Jeremie Ryckewaert has loved the Minnesota State Fair since he started going in the 1990s — the crowds, the Americana music, the Hawaiian shaved ice.
"A lot of men look forward to football season — he really looks forward to the fair starting," Julie Costa, Ryckewaert's wife, said.
When the Woodbury resident, 53, was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, he decided he wanted to use some of his life savings to bring joy to others. One thing Ryckewaert did was sponsor a State Fair bench, complete with "Jer Ryckewaert" on the back. Proceeds from sponsoring a bench — $2,500 each — go to the Minnesota State Fair Foundation for upkeep of and improvements to fair buildings, the grounds and educational programs.
On Aug. 22, the first day of this year's fair, Ryckewaert's wife, Julie Costa, posted the following on Facebook:
"MN State Fair Goers: My husband Jeremie loves the Great Minnesota Get Together so this year he donated a blue bench that reads "Jer Ryckewaert". Since cancer sucks I am asking you to brighten his day by finding his bench and taking a photo near it showing off your State Fair shirt, your food on a stick, your chubby cheeked baby, smooching your main squeeze or otherwise acting silly. We haven’t seen it yet but apparently it is right next to Kfan. When sitting on the bench one is looking at the Grand Stand. Post it here or text it to him at (612) 916-6896. Feel free to share this post. Even if you don’t know my husband he will get a kick out of seeing you enjoying his new bench."
The post was shared 166 times and the couple was "flooded" with photos: in the post's comments, in texts and in emails. Many of the people they knew, but some they didn't ("friends we haven't met yet," they called them). There were families, solo poses with fair food, and even an unknown couple kissing, spotted from faraway by a friend.
“Ding, ding, ding, we have a winner!" Costa wrote in a post accompanying the candid photo. "We are sure enjoying everyone’s bench posts but this random shot taken by Marissa Janelle Ward, waiting her turn, spotted these two strangers christening Jeremie’s bench. Fabulous!”
One of the most moving moments for Ryckewaert was what happened after one of the photos was taken.
“One of the nurses at Minnesota Oncology found the bench," Ryckewaert texted Costa one day during the fair while receiving a chemo infusion. "He and his wife came in today, on his day off, just to show me the picture. Can’t stop bawling.”
Costa said she and Ryckewaert were "delighted" people were able to find the bench, located in a shady spot in Dan Patch Park, formerly Carousel Park, facing the Grandstand. Fair staff maintain benches for five years and place them in different spots each year, giving the GPS coordinates to its owners so they can find them, Costa said.
Ryckewaert was pleased with where his bench was, saying: "If I had to pick a spot, I would pick a spot exactly like this."
People often don't know what to do when someone in their life has cancer or another serious illness. Posing with the bench, next to Ryckewaert's name and face, was a way for their community — friends, acquaintances or strangers — "to say, 'We're thinking about you' without saying 'We feel sorry for you,'" Costa said.
"It was more like, 'We're celebrating something with you that you enjoy, we enjoy it, too,' and so that was really kind of the spirit that I think people were grabbing onto," she said.