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Brenna Ahlquist, from left, Brianna Hoover, Val Brown and Preston Asche pose for photos Monday -- in front of the presidential turkeys they have helped raise -- during a send-off ceremony at Willmar Senior High School. (Tribune photos by Gary Miller)

Warm farewell for Willmar, Minn., students, turkeys headed for White House

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Warm farewell for Willmar, Minn., students, turkeys headed for White House
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

WILLMAR -- Ted and Ray behaved admirably Monday morning, for a couple of turkeys.

It was clear that the hard work of four Willmar High School FFA members had paid off.

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Brianna Hoover, Brenna Ahlquist, Val Brown and Preston Asche have spent hours in the past two months socializing a small flock of turkeys so that one of them could be pardoned by President Barack Obama on Wednesday. They've cuddled and cleaned the birds, clapped for them and played music.

At a farewell celebration Monday, Ted and Ray, the top turkeys chosen to travel to Washington, stood calmly in their cage on the High School theater stage.

On the brightly lit stage with cameras flashing and people speaking into microphones, the birds were unfazed. They even seemed to pose for photographers. And then, they just sat down.

Their four handlers, standing behind the cage in their dark blue FFA jackets, may have fidgeted more than Ted and Ray did.

The birds, named for Willmar Poultry Co. founders Ted Huisinga and Ray Norling, left Monday with their student handlers for the official ceremony in the White House Rose Garden. Two birds make the trip, and the one who's behaving the best that day is chosen to meet the president.

Rick Huisinga, chairman of the National Turkey Federation and executive vice president of Willmar Poultry, will make the official presentation to Obama.

Huisinga had asked the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association and Jenn Baumgartner of Life-Science Innovations, a subsidiary of Willmar Poultry, to help prepare turkeys for the ceremony.

"There's an untold amount of work to get 10 minutes in the national spotlight," Baumgartner said Monday. She joked that they decided to push some of the work onto high school students.

"We've got these four wonderful kids," she said. "You represent FFA in a fantastic manner."

Representatives of the Turkey Growers Association said they believe it's the first time an FFA chapter has been enlisted to help groom turkeys for a pardoning ceremony.

Principal Rob Anderson said he was proud of the students and their organization. He called their opportunity to attend a Rose Garden ceremony "a rare opportunity."

When agriculture teacher Neil Pearson was approached about the project last year, he didn't think the students would be able to travel with the birds.

He was pleased, he said, when the Turkey Growers Association announced recently that all four of them would go to the Rose Garden.

Among the dignitaries speaking at the farewell Monday was Willmar Mayor Frank Yanish. He thanked the four students by name. "There's great economic value to your trip," he said. "In my opinion, Willmar is the turkey capital of the world."

Yanish concluded with, "I do have a little message for Ted and Ray -- behave yourselves."

Steve Olson, the executive director of the Turkey Growers Association, said he had enjoyed watching the students become more comfortable as they conducted interviews about the turkeys.

He also spoke to the students who filled much of the auditorium. "I don't care what you are thinking about going into, we've got a job for you in the turkey industry or in agriculture," he said.

The association's goal had been to incorporate FFA into the plans for the pardoning ceremony, Olson said, and the students had been a welcome addition.

"They've brought a whole new dimension to this project," Baumgartner said.

Before they left, the students spent some time with their families, hugging moms and dads and gathering their things.

Brianna Hoover's parents, Brian and Brenda, were in the crowd. "This is quite the honor," he said.

The students had done the work just for the honor of it, he said, so it was a nice surprise that they were able to go on the trip, too.

The White House ceremonies have been going on since Harry Truman was president.

Until about 20 years ago, the turkey at the ceremony was cooked for Thanksgiving dinner. Since then, the ceremony has been largely a publicity event. Ted and Ray will never see a dinner table. They will live out their natural lives on the grounds of George Washington's Mount Vernon estate.

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Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

(320) 214-4340
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