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Late Rice worker remembered by co-workers for her warm and generous spirit

WILLMAR -- Family, friends and co-workers remembered Sue Leukam on Sunday for her warmth and generosity, her love of nature and the outdoors, and her love for her job as a medical records worker at Rice Memorial Hospital.

Leukam, 51, of Belgrade died one year ago after being accidentally trapped in an automated filing system at the hospital.

On Sunday, the hospital unveiled a memorial painting in her honor. The Rice Health Foundation also announced the establishment of a scholarship endowment to be named after her. More than 100 people gathered in the hospital's garden court to see the unveiling of the original painting and to pay tribute to a woman who, in the words of her husband, Don, "just cared about people."

For hospital employees, it was a bittersweet time. Sunday marked the one-year anniversary of the fatal accident; Leukam died three days later at a Twin Cities hospital.

"We want to remember Sue but we also know it's going to be a sad time," said Pat Berg, director of outreach and community relations for Rice Hospital.

"It's just as fresh as it was a year ago," she said. "We want to remember her and to carry forward some good thoughts about her."

Leukam's husband, the couple's two children and friends and coworkers from the hospital listened as the Rev. Beverly Crute, hospital chaplain, spoke of loss and the healing power of art.

"We are here because Sue touched our lives in loving and caring ways as wife, mother, friend and colleague, and we are here because we miss her," she said.

Although her absence is keenly felt, "her spirit resides still in our hearts," Crute said.

Hospital officials said the painting, a landscape in oils by Renville artist Dona Larkin, will be a visual reminder of that spirit.

"It is how we want to remember her," said Dale Hustedt, the hospital's interim chief executive.

Larkin's painting was inspired by the rolling valley of the Minnesota River near the artist's home. Details were added to reflect the wildlife and outdoors that Leukam loved.

A pair of cardinals perches in the foreground while deer graze off to the right. Lit by a sunbeam, a dark-haired woman is picking wildflowers.

"That's just what Sue was all about," her husband said. "That picture says it all."

Larkin titled the painting "A Ray of Sunlight."

Leukam had been employed at Rice Hospital for three years. The day of the fatal accident would have been her fourth anniversary of working at the hospital, Don Leukam said. She hadn't been scheduled to work that day, but volunteered to fill in for a coworker who wanted the day off, he said.

She initially worked as a nursing assistant for a year and a half before joining the hospital's medical records department.

After learning that she'd gotten the medical records job, she cried over leaving her coworkers in her old department but she loved her new job as well, her husband said.

He remembered her standing at the kitchen sink, three weeks before her death, and telling him that "working at Rice was the best thing that ever happened to me."

"It was the best three years of our life. I'll never forget it," he said.

The new scholarship endowment in Sue Leukam's name has an initial goal of raising $10,000. The first scholarships, for high school students pursuing health care careers, will be awarded next spring.