Denfeld News

June 11, 2010
Duluth News Tribune

17 years after tragedy, close-knit Duluth family reaches a milestone
By Jana Hollingsworth

Seventeen years ago, Dale and Linda Hietala took in their 3-month-old granddaughter after her parents were killed by a drunken driver.

On Thursday night, that granddaughter graduated from Denfeld High School. Earlier in the day, the family reflected on the journey that began in 1992 with the death of their daughter, Kari, and her husband, Norman Shuster, in a car accident on Interstate 35 in Duluth.

“I was 50-something,” Dale Hietala said. “People asked if we knew what we were doing. I would do it 100 times over.”

Kaylee Shuster, 17, has lived with her grandparents, whom she calls mom and dad, since then. “It’s not different, because it’s all I’ve ever known,” she said.

“It’s almost like raising Kari all over again,” Linda Hietala said. “She’s so much like her.”

The Hietalas became legal guardians of Kaylee shortly after the accident. They have a son, Darren Hietala, who was a senior at Denfeld High School at the time, and baby Kaylee fit right into the family. The Hietalas said they didn’t consider other options; they wanted to raise Kaylee.

“It was just what we had to do,” Linda Hietala said. “Under the circumstances, we wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Now, Dale, 73, and Linda, 65, say Kaylee has kept them feeling young. She’s been an “almost perfect” kid growing up, eschewing parties and drinking because of what happened to her parents, and maintaining the same circle of friends she had as a child and dating the same young man for two years.

The family is tightly knit, talking about the day’s events after each school day and keeping in close contact when away from each other. Kaylee plans to live at home while attending the University of Wisconsin-Superior next year.

When the Hietalas decided to take in Kaylee, they chose to raise her the same way they had Kari, a 1989 Denfeld graduate, who died when she was 21. Though the couple consider themselves Kaylee’s parents, they said sometimes they tend to spoil her as grandparents would.

Darren Hietala’s relationship is more brother-like than that of an uncle, helping her with homework when she has needed it and spending time with her. He put a message in Thursday’s News Tribune thanking his parents for making the choice to raise Kaylee.

Part of it read: “In what was, no doubt, the worst days of your lives you made the selfless decision to make sure she would be raised in a safe and healthy environment … I hope those same family and friends who supported you all those years ago will join me in thanking you for doing what many would not or maybe could not do.”

Kaylee said she could have bounced around foster homes her whole life, had it not been for her grandparents.

“I’m just really thankful,” she said.

Being parents to a young child again has been a pleasure, Dale Hietala said, not only because Kaylee has been such a good daughter, but because she’s helped ease the family’s enormous grief.

“She took a big void out of our life,” he said.

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