Jerry Nelson: A birthday surprise

Jerry Nelson
Special to the Farm Forum
Jerry Nelson and his wife, Julie, recently made a guest appearance for Mark Vandelanotte's 65th birthday party. Back row: Rae Yost, Julie and Jerry Nelson, Jane Vandelanotte. Seated are Dana Yost and Mark Vandelanotte.

I have been present at numerous birthday parties, but up until recently I had never been the present at one. And no, it didn’t involve me jumping out of a giant birthday cake. Nobody wants to see that.

It all began with an email from a woman named Jane Vandelanotte. At first, I found the email incredible, and not just due to how difficult it is to spell “Vandelanotte.”

Jane’s email was full of praise for my writing. I found this extremely pleasing, so I printed it out and showed it to my wife.

“How much?” she asked.

“How much what?” I replied.

“How much did you pay the lady to write that?”

“Nothing!” I protested. “I don’t even know her!”

This was met with the type of eyeroll that wives all across the globe have perfected.

The main thrust of Jane’s email was that her husband, Mark, was turning 65 in the first week of August. Jane said that Mark had always wanted to meet me and that she was wondering if I could “happen” to drop in at a local restaurant where she was planning a small birthday soiree for Mark.

I enjoy participating in surprises, so I said yes. Over the next several weeks, Jane managed to keep this plan a secret from all of her family and friends, no doubt using the kind of clandestine methods that are often associated with the CIA.           

On the day of Mark’s party, my wife and I drove to Irene’s Café, located on the main street of Hendricks, Minnesota. At a prearranged time, I called Jane on her cell phone, which was the signal to put her Top-Secret Birthday Surprise Plan into motion. I felt like James Bond.

Jane led my wife and me into Irene’s. A group of about a dozen people were seated at a long table; everyone was covering their eyes with their hands. It looked like they were illustrating the “see no evil” proverb. 

“Surprise!” said Jane and everyone looked up. I quickly introduced myself and my wife to Mark. He seemed taken aback; it was abundantly clear that Jane’s secret-keeping efforts had been a total success.

We were introduced to the other party guests, including Mark and Jane’s daughters, Abby and Bayli, along with Rae and Dana Yost and their son, Luke. Rae and Dana are close friends with Jane and Mark. Dana is a former newspaper editor, so we were able to share some war stories.

Mark, like me, is a recovering dairy farmer. He and his two nephews currently farm about 2,900 acres and feed beef cattle. I asked Mark if reaching this milestone means that he’ll retire.

“I really enjoy what I’m doing, so I don’t think I’ll quit anytime soon,” Mark said. “My nephews have the farming spark and I feel that it’s my duty make sure that the baton gets passed on to the next generation.”

Irene’s Café is the epitome of a small-town eatery, featuring wholesome, down-home cooking and a friendly staff. On that day, the staff consisted of two people, a very pleasant and motherly waitress and a short order cook. It’s easy to feel at home at Irene’s.

The homey atmosphere lent itself to copious amounts of gabbing. Before we knew it, nearly three hours had passed. You know that you’re having fun when you lose track of time.

Jane had one more surprise up her sleeve. Before we left, she presented my wife and me with a gift bag of goodies. They included homemade chocolate topping, a big pan of Special K bars and a couple of bottles of beer from the Brau Brothers, a local brewery.

Since the chocolate was obviously for my wife, I called dibs on the beer. Everybody wins.

Also in the gift bag was a copy of Dana’s book “1940: Journal of a Midwestern Town, Story of an Era.”

When I learned that his book is focused on Minneota, Minnesota, I told Dana that my great-great grandfather Jens Johnson, a Norwegian immigrant, had homesteaded at Minneota in 1870. The world is much smaller than we think.

Mark mentioned that his father, Jasper, had immigrated from Belgium in 1948.

“Dad became a U.S. citizen in 1956,” Mark said. “He was proud to be an American.”

I’m betting that Jasper was also proud of how his children and his grandchildren turned out.

My wife and I went home that afternoon with a bagful of goodies. But an even bigger treat was getting acquainted with some new friends.

If you'd like to contact Jerry Nelson to do some public speaking, or just to register your comments, you can email him at His book, “Dear County Agent Guy,” is available at and at booksellers everywhere.