundreds of dollars. Fadness charges $30 for his, and many kids don’t end up paying. All the money goes back to the school’s general activity fund.
When a former Sudanese player made an AAU team that practiced in Rochester, Fadness drove him to practices and tournaments in the Twin Cities. When more and more Sudanese kids gravitated to basketball and needed a place to hang out, Fadness opened the gym extra hours. He basically lives there in the summer.
His Sudanese players share a dream: Make it to the NBA to help their parents. Fads doesn’t want to crush that dream, but he’s also a realist. Education first, he tells them, so that you can get a job, buy a house, live comfortably.
A new community center in town named its basketball facility the Kris Fadness Gym.
“The impact he’s had on those kids is life-changing,” says former assistant coach Corey Christopherson, the son of a P-9er who played for Fadness and now coaches at Eden Prairie. “He does everything for the right reasons.”
Fadness waves off such talk. It’s never about one person, he says. Not in Austin.
“It’s a community thing,” he says. “You just help people.”
Helping people was not a unanimous reaction here to the first wave of immigrants. Austin was changing, quickly, when Bonnie Rietz stepped into the fray.
Rietz taught French at the community college and her family had no ties to Hormel when they moved to Austin in 1979. The strike of ’85 changed everything.
“It was so hard to see our community so negative,” Rietz says. She felt a call to serve. She won a spot on the City Council in 1989, and she was elected mayor in 1997.
The first immigrants were primarily Hispanic. Natives of South Sudan came next, largely from refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya after fleeing their country’s civil war. Then came Karen immigrants from southeast Asia, escaping government persecution. In the past few years, dozens of families have arrived from Pohnpei, a small Micronesian island in the Pacific Ocean.
Austin’s leadership knew that pretending the town was still its 1970s version wasn’t an option. So they asked questions, and listened.
A Welcome Center opened on Main Street, and Taste of the Nations events offered foods from different cultures, including hot dish from the ladies at the Lutheran church. The Hormel Foundation, which pours more than $9 million annually into Mower County with many initiatives, partnered with the YMCA to create a kid-friendly membership: $1 per year, per kid. One night, more than 700 kids — many of them Sudanese — checked into the Y within a four-hour period.
“Opportunities should not be limited by what your income is or what your family’s income is,” says foundation chairman Ettinger, who retired as Hormel CEO in 2016.
On Main Street, in the Y’s gym, at the dinner table, the city eroded barriers by bringing differences into the open.
“I come from North Dakota Norwegian stock — kind of boring,” Rietz says. “I am so thankful that not everybody is the same as I am. It would be so boring.”
Not everyone agreed. Jason Baskin is the former chairman of the city’s Human Rights Commission and a current City Council member. He said the conversations the commission had — in churches, Rotary Clubs, schools, coffee shops — never became overheated, but he occasionally got an earful.
“They’ve got the Middle East peace process ironed out by the second cup of coffee,” he says, laughing.
The new Austin isn’t for everyone. Some here might never accept it. City leaders have not devoted much time trying to change their opinion.
“Very, very small pockets,” Baskin says. “It was more, ‘Why are they here? Where are they from? We’re Austin, Minnesota. We’re the small town in southern Minnesota. Why would anybody want to come here?’ ”
Jobs. Family ties. Hope for a better life.
In a sense, that is why Baskin came home, too. He played basketball for Fadness before earning his degree from the University of Minnesota. He returned to work at Hormel as marketing director. City officials describe him as a natural leader.
Baskin included an old basketball team photo in his commission’s presentations. One side shows the team from his senior season, 2001. Every player is white. Flip the paper over and the 2017 squad is equally divided between white and Sudanese. It was his visual argument for coming together, and it resonated more than census data and pie charts.
“It also allowed us to tell the story in a positive way,” Baskin says.
There was much learning and listening to do. At one community conversation, a Sudanese man told of having the police called on him while jogging one morning in a hoodie. Others shared their difficulties in obtaining housing. A study found that Austin needs about 1,000 more units in the next five years to keep up with change and demand. A slump followed the strike, but now the city’s population is growing 5% each decade.
In this swelling school district, 37% of students speak a primary language other than English, double the statewide average. One in 12 children here was born outside of the United States, and many more were raised speaking their parents’ native language.
Cultural liaisons were hired to be “success coaches” for students of different ethnic communities. Santino Deng, the success coach for the African community, describes his job as “like 9-1-1.”
If there is a problem or a kid needs a ride, Deng gets a call. If a parent can’t find a child, Deng knows where to look.
A father of three, Deng worked on Hormel’s line for 10 years before taking this role. This is America, he tells kids, land of opportunity. Seize it.
“You don’t need to work in the meat factory where I worked,” he says. “With all the opportunities in front of you, take school serious.”
The district serves 30,000 free breakfast and lunch meals to kids in the summer. They don’t take names — just show up and eat. More than 50% of students here qualify for free or reduced lunch. The Lunch Tray Project helps families who just miss the cutoff, and last year donations surpassed $13,000 to assist 47 students.
“This town,” says Mary Weikum, director of school food service, “always comes through.”
City leaders have begun including new voices in high-profile settings. The City Council established a rotating, honorary seat that goes to a leader from an immigrant community. That person doesn’t vote but serves for three months sitting alongside the city attorney and police chief at meetings.
David McKichan took over as police chief a year ago after more than two decades on the force. He knows the jogger who felt racially profiled. They have spent a lot of time together since then, becoming friends. Communication, he says, builds trust. Trust builds community.
“Has [immigration] been negative business for us? Absolutely not,” says the chief, while citing statistics that show Austin’s crime rate is unchanged.
Stiehm says being mayor has “made me a better person. Ask my wife.” That last comment draws a big laugh from the 68-year-old ex-Marine.
The perception around town was that Stiehm would be tough on immigration. Some even considered him anti-immigration. In truth, he didn’t have a clue about it, he admits.
Over time, immigrant families found their footing, becoming permanent citizens, taxpayers, homeowners, neighbors. Their kids filled schools, and immigrants opened businesses downtown. The mayor let his guard down.
“You have that big blank space in your head and we just have a tendency to fill it with negative things,” he says. “Once I got to learn the community and learn the people …”
The only lights on at St. Olaf Lutheran Church this Saturday evening in mid-July are those in the banquet hall. The smell of African food fills the air as three women work feverishly to cover tables and chairs with linens while little kids fill balloons between giggles.
The guest of honor will be here shortly. Tonight, Gach Gach is celebrating his graduation from West Texas A&M, a Division II school just south of Amarillo. He is the first member of his immediate family to earn a college degree and stands tall as a basketball hero in Austin’s African community.
Gach was one of Fadness’ first Sudanese stars. He was the one who organized pickup games at the Y every day. He kept everyone in line. Basketball was serious business to him, his shot at a better life.
“It was everything,” Gach says. “Just cut out the noise and things going on in our lives.”
There was always a lot going on in a family of seven kids. Gach has two older sisters, a twin sister, younger twin brothers and a 13-year-old sister.
His parents lived in a Kenyan refugee camp after fleeing South Sudan’s civil war. They immigrated to New York, then Brooklyn Park. They didn’t speak English or have jobs. Even tasting ketchup was something new.
His parents found work at Hormel as packers, but then they divorced and Gach’s father moved to Iowa. Once Gach’s older sisters became adults and lived elsewhere, he became responsible for the younger siblings while his mom worked second shift. Gach was 16 and “the man of the house.”
“I took the challenge on,” he says. He cooked dinners, borrowing his mom’s recipes. His favorite is noodles with steak and spicy African seasoning.
The kids were alone at night and didn’t always follow Gach’s marching orders. “Hardheaded,” he says. “That’s how kids are.”
The youngest refused to fall asleep until their mom got home from work. Gach would read to her or they would watch “Teletubbies” on the couch until Mom came through the door after midnight.
“At the time, [she was] trying to feed seven kids and pay rent and pay all the bills and just have a little bit left over,” Gach says. “She was strong. She made it work.”
Gach played fiercely on the court in helping Austin to runner-up finishes in the Class 3A state tournament in 2013 and 2014. He started 70 games at West Texas A&M, played in the Division II Final Four and earned his degree, graduating with a 3.0 grade-point average.
“Gach is a real success story,” Fadness says.
He became a role model for Sudanese kids, including his twin 20-year-old brothers. Duoth Gach plays at a junior college with hopes of transferring to a D-I program; Both Gach is a sophomore guard at the University of Utah and his team’s second-leading scorer at 10.6 points per game. All three brothers hope to play professionally, either in the NBA or overseas, to “get my mom off her feet,” Gach says.
Life wasn’t easy for him, either. In middle school, Gach was one of only a few Sudanese kids in his grade. Kids teased him for having dark skin. He was angry a lot — a hothead, to use his own words. Eventually, kids got to know him. He became outgoing, and walls melted away.
“Now I can’t go anywhere in town without people knowing who I am,” he says.
On this July night at the church, he is the star attraction.
A DJ sets up in a corner. The food is simmering in industrial-sized pots in the kitchen. Gach’s mom has made all her favorites. There is a lamb and spinach dish, a fish dish, a stew with collard greens and peanut butter.
With the energy running high, the grad party lasts until the next morning.
The big victories, they bring people together.
“I wanted a degree so bad,” he says. “I wanted my brothers to see they can do it. I wanted them to know that it’s possible.”
A group of teenage boys forms a tight circle, shoulder to shoulder, on a grassy hilltop. The August sky is blue, 80 degrees, no distractions. Perfect conditions for a soccer team to bond.
The Packers basketball team has a more decorated history, but their soccer program has become a state-tournament regular. Hold up a mirror to this team and Austin’s diversity stares back. The roster includes a mix of white, Hispanic, Karenni and African players, and one teammate from Poland.
On the count of three, the players in the circle lift another teammate above their heads and hold him there with tired arms. The goal is to not drop him — not easy when everyone’s laughing.
This is how the soccer team begins every season. Team-building. Trust-building. This is especially important to Jens Levisen, the coach who oversees a roster that some years has five continents represented.
“It’s normal,” says senior Elisha Simerson.
On-field chemistry was lacking when Levisen took over the program 15 years ago. Just as the city grew together over time, so did Levisen’s players.
“We’re more than a team,” junior Andres Garcia says. “It’s like a family.”
Levisen refuses to hold his first practice each August until his team-building event is completed. The day starts with a 4-mile run. Then instructor Scott Hanna has them all squeeze together on a mat in one drill, lock hands in another. They take turns hoisting one another in the air after that.
If a kid is being quiet, Hanna makes him talk louder. One year, he felt a bad vibe with communication. He put kids from different nationalities together in canoes on the lake and told them to “figure it out.”
“I want to make sure everyone has a voice,” Levisen says.
The Packers made the state tournament again last fall. Their tic-tac-toe passing on the field reflects their cohesion, which is evident in a new tradition they started this season. Players now break their huddles by yelling one word.
The Vikings game is about to start, a Sunday night game against the Cowboys in November. Agwa, his mom, his mom’s fiancé and his sister find seats at a high-top table in a sports bar to enjoy football, spicy wings and a night out together.
They have come straight from Faith Church, which hosts an Anuak language service Sunday afternoons. Two pastors deliver the sermon in rhythmic volleys. One speaks Anuak, the other quickly translates to English. Their message to the congregation on this day: Love can bring unity.
Alemo’s family has discovered that in Austin: love and unity.
“Austin is for everybody,” Agwa says. “If you’re a new kid, we’ll take you in like you’ve been here forever. I guarantee if anybody came here for a day, they would already feel like this is home.”
A woman at the sports bar comes over to say hello, a co-worker of Alemo’s. They hug and laugh before discussing a potluck dinner at the plant.
The family heads home at halftime. Agwa has a paper due tomorrow, and his mom’s 6 a.m. alarm awaits. A new week is near. The rhythm of life plays on.
Life has been stressful of late. Ena, their 11-year-old with autism, suffered a seizure one night. Unsure of what was happening, Agwa scooped up his brother and carried him downstairs for help. An MRI showed nothing abnormal, and Ena hasn’t suffered any more seizures. The family is relieved.
Ena adores Agwa. They share a bed and Ena has a hard time sleeping if Agwa isn’t there. Ena’s verbal skills have improved, but for a long time Agwa understood him better than anyone. Agwa often turns down hanging with friends to stay home with Ena.
“He’s a beautiful soul,” older sister Babaye says. “He wants to help everyone.”
Agwa is having a stellar season that could earn him a Division I scholarship. He’s averaging a team-best 14.6 points, 4.8 assists and 4.4 steals and was named to the Mr. Basketball Award watch list. He scored 30 points in that thrilling victory over Rochester Mayo. The Packers have a 19-4 record with a goal of returning to the state tournament.
Back at the house, Agwa and every family member have defined roles to help their mom. One cleans dishes, one takes out garbage, one organizes shoes for the next day, Mom cooks dinner. Even the 4-year-old helps carry in groceries. That’s how they make it work here.
The little victories, they bring people together.
“We do everything,” Alemo says, “as a team.”