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Editorial: Vermilion Foundation event honors worthy winners as it returns to calendar

Last week, the Vermilion College foundation held a scholarship banquet for the first time since 2019.

Because of Covid and other reasons, the event went away but it was heartening to see it return, with the school honoring both its scholarship recipients for 2023-24 and a pair of very deserving award winners.

Ely native and recently-retired St. Louis County Historical Society Executive Director Jo Anne Coombe was recognized, in person, for the Vermilion Lifetime Achievement Award she was selected for way back in 2020, just before the world was disrupted by the pandemic.

The school also recognized one of its icons - retired history professor Pam Brunfelt - for her numerous contributions to Vermilion.

We may be a bit biased, at least when it comes to one of the award winners, but we’ll say without question that the foundation and Vermilion found two very deserving award-winners.

Coombe, a 1967 Ely High School graduate, moved on to graduate from the old Ely Junior College as it was making its transition to a new name - Vermilion State Junior College. Of course since then the name has evolved to Vermilion Community College and now the Vermilion campus of Minnesota North College.

Since then, Coombe worked briefly at Vermilion from 1978-81 and later moved on to a long career running the county’s historical society at the historic Depot in Duluth.

For more than 35 years, she guided the organization and expanded its outreach.

Never forgetting her Iron Range roots, she made sure the Duluth-housed group kept its ties with historical groups across the spacious county - working with numerous affiliate organizations including Ely’s own Ely-Winton Historical Society.

Through the years, Coombe helped bring various historical society exhibits and events to Ely and to Vermilion, while working on a broader scale to maintain the county’s attachment to history through trying budgetary and political waters.

This summer, she moved into a well-deserved and well-earned retirement and last week was able to accept, in person, the award for her lifetime achievements.

Brunfelt, meanwhile, had a very similar link to history and her love for the Iron Range and its roots were well known at Vermilion.

So too were her connections with so many students who passed through her classroom.

Brunfelt clearly cared for her students, giving both historical and life lessons each and every semester and building bonds with many students - some that lasted far beyond the time in her classroom.

For some, the time spent in Brunfelt’s classroom was a life-changing experience. The words of one of her former students, which were read in the introduction leading up to the award presentation, were heartfelt, moving and a true indication of how a good teacher can impact lives.

It showed that Brunfelt did much more than teach history at Vermilion, and she’s a testament to the impact of Vermilion on the students who come hear to live and learn.

Congratulations and hats off to Jo Anne Coombe and Pam Brunfelt, and to the students who collected more than $140,000 in scholarship funds overseen by the Vermilion Foundation. Thanks to foundation as well for bringing back its scholarship recognition event. We look forward to another in 2024.

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