By Jennifer Kotila
COKATO, MN “I feel humbled. I think there are much more deserving people in the community than my wife and I,” said Ken Bakke, former public works director and firefighter, about being chosen as the 2013 Cokato Corn Carnival parade grand marshal.
“I think Ken is very deserving,” countered his wife, Barb. “He’s been very involved in the community since we moved here (in 1988).”
Although Barb readily admits Ken has done the “heavy volunteering,” his service to the community would not have been possible without Barb at his side, taking care of Ken, the house, and their children Nick, Bjorn, and Ingrid.
“I was proud of him for doing it,” Barb said, although being on call for so many of his voluntary endeavors took him out of the home a lot.
No matter what it was a football spaghetti dinner hosted at their house, birthday parties, Christmas, or even weddings if Ken was called, he had to go.
“The night of the tornado (in 1992), I would have liked him at home, but I knew he was where he needed to be,” Barb said of her husband.
Barb and Ken have been a part of the Cokato community since Ken accepted the job as public works director for the city of Cokato in 1988.
At the time, there were only four houses for sale in Cokato and no Realtor, so the Bakkes relied on those at city hall and the bank to assist them in finding a suitable house.
They were notified the Swanson house on Broadway could be for sale soon, and stopped in at the house to speak with the Swanson children, who were busy cleaning, packing, and getting ready for an auction that would soon take place.
As the Bakkes were sitting in their car outside the house before speaking with the Swansons or even looking at the inside of the house Barb recalls Ken looking at the house for a long time, then looking at her and saying, “This is the house we are going to buy.”
That house was the one they bought, and, being only about a block from downtown, has been perfect for them. “We’re right on Broadway and don’t miss much,” Barb said.
As public works director and a volunteer firefighter, the house has allowed Ken to be close enough to downtown and the fire hall to keep an eye on what’s happening.
“It’s just like Mayberry here,” Ken added. He has enjoyed living, working, and volunteering with everybody in the community, he said, noting they are his extended family.
Both Ken and Barb grew up in Buffalo when it was still small like Cokato is today, and wanted to raise their children in a similar community.
Because it is so close to Peterson Park, the house has allowed them to play hospitable hosts to many friends and relatives who come out to enjoy the Corn Carnival not that Ken was there much to help, Barb noted.
“We love the Corn Carnival, and this is the perfect place the whole yard is always filled with cars and bicycles,” Barb said.
She noted she had just stocked up on dental floss and sanitary wipes for those who come to clean their teeth, face, and hands after enjoying fresh, free corn-on-the-cob.
As public works director, Ken was often at the park, running around with the likes of Phil Lee, Don Peroutka, and other Corn Carnival organizers to help make sure everything ran smoothly for the town festival.
Ken also helped sell the Corn Carnival car raffle tickets selling 60 to 85 every year for about 10 years now. Most years, someone he has sold to has won something, Barb said.
Along with helping at Peterson Park, Ken has been in every Corn Carnival parade except last year’s either with the fire department or as flag bearer.
Ken was a volunteer firefighter for 35 years, 24 in Cokato, where he held various leadership positions; and also a member of the Cokato Ambulance Service throughout the years.
Barb expounded on the many things, besides fighting fires, that the fire department does, such as putting on programs at the elementary school.
“We were just little boys playing with big toys,” Ken said humbly.
Ken is also a dues-paying member of the American Legion, after serving his country for 14 years three on active duty in the Army, and the rest in active reserve.
He was a fireman with the Air Force, and a member of the Navy’s Seabees building roads and bridges.
“Blowing up things, that was fun,” Ken said. Until this year, he was the flag bearer for the Memorial Day and Cokato Corn Carnival parades.
Barb noted Ken has a warrior personality; he liked the danger and risk-taking that has come with his career and volunteer duties.
“I wanted to stay in the service, but military life is really tough on a family,” noting moving every three years was not what he wanted for his family.
Barb recently retired from Lakeside Healthcare after 24 years. She had a 34-year career in long-term care.
Both Barb and Ken have been very involved at Evangelical Lutheran Church of Cokato, where they are members, volunteering for church council, and singing in the choir.
“Choir fills me up. I get more out of it than I give,” said Barb, who has also been involved in the church’s social ministry.
Barb has also been a member of the Save and Share Thrift Store board since it opened in Cokato. “It’s been a blessing,” she said. “It’s fun and a great group of people. The funnest part is when we have money to give away.”
Ken and Barb both slowed down to enjoy life a little more when Ken was diagnosed with terminal cancer a year ago, which is why he missed last year’s parade.
Although he was in the hospital for most of the Corn Carnival, he made it home the last night of the event, and friend and fellow Lion Abe Abrahamson made sure to bring him a pork chop from the park.
Ken had already retired from the public works department, but has subsequently retired from the fire department and resigned from city council, as well.
He also had to stop singing in choir due to failing eyesight, hearing, and balance, which was difficult for him. “I’ve been singing from the time I was knee-high to a tadpole,” he said.
Barb retired in order to spend more time together. “It slows you down makes you appreciate life,” she said about Ken’s diagnosis.
Barb was also recently diagnosed with cancer, but after surgery and chemotherapy, her prognosis is good.
She was supposed to start chemotherapy the day of the Corn Carnival parade, but told her doctor it would have to wait until the following week because she had an important engagement in which to participate.
Ken’s current goal is to be able to go deer hunting this year at his deer camp near Mille Lacs Lake, where he has an ongoing battle with beaver taking good trees and causing floods, Barb noted.
The Bakkes also have a cabin and a second home in that area, where they have been spending a lot of time with their children and eight grandchildren.
Ken and Barb will be at the head of the Cokato Corn Carnival parade Monday, Aug. 12 at 6 p.m., following the kiddie parade.