‘Mary’s Tunnel’

Mary’s Tunnel in Viking Ship Park is the brainchild of city manager Dan Mahli, who chipped in to buy 50,000 lights once used in downtown Fargo to add sparkle to the season. It’s named in honor of the late Mary Schmitt (shown upper left with husband Kevin). Lit from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m., the tunnel attracts snowshoers like Erin Bussman and Ellie Hagen (bottom left) and children like Grace and Lucy Uselman (bottom right). (Bottom center) Dan Mahli with his mother Ellen.

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

The brightest sight in Moorhead began on an offhand whim.

“One of my friends mentioned downtown Fargo wasn’t going to be wrapping all those trees this year, and wondered if I knew what to do with their hundreds of strings of lights,” Dan Mahli recalls. “I didn’t have a plan, but it did sound like a good deal.” He pulled out his checkbook and, after talking down the asking price, wrote a draft for $1,500. As he stacked box after box in his garage in autumn – 100,000 lights in all – he remembers musing, “I hope they all work.”

Apparently they do. Now the riverbank behind the Hjemkomst Center is drawing hundreds of residents and visitors alike to a first-time attraction that’s infusing bright good cheer into dark January nights. From dusk until dawn, 5 p.m. to 8 a.m., residents and visitors alike are drawn to the tunnel like moths to a flame,  strolling through a 60-foot gallery of sparkling, glowing enchantment.

The chilly scene suggests celebration and romance. Indeed, at least one marriage proposal has taken place in the luminous landmark. But that’s only one part of the story.

To Dan, his co-conspirator Del Rae Williams and dozens of women and men who work for the city, it’s not just any community project. It’s Mary’s Tunnel, a true tunnel of love.

Its namesake is the late Mary Anderson Schmitt. A long-time employee in Neighborhood Services, an arm of the city planning department, Mary died unexpectedly last November at the age of 54.

Her husband, Kevin Schmitt, tells the tragic tale: “Mary was my rock. When she passed Nov. 13, it was entirely unexpected.” He tells of how, in her final weeks, her mood and manner quieted and darkened. “That wasn’t like Mary at all,” he says. “We knew something had to be wrong. Finally I insisted on taking her to the emergency room.”

There, physicians quickly identified two large, aggressive tumors in her brain. “They told me she had 18 months to live,” Kevin recounts. “But four days later, she passed away in surgery. She never woke up.”

In the hours after attending Mary’s funeral Nov. 30, Dan says, “My heart was full of thoughts of Mary. She was such a valuable member of our team, and we miss her.” By that time, he was in the park with a friend, putting up the garden hoops that would form the framework of the tunnel. Naming it in honor of Mary – loved by so many friends and coworkers at City Hall – seemed just the right thing to do.

Mary’s Tunnel, the city manager points out, has been a true community project from start to finish. Not a cent of civic money or public employees’ time went into creating it. “It’s just a handful of people getting together to do something fun,” he says. “It shows that a beautiful art project doesn’t have to cost a lot or require a bunch of permits and permissions. Just go out and do it.”

As for his garage-full of lights, he says, “We have lots of extras left over. If someone has a great idea for another project that can use some lights, just let us know.”

Plans call for Mary’s Tunnel to remain open and lighted at least through February, brightening evening events throughout Frostival and beyond.

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