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At home on the Range
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Brad Williams looks over his notes before his math class begins at Itasca Community College. (MPR Photo/Missy Johnson)
Brad Williams spent almost 30 years at the iron mine in Eveleth. Now he's going to school. Most of his fellow students are 18 or 19. When they were born, Brad Williams had already worked at the mine for ten years. But the mine shut down last May, and Brad Williams doesn't want to leave his home, so he's studying to be a nurse.

Grand Rapids, Minn. — Brad Williams lives in the woods near Palo, Minn. That's a tiny place about 20 miles down the road from the town of Eveleth.

"I lived in the Cities for two years," he says. "I'd like to stay on the Range. It's a good place. It's quiet. Not a lot of clutter."

Lots of people he used to work with feel the same way. They want to stay on the Range. The problem is, their jobs went away.

When the EvTac mine in Eveleth shut down, more than 400 people lost their jobs. It's a similar story for thousands of people on the Iron Range over the past few years. American companies aren't buying iron from northern Minnesota they way they used to. It's cheaper to just buy steel from other countries.

So Brad Williams is starting over at the age of 48. He says he's not angry.

"It's not like I didn't expect it," he says. "Everybody has their opinion as to what's happening. There's dynamics involved in this industry that I'm not privy to. The last five years have been a down cycle. I expected it."

In response, Williams says, he did what he had to do.

He sold his motorcycle, he bought a used car that gets 35 miles a gallon, and he registered for classes at Itasca Community College. That's in Grand Rapids, 70 miles from home, on the other end of the Iron Range.

The school had an opening in its licensed practical nurse program.

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Image Talking with the instructor

"Here's where I have my math class," Williams says as he opens a door on the ICC campus. "It's room 131."

Williams is a sturdy man. He's an avid bicycle rider, and he lifts weights. He's toting a red back pack full of books. Class doesn't start for a few minutes, so he sits down and pulls out a notebook.

He adjusts his glasses, straightens his baseball cap, and skims through his notes from the last lecture. He wears his ball cap pointing forward, but the two 18 year-old guys sitting next to him wear their caps backwards.

Another young guy is sitting in the next row up, and he twists around in his seat to tell the story of his weekend. He says he discovered he's allergic to alcohol. That gets the other 18 year-olds laughing. Brad Williams gives them half a smile and goes back to reading his notebook.

It's full of lecture notes, and messages he's jotted to himself. The personal notes are all mixed in with the math formulas. They say things like, "Eat a bigger breakfast," and, "Get more sleep."

He writes these reminders to himself when he stumbles on something that makes it hard for him to concentrate.

"Like here, I put 'focus,'" he says, pointing to his notebook. "Well, I found out my eyes get sore. So I better get my eyes checked."

The instructor opens class with a review of the commutative and distributive principles -- lots of X's and Y's and parentheses. Williams raises his hand a couple times to ask questions. He's the only student who says anything during the class.

On the first day of school, the instructor told this class to spend two hours on homework for every hour of class. Williams says he's doing about three hours.

After class, Williams heads for the cafeteria to study. He has two hours before his class in nutrition. He's also taking psychology, and an introduction to computers.

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Image Lunchtime

He gets some help at home with his math. His youngest son is taking algebra in high school, so they do their homework together.

"Our kitchen table isn't really used as much for food any more," he says. "There's books all over it, and my laptop is sitting there, and scratch paper. We're running out of pencils."

It's been a while since Brad williams was last in school. He got out of high school back in the early 1970s. Then he went to a technical college down in the Twin Cities, got a boiler license, and learned to do maintenance in power plants.

But money was good on the Iron Range in those days, so he came home and got a job in the control room at the mine in Eveleth.

He was making about $24 an hour when the mine closed back in May. He figures he'll make about half that much as an LPN. He wants to work with kids -- he's been coaching and refereeing sports for years, and he reads to kids at a school near his home -- so he's hoping to be some kind of pediatric nurse.

He's got a couple years of classes ahead of him. For now, his tuition is paid by a government fund for "displaced workers." And so far, he likes school.

I'd like to stay on the Range. It's a good place.
- Brad Williams

"I look at it as an adventure," he says. "It was never scary for me. I don't know why. Maybe it's that I'm a blockhead."

He laughs, and shakes his head. He says school is just another change, and he knows he can handle changes.

"I knew from work," he says. "We had changes when we brought in a new computer system. I saw engineers, and they did it. They learned. And I learned from them. The scary part will be when I get done with this, would I have to move out of the area. That would probably be a little scary."

Brad isn't the only Williams at Itasca Community College. His 20 year-old son Adam is here, too.

Adam Williams is in his second year at the college. He plays on the football team and the basketball team. He wants to be a personal trainer, and he's thinking about joining the Marines next year.

One thing he never thinks about is working in the mines.

"It never really appealed to me," he says. "Plus, my dad tried to talk all of us out of it. He's lost a lot of his hearing due to the mines, and he's had a lot of health problems due to that, so he's been always trying to keep us away from it."

Adam Williams says he's going to leave the Iron Range.

"My sister's already living in St. Paul," he says. "And my older brother, he's living at home right now, but he wants to get out. He wants to go to Minneapolis."

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Image Adam Williams

He says that's typical of people his age.

"Almost everyone in my graduating class wants to leave," he says of his high school. "I had a 75-person graduating class, and I'd say about maybe 20 of them want to stay."

He says the Iron Range is "good to visit."

"But I don't want to live here," he says. "It's dying. It's going down hill. I don't think the Range is going to be around for too much longer. I'll miss my parents, and I'll miss (living in) the country."

Adam Williams might leave, but he'll be making visits to the Iron Range for years to come -- if his father gets his way.

The Range is home for Brad Williams, and he's planning to stay.

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