Kayaker declared legally dead

NEW ULM – The father who lost his son to a kayaking accident in the swollen, fast-moving Minnesota River somewhere between New Ulm and Courtland last May is finding comfort in his faith and Bible passages he was not previously aware of.

Retired Lutheran school teacher Paul Fritze of New Ulm said he and his wife are thankful for the support of family, friends, law enforcement and all their efforts to find their son Stephen Fritze since last May.

“We still depend on our faith to bring us through,” Fritze said. “People have sent us Bible passages – verses I didn’t even know about – help out a lot.”

A petition filed last month in Nicollet County declared Stephen Fritze as deceased. A couple weeks ago, Paul and his wife attended a Nicollet County petition hearing on the matter that declared Stephen Fritze dead due to drowning.

According to court documents, Fritze struck a tree in the river and fell into the water while kayaking with two other Watertown, S.D. men. The other kayakers tried to reach Fritze, getting close enough for him to grab their kayak before it hit a tree, causing Fritze to lose his grip. He was last seen reaching for a tree branch in the rushing river.

“It’s a relief to be able to move on and put somewhat of a close to it. Everything in court was completed Sept. 23,” Fritze said. “We’d rather find the body. Some people including Stephen’s friends from Watertown, S.D. continued to look for him in canoes for a long time. It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack. Some people risked their lives getting into the water to search last summer when the river was so high. I don’t know how to even reach some of the places they searched. … Many people tried many things.”

Fritze’s personal search efforts included walking the Minnesota River bank with a Watertown, S.D. man. He said family friends from all over the country including his son’s Dr. Martin Luther College classmates contacted him after the drowning.

A memorial service was held at St. Martin’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Watertown, S.D. on July 3, 2013.

Stephen Fritze taught for 27 years including seventh- and eighth-grade world history at a Watertown, S.D. Lutheran school. He served as the school’s athletic director, coached boys basketball and worked at track meets including an annual middle school meet hosted by St. Paul’s Elementary School in New Ulm.

Paul Fritze taught at Trinity Lutheran School in Nicollet and at a school in St. Louis Park before retiring in 2004. He served as principal and athletic director.

(Fritz Busch can be e-mailed at fbusch@nujournal.com).

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