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Tragic accident takes life of Winsted family’s Grandpa Norm

September 22, 2008

Norm Filkins was known as Grandpa Norm by the girls he coached in fast-pitch softball from Winsted, Lester Prairie, Howard Lake, Glencoe, Hutchinson, and Plato

By Linda Scherer
Staff Writer

More than 40 brightly colored, hand-carved carousel pieces await their fate in the shed of Norm Filkins, the father of Melissa Neumann of Winsted.

Filkins, known to many in this area as Grandpa Norm, died tragically Aug. 4 at the age of 69 while working on a four-year musical carousel project for his 23 grandchildren at his home in Norwood Young America.

Six of those grandchildren are the children of Joe and Melissa Neumann who live in Winsted. They are Ashley, Brittany, and Caitlin Burke, and Emma, Joey and Maddie Neumann.

The accident occurred when Filkins was finishing up the shed roof where he was going to house his carousel.

The State Fair-sized carousel had been ordered from California in pieces. He was going to replace the old dye cast figures that came with the carousel with his own hand-carved figures.

Once the carousel had arrived at the farm, Filkins realized it was not going to fit in the shed without raising the roof an additional 10 feet.

The work to raise the roof was hired and completed, and Filkins was on the roof caulking when he accidentally stepped on the edge of a fiberglass sheet that had been placed to give some natural light below. He fell through the roof and was killed by the fall.

Today, the carousel remains in pieces, along with the carousel figures, waiting for the family to decide what should be done with Filkins’ unfinished dream.

An artistically gifted child, Filkins had received a scholarship at the renowned Minneapolis College of Art and Design after high school where he attended for two years. Following college, he joined the Navy, and art became more of a hobby.

“You could give Dad a picture of someone, and he could draw a lifelike picture,” Melissa said. “He was just an incredible artist. He was eccentric and liked to do things differently,” Melissa added.

Filkins began using his talents to carve cigar store Indians in 1981 after a back injury incapacitated him for months and required him to change his choice of professions.

Previously he had worked as a heavy equipment operator, a surveyor, construction supervisor, and did part-time work at the local hardware store.

One day, after word got out about his work, someone approached him, and asked him if he would carve a white carousel stallion.

In 2005, Filkins said during an interview with the “Carousel News and Trader,” that particular horse, “reminded me of the days my favorite uncle would take me to the amusement park in Excelsior. Those were happy days – days I looked forward to and vividly remember, and that feeling came over me when I worked on that first carousel piece.”

That first horse led to a menagerie of animals including an ostrich, giraffe, golden-maned lion, a lop-eared rabbit, a rooster, a flying pig, a two-headed dragon, and a billy goat. There were other carvings of famous characters like Loony Tunes star Pepe LaPue.

In addition, he has refurbished dozens of antique carousel animals.

Most of the carousel figures Filkins has carved are out of a number of blocks of basswood. He used basswood because it’s light, strong, and easily carved.

Each piece is then cut and fit into place to create the rough shape of a hollow-barrel.

Known to sing while he was working on his creations, music was part of his attraction to the carousel, and he had already purchased the CD that was do be used with the carousel called “Sadie Mae in St. Louis,” according to Filkins’ wife, Patrice.

It is band organ music that played songs like “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.”

Filkins’ dream was to complete his carousel, which would have held between 16 and 20 passengers, and watch his grandchildren enjoy riding the carousel as much as he enjoyed creating it.

“Dad always wanted his grandchildren to have fun,” Melissa said. “He thrived on being a grandpa.”

“If there was something the grandchildren wanted, he would make it for them,” Melissa said.

Filkins donated his art and fastpitch coaching skills

Filkins seldom used his art to make money for himself but was known to donate his time and talent.

He had made and contributed a hand-carved plaque of a Trojan head for the Holy Trinity dinner auction last year, and because the auction was a carnival theme, his carousel animals were used to decorate the school gym for the night.

Besides art, Filkins would volunteer many hours coaching girls in fastpitch softball in the area.

For more than 25 years, Filkins had been a fast-pitch pitching coach, leading his softball teams to state and national tournaments, according to Melissa.

He had a batting cage, a pitching machine and a pitcher’s rubber on his farm to help girls he was coaching.

He would also drive to Winsted at 6 a.m. to work with his granddaughters at the Holy Trinity gym, or drive to Waconia Community Center on winter evenings to provide his expertise in pitching.

When word got out about his pitching knowledge and willingness to volunteer, girls began showing up at Barrett Field in Winsted where he started a pitching clinic.

“He was willing to work with any girl that wanted to learn how to pitch. Some nights there were 10 to 15 girls at the field waiting for Grandpa Norm to work with them,” Elaine Kahle of Winsted said.

Elementary to high school girls came from Winsted, Lester Prairie, Howard Lake, Glencoe, Hutchinson, and Plato.

Filkins liked to tease the girls, and he might pull an occasional pony tail of one of the little girls, teaching them to stand up straight when they pitched.

Or if one of the girls dropped the ball he might possibly holler out, “My mother could do better than that.”

“Everyone would know he was joking,” Melissa said. “He had just a great personality. He would make jokes, and he couldn’t get the names right, and the little girls just loved him and the big girls did, too.”

For all of the girls who came to the pitching clinics at Barrett Field last summer, he made T-shirts that said, “Grandpa Norm’s fast-pitch – 25 years.”

“The girls wore them to his memorial service,” Melissa said.

Grandpa Norm taught me so much about pitching,” said Kristin Kahle, 2008 Holy Trinity graduate, “and he was always so patient with all of us.”

“Before he started working with me I could only throw a fast-ball,” Kristin said. “But with his coaching, I learned to throw several different pitches at different speeds. I’m looking forward to playing for Ridgewater College this year and putting the skills and techniques Grandpa Norm taught me to good use.”

Among other things, Filkins left behind a legacy of carousel carvings, fast-pitch softball coaching techniques, and, most of all, how to be a great gandpa.

He was planning his own 70th birthday party just before he died. His birthday would have been Sept. 5.

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