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Published December 31, 2009, 12:00 AM

Person of the Year: Dennis Walaker's photo album


GLOVES FOR THE GUARD: Walaker had a gift for the North Dakota National Guard he photographed unloading sandbags in the Oak Grove neighborhood.

He’d received an unexpected donation in the thick of the flood flight: eight packages of heavy-duty orange gloves. The gift came from a regular attendee of Fargo City Commission meetings, a woman he knew as an occasionally outspoken critic. She bought the gloves for flood fighters, and she wanted him to give them away. Guard members were fitting recipients.

Ron Solberg, a colonel with the North Dakota Air National Guard and the vice commander of the Guard’s flood operation, says his team felt lucky to work with an appreciative city leader. “Even in the direst of times, he’s unflappable,” Solberg says. “Through all of that time, he was steady as a rock.” Dennis Walaker / Special to The Forum

  • GLOVES FOR THE GUARD: Walaker had a gift for the North Dakota National Guard he photographed unloading sandbags in the Oak Grove neighborhood. <br /><br />He’d received an unexpected donation in the thick of the flood flight: eight packages of heavy-duty orange gloves. The gift came from a regular attendee of Fargo City Commission meetings, a woman he knew as an occasionally outspoken critic. She bought the gloves for flood fighters, and she wanted him to give them away. Guard members were fitting recipients. <br /><br />Ron Solberg, a colonel with the North Dakota Air National Guard and the vice commander of the Guard’s flood operation, says his team felt lucky to work with an appreciative city leader. “Even in the direst of times, he’s unflappable,” Solberg says. “Through all of that time, he was steady as a rock.” Dennis Walaker / Special to The Forum
  • OAK GROVE BREACH: The flurry of activity on the Oak Grove campus after a March dike breach conjured for Walaker an earlier feverish stint there. <br /><br />It was in 1997 at Oak Grove where he had to deliver the most wrenching piece of news of his flood-fighting career. He had watched as floodwaters washed away soil the city had piled up to shore up the dike. He told then-Principal Darwin Gorder: “You have to get your people out of here. There’s nothing we can do.”<br /><br />This time around, flood fighters saved the campus, despite damage to two buildings. “Oak Grove has a special place in my heart,” Walaker says. Dennis Walaker / Special to The Forum
  • VIEW FROM ABOVE: It was the day of the National Weather Service’s most pessimistic second crest forecast, a 75 percent chance of topping 41 feet. Walaker was on board a National Guard Blackhawk helicopter, surveying the area from the window seat behind the pilot. “I was usually able to get a good seat,” he jokes about his half dozen or so flights. <br /><br />He recalled flying over the area with then-Mayor Bruce Furness in 1997. They counted the water-logged sections on each side of Interstate 29: 50 at the height of flooding. <br /><br />What he saw this April was different. He questioned the Weather Service’s second-crest forecast. He asked City Engineer Mark Bittner if he, too, was reassured. <br /><br />Walaker trusts his instincts, Bittner says, but the stakes were high: “He was confident in what he saw and what he believed. But we didn’t want to leave ourselves vulnerable.”<br /><br />Still, Walaker told weary volunteers to take that weekend off, get some rest. The second crest came in at 34 feet. Dennis Walaker / Special to The Forum
  • SANDBAGGERS: The sandbaggers in Walaker’s photos often have their backs to the mayor, too wrapped up in the task to pose for the camera. <br /><br />“Sandbagging has always been an emotional thing for me,” said the mayor, who famously teared up at the sight of a Fargodome bustling with volunteers. “What I tried to capture is the variety of people involved.” <br /><br />He likes to pore over the pictures and point out families with children, senior citizens, new Americans and college students. As someone who endured his share of sandbagging calluses, <br /><br />he knows filling and handling 3 million <br /><br />bags is hard work: “The public responded unbelievably.” Dennis Walaker / Special to The Forum
  • MEXICO: Walaker chanced upon this display during a tour of south Fargo, the day after a blizzard pummeled the flooded area. <br /><br />“It’s reassuring to see people can still have a sense of humor during periods of stress,” he says. “It just breaks up the tension of fighting the flood.” <br /><br />He tried to document such glimpses of good cheer against the odds: the north Fargo Dairy Queen’s “Home of the mayor’s favorite BBQ” sign after he professed his love of the sandwich or the “Welcome to Lake Pleasant” banner somebody displayed near a flooded ditch. <br /><br />Of course, Walaker himself became known for his signature respite-from-the-tension quips. Dennis Walaker / Special to The Forum
  • SUNSET SERIES: Walaker calls the photos his “sunset series” – shots he snapped after a day of meetings and media interviews had whooshed by and he was finally driving out south, taking the pulse of the floodwaters. He found comfort in these fleeting moments of beauty, almost incongruous amid submerged homes and damaged roads.   <br /><br />This winter, Walaker selected one of his pictures and his wife, Mary, painted the image onto a plate for Bowls for Babies, a December silent auction for the March of Dimes.   <br /><br />Amanda McKinnon, the event’s co-chair, recalls the plate, which sold for $60, was one of the most buzzed-about auction items. Attendees pointed out holiday season charity was bringing the community back together, much as the flood fight did in the spring, McKinnon says: “Everything was coming full circle.” Dennis Walaker / Special to The Forum