Two lives lost, but not forgotten
June 1, 2009
by Ryan Gueningsman

Not only is this traditionally one of my busiest times of the year, but this year seems to have taken the cake. Along with being exceptionally busy, the week has also been filled with emotion.

It is that time of the year when the school year is ending and there is graduation coverage to coordinate, Memorial Day observances honoring our veterans and those still serving, and countless other community activities gearing up for the always-too-short Minnesota summer.

I was also helping coordinate a visit to Delano from Governor Tim Pawlenty, a sandbox fill for the Delano Jaycees, and a community visioning session for the Delano Dream Team II.

The long weekend with Memorial Day is always nice – we had to have our May 25 edition of the paper done the Thursday prior, and our offices were closed Friday. I was able to enjoy a little family time up north at the campground before coming back home to cover the local Memorial Day observance.

However, that evening, I received a message from a co-worker asking if I had heard about two Delano High School graduates who died over the weekend.

At that point, I was still sort of in vacation mode and hadn’t heard anything, so I began tracking down information for the story you may have read on the front page of this week’s Delano Herald Journal about Paquita Ray and Austin Shimon – both 2007 graduates of Delano High School, both who lost their lives over the weekend.

Of course, there are press releases from sheriff’s offices and police departments about what happened to Ray and Shimon, but with a situation like this, there is so much more to the story.

With the help of co-workers, I was able to speak with Shimon’s friend, Dustin Wigen, and Ray’s friend, Erica Atkinson. Maybe I’m not the best journalist out there, but anytime something like this happens, I simply don’t want to intrude on immediate family members who already are overwhelmed with the way their lives have just been turned upside down, asking them for comments on their loved ones.

I will never be the reporter shoving a microphone down the throat of a family member of someone who just passed away or was a victim of an accident, fire, etc.

That being said, there is still a story to tell. Sure, one could simply report the facts from the authorities, and leave it at that. But, I’m thankful I was able to speak with Wigen and Atkinson to get the real story about Shimon and Ray, and share with people just who these two 20-year-olds with Delano roots were.

One look at Shimon’s Myspace page, and his love of music is immediate. He considered himself as having “a southern soul with a northern heart.”

He cited his brothers as his biggest heroes, and listed people he’d like to meet as “Taylor Swift, Alan Jackson, Reba, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Brad Paisley, Kenny Chesney, Sugarland, and all my other heroes.”

His current mood was listed as “loving music.” That says a lot right there about Shimon. As a country boy myself, I immediately felt a connection and wished he was someone I could have known personally.

Ray’s friend, Nikki Sawatzke also sent me a note she wrote about her friend:


You were always the friend that was there for anyone no matter what.

You were so understanding and had a way of putting a smile on everyone’s face that crossed your path.

Your friends have always listened to your advice and you have taught us all so much about life. We thank you for that.

We know you are in a good place now so instead of being sad we are happy knowing God has an amazingly beautiful angel in his hands!

We love you with all our hearts and will never forget the memories.

Rest in Peace Paquita Suzanne Ray.

Love Always,

Nikki Sawatzke

That also says a lot about the person Ray was and the impact she had on her friends’ lives.

I think Atkinson said it best though when I was speaking with her last week about Ray. She reminded me of how close-knit Delano is and that it really is the epitome of “Small Town, USA.”

People still know their neighbors, and people still care about one another.

The news of the death of two 20-year-old college students with Delano roots was obviously not a good way to start the week, but the Delano area’s true “spirit of community” will support these two families and many friends grieve as they stand behind them every step of the way.