BALATON - Saturday was supposed to be the happiest day of Alyssa Kirk's life, having planned her dream wedding for nearly a year. But a month ago, Kirk's world was shattered when her fiance, Jason Steffes, was killed in a head-on crash near Windom.
As Kirk and so many others from in and around the community of Balaton grieved the sudden loss of Steffes, the "would-be" wedding date (July 27) kept getting closer. With the knowledge that so many friends and family members, including Steffes' children, Riley and Mattea Steffes, parents, Wayne and Cathy Steffes and siblings, Benji Steffes and Carissa Rutz, were also suffering, Kirk decided to have a celebration anyway, in honor of her fiance's life and in recognition of the marriage that was supposed to have taken place.
"I chose to have this celebration because it's what Jason would have wanted," Kirk said. "He wouldn't want anybody to sit around and do nothing. He'd want everybody to get together and celebrate his life and our marriage."
Alyssa Kirk and Jason Steffes were all smiles as they enjoyed a trip to Jamaica a year ago.
Steffes, 39, grew up in Balaton and worked as a sales representative for Bio Fuels Automation/Swanson FLO Systems. He loved hunting, fishing, golfing and playing softball among other activities. With roughly 400 and 500 people in attendance at his prayer service and funeral, it was obvious that Steffes' life had really mattered to a lot of people.
"He talked to everybody and anybody," Kirk said. "He liked to be around people and have fun. He lived life to the fullest and always had a smile on his face."
Eleven days before the wedding date, when Kirk made the decision to have a get-together, people in the community quickly began rallying behind her to make it the best celebration possible under the circumstances.
While there was no wedding music, flowers, fancy dresses or tuxedoes, there was a lot of love and support shown throughout the day.
"I thought this was perfect," Kirk's cousin Karen Mitzner said about the get-together. "You don't want to sit at home with your head under the covers. So it was nice to have the community come together."
Under the circumstances, love and support seemed to be the best gift for those still hurting. And, fortunately, people gave that gift freely and sincerely.
"The hardest part is that there's not a darn thing we can do except be there for Alyssa," family friend Carrie Colvin-Murphy said. "She just has to keep putting one foot in front of the other each day and hopefully it helps to know we're here to support her."
Colvin-Murphy was among about 40 others who golfed at the East Bay Golf Course in Balaton Saturday in Jason Steffes' honor. During the two-person scramble, most golfers took time to pay their respects at a small hackberry tree that planted in Steffes' memory.
"The tree is from a bunch of people, actually," Kirk said. "The day of Jason's funeral, we all gathered, dug the hole and put the tree in there. We also left some balloons. Now there's probably 50 golf balls around the tree."
Bruce Bauer and Bryan Smith won the tournament. Along with Tabor and Denise Hoek, Jerry and Elizabeth Johnson, Rick Schwachtzen, Bob and Lucy Meyer and Jim Sehl and Wendy Krueger, Smith and his wife Debbie donated the special tree.
At 4 p.m., Kirk went out alone to visit Steffes' final place of rest, which overlooks Lake Yankton, where most of the day's activities took place.
"I went out there at the time we would have been married," she said. "I stayed 'til 5, until I knew officially I would have been married to him and I left there just knowing I was his wife."
When Kirk returned to the lake, people were still playing sand volleyball and lawn games as well as visiting and reminiscing. It was then that friends of the couple surprised Steffes' children and Kirk with precious gifts.
"They gave Mattea and I necklaces and Riley a keychain with Jason's thumbprint on it," Kirk said. "It's incredible. I'm truly blessed with the best friends in the world."
The thoughtful gifts were given by Annette and Jay Miller, Nikki and Chuck Swanson, Kelly Thomas and Brian Bauer, Jody and Bruce Bauer and Rhonda and Jon Greenfield.
"We sat there the day after Jason was killed and said, 'We have to do something really special, so what can we do?'" Annette Miller said. "Nikki had seen the fingerprint art before and Kelly also works at a funeral home, so we called her and asked how we could go about doing this. She and Seneca (Almlie, funeral director) helped us with it."
Miller said the group of friends had an unexplained and unusual experience during the discussion.
"While we were talking about it, the lights flickered and dimmed," she said. "They went way down, almost dark, and then came back on again."
While Mattea Steffes and Kirk received fingerprint necklaces, which were more delicate and feminine, Riley Steffes was given a more masculine, full-size fingerprint attached to a keychain, which was especially ideal for him because he had just gotten his driver's license the day before. When he opened his gift, Steffes was speechless. As he gave out hugs, it was obvious that no words were necessary.
Kirk eagerly showed her precious keepsake to friends and family, holding dear anything connected to her fiance.
"Ironically, Alyssa had told us that she went to Arts in the Park in Brookings (S.D.), and saw someone could take the fingerprints and make them into a necklace," Nikki Swanson said. "She said, 'That would have been awesome,' but that it was a lot of money and that she was too late. We kept it quiet until (Saturday). But now she's got it."
If the temperature had been above 60 degrees, people would likely have been boating and swimming along with the other activities that the 150 or more people took part in on Saturday. The pork dinner was supplied by friends and catered by KirPatrick's Pub and Grill. The fruit, beans, chips, buns and juice were provided Randy Miller and other friends, while the pork for sandwiches were donated by Diann and Jeff Timmerman.
"Jason was so generous," Diann Timmerman said. "So we made the donation because of straight-up love."
There were also cream cheese mints available, which were lovingly made by Kirk and her bridesmaids for the wedding. After the dinner, Kirk gave the flowergirls and bridesmaids their gifts.
"It about broke my heart when she gave them their gifts," said Pam Kirk, Alyssa's mom. "She said she might as well give the gifts to them even if there wasn't a wedding."
Kirk's dad, Dan "Hondo" Kirk, said that individuals, organizations and businesses had been especially accommodating to everyone in light of the tragic circumstances.
"Everyone has been so nice," he said. "Carrow's sent back the deposit for the tuxes and David's Bridal is talking about reimbursing the girls for the dresses. Jason's company wanted to pay for the funeral and some church group paid for the food at the funeral, too."
Alyssa Kirk said she was extremely thankful for the support she and others have received. In addition to phenomenal community support, she said she has also received messages from people she didn't even know.
"They all ask what they can do to help," she said. "People don't know what to say, except that they're there whenever I want to talk."
All of the loving gestures have helped those hurting, Kirk said, noting that she herself has a difficult journey ahead of her, although she's thankful for the time she had with Steffes.
"I just take every day one breath at a time, one second at a time, one minute at a time," she said. "And honestly, I can't believe that it has already been a month since he passed away because it seems like days."
As the sun disappeared and darkness began to take over, dozens of people released heartfelt messages into the sky in the form of large, lighted lanterns. And as Kirk set her lantern skyward, the words "I do" lit up brightly for all to see.