Veterans will have more chances to explore Big Island after grant helps fund visits

Thirty-six veterans who toured Big Island last year were with the Disabled American Veterans, Military Order of the Purple Heart, Minnesota Veterans 4 Veterans and veteran residents from the Augustana Care facility in Burnsville. They got to visit the site of the former Big Island Amusement Park and the Veterans Camp. (Sun Sailor staff photo by Paige Kieffer)

A grant from IBM and the dedication of local volunteers will help Minnesota veterans to continue to visit Big Island on Lake Minnetonka.

After the Orono City Council pushed to remove the Big Island docks earlier this year there were some doubt about the future of access to veterans who have been visiting the island for more than 90 years. Currently plans and funding are secure for at least one more summer on the lake, but the future of the docks after this summer season is unknown.

Gerry Falkowski and Dean Ascheman, both IBM retirees, applied for a $2,000 grant to support the Veterans4Veterans organization in funding outings for veterans on Lake Minnetonka and specifically to tour Big Island and discuss its history this boating season.

Additionally, former Orono Mayor, Tonka Bay Marina owner and Big Island advocate Gabriel Jabbour offered to match the IBM grant to ensure any veteran who wants to visit the lake and island may do so. Excursions were privately funded for more than 30 years.

“I worked on government contracts while at IBM,” said Falkowski. “This helped me to contact the right people and get this done for our veterans.”

For Falkowski, securing funding for the veterans is important. His brother, Ronald, was a veteran who served on the USS. Midway from 1959-1962. He died in 2012 after a battle with multiple sclerosis.

“This is very important to me to honor Ron’s memory,” said Falkowski. “We will never know all the sacrifices our vets have made for us. This is a very small way of saying thank you to Ron and all of the other veterans.”

Funds will be used for the costs involved in these outings, including shore lunches, fuel and other expenses.

“It’s not cheap to bring these men over to the island but it is well worth it,” said Falkowski. “Thanks to IBM and Mr. Jabbour we can continue to honor this tradition and give these soldiers a great day on the island.”

The relationship between Minnesota’s veterans and Big Island dates back more than 90 years when the island was home to the Big Island Veterans Camp. The camp closed in 2003 and proceeds from the 2006 sale to the City of Orono are used to fund veterans programs. A condition of the sale was that veteran’s would have access to the island in perpetuity.

Last winter the Orono City Council pushed to remove the docks and still may after this summer. Many vocal supporters and volunteers funds were discovered for maintenance and upkeep of the island’s docks this season.

“It will be a great summer on Big Island,” said Ascheman. “This was a team effort to ensure the rightful visitors of this island continue to have access not only this summer but for years to come.”