Anoka Area Chamber of Commerce members were riveted by Peter Vodenka Tuesday morning as he shared the gripping story of his young family’s defection from Czechoslovakia in 1983.
Vodenka was the guest speaker at the annual meeting for the chamber, held Oct. 9 at The Fountains of Ramsey.
This also marked 60 years of business advocacy for the organization, which in addition to Anoka also represents businesses in the cities of Andover, Champlin, Coon Rapids, Dayton, Nowthen, Ramsey and St. Francis.
“For 60 we’re looking really good,” Executive Director Peter Turok told the more than 200 members in attendance Tuesday.
A 60-year milestone
What originally started as a chamber of commerce covering the cities of Anoka and Champlin, the city of Ramsey was also added early on.
In the 25 years Turok has been at the helm, five other member cities have been
“Its sustainability over 60 years means we must be doing something right,” said Turok.
He said the chamber turns 60 with a really big year under its belt with the addition of the city of Coon Rapids as well as focusing on spreading the word about the chamber’s involvement in its member communities while working on member recruitment and retention.
Currently 630 local businesses are members of the Anoka Area Chamber of Commerce.
“I think businesses need an advocacy group, on a local, a state and a regional level,” said Turok.
The chamber’s expansion to include eight area cities were more about those communities than the organization.
“Those communities started to expand and they had needs,” said Turok.
The chamber’s promotional materials are often the first things newcomers to the member cities turn to for information, he said.
The annual meeting is also an opportunity to recognize a few of its notable members.
Coborn’s of Ramsey was voted “Retail Business of the Year” while engineering firm Hakanson Anderson of Anoka was voted “Service Manufacturing Business of the Year.” These awards are selected by the chamber’s membership.
Sign Station owner Barb Schilling received the President’s Award to recognize her outstanding volunteerism with the chamber over the past year.
Turok said Schilling has taken a huge role with the chamber and given her talents and her product freely to promote chamber events. In addition to a two-term board member, Schilling also serves as the chairperson of the membership retention and recruitment committee.
Jim Steffen of Trott Brook Financial also presented the chamber with a check for the funds raised at the annual Trott Brook Bash for the Ann Talle Scholarship fund.
This year fund-raising for the event was up 25 percent, bringing in $8,661 for the scholarship fund in memory of Talle, who was killed in the explosion at Premier Community Properties in December 2004. Talle was an active member of the chamber and an employee of Riverview Community Bank.
Tuesday’s meeting also included the passing of the gavel from now Past President Barb Zuleger to new Chamber President David Bolt.
“Don’t just be a member, join in and participate,” Bolt said Tuesday.
An attorney based in Coon Rapids, Bolt said the best thing he did for his business was join the chamber.
Forest Lake resident Vodenka had the audience on the edge of their seats as he revisited the days in 1983 when he and his wife, then 24, and their four-year-old daughter and two-year-old son snuck across the Czechoslovakian border into Austria on a government-approved camping trip.
“Since I was 17 years old I was wishing and dreaming and hoping I could move to America,” said Vodenka.
For 10 years he planned his escape from the communist country he called home, a place with no political or religious freedom.
The government dictated the clothes people wore, the cars they could drive and the places they could travel. Because Vodenka’s parents were not trusted members of the Communist Party, he was not allowed to pursue higher education.
“We could even be persecuted for our thoughts,” he said.
Bypassing the borders of communist-ruled Czechoslovakia, where levels of security included electric fences, land mines and border guards ordered to shoot to kill, the Vodenkas used a camping trip in Yugoslavia as a way to gain entry to Austria.
In the dead of night Vodenka, along with his wife and young children, ran through the farm fields in the pouring rain while being pursued by armed border guards.
Before making their run for it, Vodenka had weighed the three possible outcomes of their attempt to defect. In the next hour the family would be shot, handcuffed and destined for a life in political prison without their children, or find safety on the other side.
“I didn’t know which one of them would happen, but every one of them would change our lives forever,” he said.
But the one thing he did not consider was turning back. Good thing, because in their absence the state police had suspected their plans to defect and the Vodenka family was wanted.
After a terrifying escape the family spent less than three months in a refugee camp before they were sponsored to come to the U.S. by a Lutheran Church in North Dakota.
Vodenka’s book “Journey for Freedom” chronicles his family’s experience in detail.
He reminded the chamber members of the value of the freedom, often prized more by people who know what it is like to be without it.
He said freedom can disappear in one fell swoop with political upheaval, or be chipped away a little bit at a time by the government.
“We have to keep our freedom and protect it,” Vodenka said.
Mandy Moran Froemming is at [email protected]