Melvin Stelten was headed out for a walk after dark Wednesday when the 89-year-old was struck twice in traffic and died at the scene outside his assisted-living residence.
The suddenness of his passing has touched people throughout West Duluth, where Stelten had become a fixture for his visibility about town and the positive interactions he enjoyed with neighbors and residents.
“He’s just a sweetie,” said Renea Johnson, owner of the nearby RJ’s Coffee Den.
“We would see him out in cold, miserable weather, and he told me how he would walk 5 miles almost every day,” Peggy Helske said. “When it was nice, sometimes he’d get in 10 miles.”
An administrative assistant with Oliver Cos., Helske works several doors down from the site of the crash outside Wesley Residence Assisted Living at Grand Avenue and 56th Avenue West.
Stelten was struck by one vehicle and then another at 6 p.m. Wednesday. Early results of the Duluth Police Department’s investigation have ruled out excessive speed, distraction or impairment as factors in the crash; no criminal charges have been filed against either driver - both Duluth men.
Stelten had finished supper and was headed for one of the walks that was ingrained in his routine. The people of West Duluth came to rely on Stelten’s daily appearances as being a part of the neighborhood motif. He wouldn’t always say much. He had barriers to verbal communication and sometimes favored smiles and gestures to make his point. He gave thumbs up to hairstylists and waved at passing young children.
Johnson said Stelten would look up at her through the Coffee Den window with his arms extended and palms up pointing at the carts that collected outside her lot next to Kmart.
“We called him the ‘cart man’ for the way he took care of the carts all the time - even at 89 years old,” Johnson said. “He was very unassuming, but it was always nice to see him go by and smile.”
Johnson would offer him coffee or hot chocolate - even gloves once - but Stelten politely declined. He would acquiesce to a glass of water on a hot summer day.
Stelten preferred to play solitaire in his room to bingo at Wesley Residence, but that wasn’t an illustration of his social impact at the facility. He was beloved. After hearing the news of the crash, some of the remaining 37 residents affixed cards and a wreath to Stelten’s door, and others placed flowers at his favored spot in the dining room.
“Melvin wasn’t just a resident; he was their family, and they are devastated,” said Kim Luoma, a registered nurse and site administrator at Wesley Residence.
Luoma said Stelten had no current involvement with family. He’d spent the past nine years at Wesley Residence, developing a routine of walking throughout West Duluth after each of the day’s three meals. Mail carriers would observe Stelten far from home and walking up some of the city’s biggest hills. His caregivers would hear from ladies in the neighborhood who appreciated his waves and consistent presence.
“I’m so impressed with how many people in the community kind of secretly looked out for Melvin,” Luoma said.
One man, Ben Harstad, who lives above the Kom-On-Inn in West Duluth, would see Stelten walking with his hands clasped behind his back, an ever-present cigarette dangling from his lips.
“It was like he smoked one cigarette all day long,” Harstad said.
The story goes that it was a doctor who told an ailing Stelten he needed to start walking, and Stelten took heed of the advice. He used the carts to aid his balance at first. Soon, he was fit to carry on throughout the neighborhood.
“He was so good for our business,” Johnson said, overlooking a parking lot Friday morning that already had an unattended cart blow into it like a tumbleweed. “Who’s going to pick up the carts?”
A candlelight memorial service for Melvin Stelten is planned from 5:30-7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Wesley Residence, 5601 Grand Ave., Duluth.