Flashback Friday: Denver in Minnesota, Remembering Singer 20 Years after His Death

October 13, 2017 01:28 PM

Colorado is the state most usually associate with John Denver.

After all, the singer-songwriter celebrated the state he long called home in such hits as "Rocky Mountain High."

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But Denver - who died at the age of 53 when an experimental airplane he was piloting crashed 20 years ago this week - also had long and deep ties to Minnesota.

That was largely due, of course, to his first wife Annie, whom he met while playing a concert at Gustavus as a member of The Mitchell Trio in 1966.

The two were married from 1967 to 1982, and made their home in Edina for a time in the late 1960s and early 1970s - just as Denver's career as a solo artist began to take off.

"He was very close to our family," recalls Annie's sister Teresa Martell, who still lives in Le Sueur. "We spent a lot of time together at family gatherings. He was really close with my older brother Ben, who was just happy to add a brother to our family.

"He and Ben traveled together, and they had a lot of fun."

Annie was the daughter of Jim Martell, a World War II veteran who participated in the D-Day invasion before returning home and eventually opening the Holiday House supper club in St. Peter, which he owned for decades.

"He could type really well," recalls Teresa Martell of her father, who died at the age of 90 in 2014. "He'd been a typist in the army. And one time, there were armed guards by his door when they asked him to type something up. It turned out it was the orders saying (the Allies) were going to invade Normandy on June 4th, 5th or 6th.

"We never knew that until much later."

Jim and his wife Norma had four children - Annie, Linda, Ben and Teresa - all of whom got to know Denver well.

"He was just such a nice guy," said Teresa, who added the family remained close to Denver, even after his marriage to Annie ended. "He loved the outdoors and he loved to golf. When we moved to Prior Lake, he loved water skiing with us, or playing badminton and volleyball. Things like that."

It was while living with Annie in Edina that Denver wrote some of his early songs like "Sunshine on My Shoulders." He was also tapped to perform at Edina High School during a student walk-out in September of 1969.

"Everybody has a different story about it," recalls Deb Nugent Stickley, a sophomore at the time. "But initially, I think there was a teacher labor dispute going on. And one of the issues brought forth was cutting back on some extra-curricular activities. That's what students were protesting against."

So Denver, who was playing various locations around town at the time, was approached about coming in and playing for the students gathered in the high school gymnasium.

"He knew people at Edina High School, and so he came over and played a few songs, just to keep the troops calmed down if you will," said Nugent Stickley, who now lives in Georgia. "I had no idea who he was at the time. I don't think many people did. When he made it big, it was crazy to look back on. Here was this guy with a guitar who played at our high school protest.

"And he went on to become a mega-star."

A mega-star with a long connection to Minnesota. And those Minnesota ties are why Denver will be among the 2017 inductees to the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame - joining lesser-known acts like the Meire Grove City Band and Jim Johnson and the Underbeats.

An induction ceremony and banquet is scheduled for Nov. 3 at Turner Hall in New Ulm.

"A lot of the songs that brought him the most fame and notoriety were written here in Minnesota," Dodie Wendinger, hall of fame executive director, said. "It's where he met his wife and lived for a time. So he had extremely close ties to Minnesota.

"It's really where his career started out."

Credits

Frank Rajkowski

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