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MnDOT backhoe operator who fell into stream remembered during funeral

Rescue workers in an inflatable raft probe around the MnDOT backhoe that fell into swollen Seven Mile Creek along Highway 169 between Mankato and St. Peter, Minn. on Tuesday, March 22, 2011. Authorities are searching for the operator of a backhoe that fell into the Minnesota River while clearing ice jams between St. Peter and Mankato. The Minnesota Department of Transportation reports that a backhoe was "washed into the river." MnDOT spokeswoman Chris Krueger says the backhoe operator was clearing ice ja...

ST. PETER, Minn. - Friends, family, colleagues and Minnesota's governor packed a St. Peter church Monday for the funeral of state employee Michael Struck, who died on the job last week.

The Church of St. Peter held the service, which was moved from nearby Cleveland to accommodate the 1,000 people in attendance.

The 39-year-old Cleveland man and Minnesota Department of Transportation employee died March 22 when the backhoe he was operating tipped over and fell into a stream at Seven Mile Creek County Park, where he was performing flood-mitigation work.

Eulogists at the service described Struck as a man wholly dedicated to family and community and the proud possessor of a gift for gab - hence the nickname "Windy."

"He'd help anybody, anytime," MnDOT co-worker Bryan Lillie said, his voice breaking. "He was always smiling and joking. He befriended everybody."

Struck also was a volunteer firefighter in Cleveland, and his helmet and firefighting gear were prominently displayed in the church lobby.

On the road outside the church a block-long line of trucks from virtually every area fire department stood in wait to lead the funeral procession from the church.

Gov. Mark Dayton and a few aides sat in a side section of the sanctuary. He did not provide any formal remarks at the service and departed shortly afterward.

The Rev. Cory Rohlfing, a native of Cleveland and a friend of Struck, began his eulogy by lauding Struck's family. He said he was deeply moved to see family members actually ministering to those who came to give their condolences.

"I hope today the family will allow us to hold them for this next hour," he said.

Eulogies for Struck largely tended toward lovingly light remembrances of a man so imbued with civic-mindedness that he thought nothing of clearing people's driveway snow without being asked.

"Of course, he wasn't perfect," Rolfing said, relating an anecdote about the time he and Struck were in a group asked to leave a campground.

"Got kicked out for being loud. But Mike was LOUD," he said.

Jacqueline Jones, one of Struck's cousins, framed her remarks about him in the form of a "letter" written by Struck after he died.

"I had a smile that was larger than life," Jones read from the whimsical message, in which Struck provided loving - and humorous - tales about his family, fellow firefighters and co-workers.

"You're the best," he said from the beyond. "And I'm happy I'll never have to buy another round for you."