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'Clear tracks ahead' for western Minnesota musician silenced by ALS

Jerry Ostensoe was known for his soothing voice and the songs he wrote telling the stories of the people and places he knew in western Minnesota. Osetensoe, 71, died Monday at his Granite Falls home.

Musician Jerry Ostensoe shown in 2016 performing with his guitar during a celebration following the groundbreaking ceremony for the new Pioneer Television studio and headquarters in Granite Falls, Minnesota.
Musician Jerry Ostensoe performs during a celebration following the groundbreaking ceremony for the new Pioneer Television studio and headquarters in Granite Falls in 2016.
Tom Cherveny / West Central Tribune file photo
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GRANITE FALLS — Jerry Ostensoe was a musician with a voice as soothing as a prairie breeze, which he used to tell the stories of the people who lived in the land he called “just east of west” in the songs he wrote.

“Poetry” is how Deborah Fossan describes the music and stories her husband created.

Ostensoe, 71, died Aug. 29, at their home in Granite Falls, where she had been caring for him since his diagnosis with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in 2018. ALS is a progressive, neurodegenerative disease commonly called Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Its symptoms began to show themselves in late 2017, but it was not until July 2018 that doctors could make a diagnosis. Ostensoe was recording what became his final CD when the disease began to steal his voice — like rust taking the shine from metal.

His singing partner and friend, Malena Handeen, noticed the symptoms before he did. His voice and delivery were just not quite perfect. Her observations led Ostensoe to his family doctor and, eventually, a diagnosis.

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“This guy was just a giant of storytelling for our community,” said Handeen.

She had dropped by Ostensoe’s home last Sunday. By chance, musician Charlie Roth, a fellow bard of the prairie, had stopped as well to see his longtime friend. Handeen retrieved the accordion she keeps in her vehicle, and Roth had brought his guitar with plans to sing for his friend.

051819.n.wct.JerryALStrollers.JPG
Jerry Ostensoe, at left, and Malena Handeen, center, perform in 2019 with the Strollers including Richard Handeen, in back, and Pistol Pete DenBlacker, at right.
Contributed / Jeff Mills

They were joined in the house by other friends who had stopped to see Debbie and Jerry.

Soon, they were shoe-horned into Ostensoe’s small bedroom, playing and singing Ostensoe’s own songs for him. Ostensoe was no longer able to move or signal to them, but his eyes remained open and those present knew he was taking it all in.

There were tears shed, but it proved to be an appropriate send-off, as Ostensoe died only hours later. “It was as much for us as anything,” said Handeen of this impromptu performance. “Because what do you do?”

Ostensoe was as celebrated for his affability as much as for his musical and storytelling talents.

“He was a guy that everybody liked,” said Dave Smiglewski, his lifelong friend and fellow musician.

“I don’t know anybody who didn’t like him. Everybody liked old ‘Jerr,’’ said Smiglewski, who is the mayor of Granite Falls.

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The two worked together for nearly 20 years with the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway. They performed together for much longer as part of the Good Time Railroad band they had helped found. Smiglewski has also been diagnosed with ALS.

Ostensoe made his living by working for the railroad and later as a transit bus driver in his hometown, according to Smiglewski. He performed with Good Time Railroad, the Strollers, and as part of duos with Carol Ford and Malena Handeen. He also performed on his own, and was often called upon to perform for community celebrations and events.

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He recorded an LP, cassette, and at least five CDs. He recorded his last CD at Wild Sound in Minneapolis, where owner Steve Kaul has hosted many of the state's best-known talents.

"Clear tracks ahead," Kaul posted on Facebook on learning of Ostensoe's passing.

 “He had the heart of a hobo in some ways,” said Smiglewski of Ostensoe. “He was really a guy that was attracted to the romantic side of things, traveling and going out west particularly.”

Before ALS confined Ostensoe to his home, he and Smiglewski took lengthy road trips to the west where they pursued their love for the history of the country. In their youthful days, they hopped the rails to destinations as far flung as Glacier National Park and New Orleans.

Ostensoe was a voracious reader of history, especially that of World War II.

Until his marriage to Debbie on Jan. 28, 2019, he had lived in a home hidden alongside Hawk Creek that had been built as the Minnesota Falls railroad stop for steam locomotives.

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Along with his collection of guitars and recording equipment, it held hundreds of books.

Jerry Ostensoe is shown in file photo from May, 2019.
Jerry Ostensoe is shown in this file photo from May 2019.
Contributed

It was at this woodsy retreat that Ostensoe and Handeen rehearsed and recorded music. It’s where she also came to realize that her fellow musician had no idea of how much he had impacted people in the region through his music.

She said he was always striving to take his work farther. He was just not aware that the success of his work was already evident to all, she said. “What a gift he has been to all of us,” she said.

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Since her husband’s death, Fossan said she has been “bombarded” by messages of condolences from throughout the state and other parts of the country.

“He was such a kind and gentle spirit,” she said.

While ALS made caring for her husband at home a challenge, Fossan said she was aided by many friends and family and treasured every moment of his company.

“When you love somebody, that’s just what you do,” she said.

A funeral service will be held at 1 p.m. Oct. 22 at the Granite Falls Lutheran Church, with a celebration of his life and storytelling to follow.

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoors reporter for the West Central Tribune.
He has been a reporter with the West Central Tribune since 1993.

Cherveny can be reached via email at tcherveny@wctrib.com or by phone at 320-214-4335.
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