When one of its own is in need, Ely rises up

by Tom Coombe
Echo editor
For the majority of my half-century on this earth, and continuously since mid-1993, Ely has been home.
Both work and pleasure-related travel take me away often and there have been years with better than 35,000 miles spent on the road.
Few of the amenities that draw people here have any pull on me, and nights at a ballpark, arena, gymnasium and trips to Las Vegas or a vibrant, urban downtown trump anything resembling a trip to the lake or the woods.
Yet there’s something reassuring every time the Ely water tower comes into view on Highway 169. It’s home.
An event last week proved once again why that’s so.
It was around noon on the Echo’s deadline day last Thursday when Nick raced by my office and said something about a fire on West Chapman, which for 13 years was my neighborhood.
Curiosity called and the view once aside was both fascinating and horrific.
Heavy smoke billowed out of the top of the house owned by my former neighbor, Paul Starkovich. Soon, flames were shooting out and fire crews were on the scene.
News reports in this paper last weekend told much of the story.
Paul and his longtime friend and fishing buddy Lou Churich of Omaha, Neb., were able to escape along with their dogs.
The house was a total loss, destroying the possessions inside of both Starkovich and his nephew Shane, who lived on the upper floor of one of the community’s oldest houses.
What happened next, heck what happened even as the blaze began, is all about Ely.
A grease fire in the rear of Starkovich’s home quickly ignited out of control, and Starkovich’s efforts to curb the blaze were unsuccessful.
“When I threw some water on the wall it ignited, and a piece of insulation dropped on my back and started my T-shirt on fire,” Starkovich recalled Thursday.
The 1968 Ely High School graduate, still recovering from knee surgery just three months earlier, said he “went outside dove in the dirt and rolled in the dirt to get the fire off my back.”
Ely area resident Misty Merhar and others quickly helped Starkovich to a nearby yard.
“There were a ton of people outside within a minute,” he said.
Churich escaped through another door with the dogs and soon an ambulance took Starkovich to Ely-Bloomenson Community Hospital, where he was treated for first and second-degree burns. Within hours, Starkovich walked out the emergency room doors to Churich’s awaiting pickup.
But that’s just the beginning of the story. In a matter of hours, Merhar and others, including Starkovich’s niece Kathy Zupancich, went to work.
Supplies, clothes, groceries and even a temporary place to live - at Silver Rapids Lodge - were quickly secured by the end of the afternoon from a generous community, including individuals, businesses and churches..
“I think I have more clothes now than I’ve ever had in my life,” said Starkovich.
Heartened by the community’s response, Starkovich remained in pain from his “stop, drop and roll,” experience and would return to Ely-Bloomenson a few hours later.
“I tried to put weight on my leg and it just wasn’t right,” said Starkovich.
Another examination revealed a broken left hip and Starkovich was soon off to Duluth for surgery.
That went well and Starkovich was released within a few days. This week finds the former Baltimore Orioles and Kansas City Royals pitching prospect on the mend at the Hoyt Lakes home of his son, Paul Jr. Our old neighbor “Sparks,” as our boys called him so many years ago, is going to be OK.
“I’m walking, I feel great,” he said. “I’ve been through so much stuff. Nobody got killed and I’ve got a place to move in to and hopefully 2021 will be better than 2020.”
Within a few weeks, Starkovich will be back home, living in the main house on the corner lot that also included the structure that burned and will soon be demolished.
“I’ll be home as soon as I can,” said Starkovich, an avid outdoorsman. “I lost a lot of stuff and Shane lost everything, but we still have our toys. My boat’s fine. My vehicle’s fine. Shane had boats and a four-wheeler. We got all of the guns out. That’s pretty important to us.”
While both Starkovich and his nephew lost countless possessions and clothing, they’re benefiting from a community that rallied to their aid.
Donations of clothing have been augmented with groceries, supplies, gift cards and two accounts set up at the Ely Area Credit Union, one for both Starkovich and his nephew.
“This community has been unbelievable,” said Starkovich. “Ely is a special place. It’s why I live in Ely. The people have been fantastic. I’ve had people call me, even people I played ball with, I don’t know how they found out. It’s nice to know people care about you. It’s overwhelming.”
Overwhelming, yet not surprising.
Ely has its differences without a doubt. Politically, we’re as divided as the nation whether the issue is mining or the response to the coronavirus.
Yet time after time, instance after instance, when one of our own is in need this community comes together.
Whether it’s helping someone displaced by fire, or raising thousands of dollars to cover medical expenses, or comforting those when they’ve lost loved ones, Ely rises to the occasion - be it individuals, families, businesses or community organizations.
That’s why, despite the pull of larger communities, greener pastures and even frequent trips, the water tower is always a welcome sight.
There really is no place like home.