Looking back at more favorite News Tribune Lifestyle stories from 2021

2021 saw an explosion of puzzle libraries, a Black business showcase and three families merging into one mansion

Year in review montage

Sure, we wrote about COVID in 2021. We also reported on a Duluthian-turned-internet sensation; folks starting businesses in their living rooms and a guy who runs a marathon before a marathon.

The News Tribune checked in with people featured in this year’s Lifestyle section to see where they are now.

PREVIOUSLY: Read updates on 5 favorite DNT Lifestyle stories from 2021 A pastor jumps out of retirement, a mansion sells for millions and more.

Puzzle all the time

Christmas lights decorate the Twin Ports Jigsaw Puzzle Swap’s second puzzle library Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune


Duluth speed puzzler Amber Haglund-Pagel’s online puzzle swap had 40 members when we last spoke . Now, Jigsaw Puzzle Swap of the Twin Ports has evolved from a couple of bins on her front porch to two full size puzzle libraries on wheels with locations in Piedmont Heights and Kenwood with plans to open a third in Lakeside.

All of the libraries, save for the one that cropped up in Cloquet , were designed and built by her father, John Haglund.

“The next move on the library front is to determine where the Lakeside puzzle library will go. It may end up at my parents' house, or if another puzzle swap member wants it and is willing to keep it running,” she said.

Speed puzzler Amber Haglund-Pagel recently launched the Jigsaw Puzzle Swap of the Twin Ports. To join means to have access to safe trades with other members as well as access to her, basically, little free library of puzzles. On the front porch of her Lakeside home sit two purple bins filled with scenes of the outdoors, animals and food in 300-, 500- and 1,000-piece puzzles. Steve Kuchera / 2020 file / Duluth News Tribune

When the News Tribune caught up with Haglund-Pagel last week, her Facebook puzzle swap group had grown to nearly 530 members. She now approves page requests from local folks only, but other than that, members still share pics of puzzles, progress, memes and news.

Haglund-Pagel originally launched the group to cycle out her large collection of puzzles. She continuously practices different methods to improve her speed.

Haglund-Pagel will compete in the Twin Cities winter carnival at the end of January, and again at the World Jigsaw Puzzle Competition in June.


“Minnesota is home to three of the four National Jigsaw Puzzle champions in the U.S.,” she said.


Keeping up the Kreations

Kia Ronning lines up a vinyl cutout on a T-shirt for a client before heat transferring it in her kitchen in Superior on May 10, 2021. Ronning started her business, Keeks Kreations, as an outlet during the pandemic. Jed Carlson / File / Superior Telegram

Since our May interview, Kia Ronning’s pandemic-born business Keeks Kreations is evolving.

Ronning and her family relocated from Superior to Duluth’s Lakeside neighborhood, and her work area, which had spanned the kitchen and living room, now has a dedicated space.

She has three Cricuts now and her large vinyl supply has moved out of a side closet to her office wall.

“I love being on this side of the bridge. I’m from Minnesota, so it’s nice to be quote-unquote back home,” Ronning said.


Ronning started designing and creating merchandise for a mental health boost last January. “It’s been such a year of learning and navigating,” she said.

Ronning’s planning a follow-up to last year’s Northland Black Business Showcase , an effort she spearheaded. The event — slated for February; location: TBD — will again feature Black businesses and offer a way of networking.

Today, Ronning is designing works for Duluth barber shop Deep Cuts, and she’s collaborating on T-shirts with Trans Plus. “I try and shine a light on people who may not be noticed so much, people of color, people of different gender identities, and sexual orientation," Ronning said in a May News Tribune story.

3 families, 1 mansion

123121.F.DNT.YEARINREVIEW_Brown home.jpg
Mark and Susan Brown stand outside their house on Birch Lane on April 22, 2021. The couple sold their home to merge households with their two daughters. That will be a total of six adults, five children, three dogs, three cats, a bearded dragon and an iguana all living in a Duluth mansion in Congdon. “I think this was our COVID response,” Susan said, “and I call it a leap of faith that we can live together and thrive.” Jed Carlson / File / Duluth News Tribune

Mark and Susan Brown traded their lakeside home to merge with two other households. In May, six adults, five kids and a band of pets relocated into an eight-bedroom, six-and-a-half bathroom Congdon mansion.

And, two of the adults are the Browns’ daughters.

“It’s been the loneliest year of my life, our lives,” Susan Brown said this spring. “I think this was our COVID response, and I call it a leap of faith that we can live together and thrive.”

Checking in last week, Mark Brown said there have been some home issues, a leak in the hot water system, a pipe that needed replacing and the basement laundry flooded.

It’s part of adjusting to a new house and its idiosyncrasies, he said.

And, they’re still trying to sell daughter Jacque’s Proctor home, but other than that, it’s going swimmingly.


The grandchildren are very active, the bedroom assignments have worked out perfectly and it’s seldom they have a full house. But family meals have offered a pleasant surprise.
Before moving in together, the families anticipated group meals would run about three a week, but they’re all eating dinner together as a family almost every night, he said.

Three family members did test positive with COVID, and as they’d hoped, their large home is big enough for separation, togetherness and added support when it comes to the kiddos.

“I don’t know what we would’ve done had we not been altogether. It was certainly an advantage to all be in the same house,” Brown said.

As a grandpa of five, he’s “thoroughly enjoying” having the grandchildren in the house.

“It’s really special to be able to be with them everyday, and they don’t even get on my nerves. I usually escape to my room for adult issues rather than kid issues,” he said with a laugh.

Beam-me-up book clubs

123121.F.DNT.YEARINREVIEW_VR library.jpg
Heidi Harrison appears as an avatar in her Oculus Quest 2 virtual reality system. Contributed

In March , Heidi Harrison launched a new book club — in virtual reality.

The Duluth-based reader connected with folks across the globe through Facebook group, Oculus Quest Ladies. Months later, her VR book club is still going strong.

Readers join from New Orleans and California, Canada, the U.K. and Australia. But, there’s not a huge showing from the Land of 10,000 Lakes, she said. A reader from the Cities logged in once, but hasn’t returned.

Harrison said connecting with folks around the world offers an interesting perspective during the pandemic about U.S. history and it’s interesting to hear the status of the virus, shutdowns and vaccination availability in other countries.

“With the pandemic, it’s so nice to be social and not go anywhere,” Harrison said in March.

Her VR group’s discussing “The Firekeeper’s Daughter” in January, and she’s anticipating a bump in attendance. “I suspect a lot more people join because, on Christmas, everyone’s getting an Oculus Quest 2 for their families.”

010122.F.DNT.YEAREND2_Emily Blomberg.jpg
Emily Blomberg

Simple virtual book clubs are alive and well via the three Duluth Public Library branches. Through the Mount Royal location, they’d just finished reading Steven Galloway’s “The Cellist of Sarajevo” and are moving onto historical fiction “The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek,” said library tech Emily Blomberg.

She sees up to seven participants each month, and it’s working well. Minimal technical issues and folks are able to login each time.

While there’s talk of returning in-person, with the omicron variant, I think it’s better to keep things virtual at Mount Royal for a while, Blomberg said.

More info:

Zenith Bookstore is still hosting online book clubs, focusing on poetry, chapter and verse and the addition of a pleasure-positivity reading group.

On deck for their main club, Zenith Reads is “What’s Bred in the Bone” by Robertson Davies in January and William Kent Krueger’s “This Tender Land” in February.

More info:

A gover-nerd rising

Sharon McMahon. Contributed / Sharon McMahon

It’s been quite a year for Sharon McMahon. Unable to continue her professional photography business during the pandemic, she turned to Instagram.

Months later, her viral government-for-everybody account @SharonSaysSo has more 710,000 followers, she’s appeared on “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah,” CNN and much more.

Checking in with McMahon last week, she chatted about a YouTube channel launch, her book deal with Penguin Random House and the large amounts of money raised by her community of gover-nerds.

The total: $3.5 million, and more than $550,000 in grants went to teachers to spend on classroom supplies which range from markers to hygiene products and food. (If kids are hungry or mocked in the classroom, they can’t focus on learning, she said.)

“I was a teacher for a long time, and I know first-hand what it’s like to try to pay for everything you need out of pocket,” McMahon said. “When we think of giving money to teachers, what we’re actually giving money to is our children.”

123121.F.DNT.YEARINREVIEW_Sharon Daily Show 1.jpg
"The Daily Show" host Trevor Noah's interview with Duluth's Sharon McMahon aired Monday, Feb. 22. (Screenshot / Comedy Central)

Also this year, McMahon launched her podcast Sharon Says So in July . McMahon has interviewed the chief White House correspondent for the New York Times Peter Baker, philanthropists, authors and the first woman to kayak the Amazon River.

“Life is very busy right now,” she said.

She has a team of six, but McMahon creates her own Instagram content, she teaches online workshops on the judicial process, gun laws in the U.S. and more.

In 2022, she’s focusing on writing her book, which will be about the U.S. government and history. The release is slated for fall 2023, and fans can expect her humor, personality and fact-focus to be intact.

“I always like to try to leave people entertained but also feeling like they’ve learned something new,” she said.

He keeps going and going and …

123121.F.DNT.YEARINREVIEW_Eric Strand.jpg
Eric Strand (left) smiles with his son Zach Strand at the start of the 2017 Leadville 100 ultramarathon in Colorado. Eric Strand, formerly of St. Paul, started running the "Grandma's Double," or two marathons back to back, as a way to train for the Leadville race. All of Strand's children have run at least a half-marathon, and Zach is now a regular running partner. The two have completed 25 marathons and ultramarathons together. (Photo courtesy of Eric Strand)

The guy who runs Grandma’s Marathon twice in one day has one-upped himself.

In June , Eric Strand completed the “Grandma’s Double” — running 52 miles from Canal Park to Two Harbors, then back again — in 9 hours, 11 minutes.

In October, after completing the Chicago Marathon, he hopped a plane to run the Boston Marathon the next day. “It’s not quite the same as the Grandma’s Double, but the Chicago-Boston double,” he said,

He didn’t plan it that way, but COVID postponed Boston’s normally-April race.

Asked how the two feats compare, running 52 miles straight is easier than 26.2 today and 26.2 the day after, Strand said.

When you don’t run again till the next morning, your muscles have a chance to seize up. “I took the first few steps in Boston, and ‘Oh god, what did I do,’” he recalled.

Strand commemorated his back-to-back races across two time zones with a steak dinner.

“You’re thinking for 52 miles how good that nice cold beer’s going to taste at the finish. When you’re done, I want a glass of water, some ibuprofen and a nice, comfortable bed,” he said.

Strand will return to Duluth with his son in June for his preferred 52-mile jaunt.

“Duluth has one of the greatest marathon crowds of any race I run, not necessarily in size, but they make up for it in enthusiasm and sincerity.

“I look forward to coming back.”

Melinda Lavine is an award-winning, multidisciplinary journalist with 16 years professional experience. She joined the Duluth News Tribune in 2014, and today, she writes about the heartbeat of our community: the people.

Melinda grew up in central North Dakota, a first-generation American and the daughter of a military dad.

She earned bachelors degrees in English and Communications from the University of North Dakota in 2006, and started her career at the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald that summer. She helped launch the Herald's features section, as the editor, before moving north to do the same at the DNT.

Contact her: 218-723-5346,
What To Read Next
At the start of each New Year, I do some thinking about what’s coming next in the beer world. I do this to stay ahead on trends, mull over new ideas I like, and plan what I want to focus on.
This week Sarah Nasello modifies a summer favorite into a warm and comforting winter meal.
First of all, it's impossible to organize your entire life all at once. It's too enormous an undertaking for anybody. You’ll just give up.
Kathy Ruberg always wanted to own a fabric store. When the perfect space opened up, she dove in and now has 1,300 bolts of fabric to sell at One Old Loon in Two Harbors.