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Descendant of 1883 tornado victim to play at remembrance

August 22, 2018

On this date, 135 years ago, a tornado devastated Rochester. Striking on a Tuesday evening, the tornado leveled 135 homes and killed 37 people.

Nels Hansen was among the casualties, dying of his injuries four days later. Today, one of his ancestors will mark his memory and honor the good that came out of the tragedy that struck the city.

Hansen’s great-grandson, Doug Hansen, a musician from Traverse City, Mich., is in town to perform for the anniversary of the event at the Barbara Woodward Lips Atrium in the Charlton Building at noon today.

The tornado was the catalyst for establishing a hospital in Rochester that would become the Mayo Clinic. After Dr. William Mayo and his sons, William and Charles, cared for casualties of the tornado, Mother Mary Alfred Moes implored the doctors to establish a hospital in Rochester. Together, they founded Saint Marys Hospital which gave rise to the Mayo Clinic.

Doug Hansen didn’t learn his great-grandfather was a casualty of the 1883 tornado until his daughter, working on a class project, tried to research her family going back four generations. All Hansen found about his great-grandfather was a handwritten note left by his grandfather.

“It said, ‘died in a cyclone out west,’” Hansen said. “And that’s all it said.”

He eventually found a name from a cousin in Oregon. Then an aunt gave him a lead to check census records of a relative who lived in South Dakota who listed Minnesota as her birthplace.

Then he found the tornado and learned about the significance of the event that claimed his ancestor’s life. Nels’ entire immediate family was listed among the people injured in the tornado.

Having Hansen perform in memory of his great-grandfather adds a personal touch to marking the anniversary of the tornado.

“This is such a nice way to honor the memories of those who died and celebrate the good that came out of it,” said Matt Dacy, director of Heritage Hall, the Mayo Clinic museum.

Dr. Christopher Boes, director of the Fye Center for the History of Medicine, who will speak at the event, said it reflects a shift in focus medical professionals are making to the patient experience.

“You have to reflect on the loss along with the good that came out of it,” Boes said.

Hansen, who is a certified music practitioner, will perform “Elegy,” a piece he composed on classical guitar. He has only performed it twice publicly — once for a college dance recital and another time at the funeral for a friend and musician.

“For two days, I was just mesmerized in composing this,” he said of the piece.

He will be joined by Lea Dacy on cello and Rares Giurgiu on viola. As a music practitioner, Hansen plays at hospice facilities, nursing homes and hospitals. Before studying classical guitar, he used to play concerts and worked to rile up audiences. Now, sometimes his audience might not be aware he’s there.

“In a strange sort of way, it’s been more meaningful than playing those concerts,” he said.

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