A mother’s love is beautiful, magical, unparalleled. It has no measurable height, depth, or breadth. It is forgiving, unselfish, relentless.
It is unimaginable then, and impossible to identify with the pain a mother must feel to lose a child.
Three years ago, two weeks before Easter, Ramona Wickstrom got the news every mother dreads—that she had lost her child. Her daughter Sueann, her only child, so excited and happy and optimistic, had unexpectedly died from heart disease at 31 at her home in Chicago. Ramona and her husband Collin were blindsided.“She was beautiful,” Ramona said.
Sueann graduated from Chisholm High School where she was the school’s last allstate flutist. She had a bachelor’s in science degree in mechanical engineering with an emphasis on acoustics from Kettering University in Flint, MI, and a master’s in business administration from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Earlier that week, Sueann had become a millionaire as one of three founders of FourKites, a startup which deals with global supply chain analytics. She had been the best man in her best friend’s wedding a week before. She was buying a new house. She was going to run in a charity 5K that May.As one could guess, her loss makes Mother’s Day very difficult for Ramona.
“We don’t do much (on Mother’s Day),” she said. “I don’t go to church because it’s not a happy day for me, and I don’t want to affect anyone else.”
But though she lost her only child, an unspeakable tragedy, Ramona still has many children in a way, those she teaches as the head instructor for Range Martial Arts in Chisholm and Virginia.
“She’s so energetic and fun-loving and sweet,” said Chloe Smith, one of her students. “She treats us as her own children, like she’s adopted all of us.”
It was nearly 26 years ago when Ramona, who is now “63 and sassy” got a “bad doctor’s report” in July of 1992. She was told she needed to lose some weight and be more active or she was at risk for high blood pressure and diabetes and more.
On the ride home with Collin, she happened to see a plague on a building she hadn’t seen before for Range Martial Arts. Collin encouraged her to call and inquire about it, and she did so when they got home.
“There happened to be an adult class that night,” she said. “I went to it and haven’t looked back since.”
The following summer, Ramona, who was then a green belt—about halfway to black— happened into teaching a class. A 16-year-old student who had advanced to a blue belt was set to instruct a class, but because of insurance issues, he couldn’t lead it. So Ramona joined him to instruct.
“I started teaching because I was old,” she joked. “Well, old enough.”
By 1996, Ramona had reached black belt candidate status (cho dan bo) and helped train a 16-year-old boy for his black belt. That boy, Bryan Fagerstrom, now leads the school.
Range Martial Arts was founded in 1989 by Steve Yukich, and after his retirement in 2003, it continued under the direction of Fagerstrom. It teaches three Korean martial arts—primarily Tang Soo Do as well as Ki Gong and Haidong Kumdo. Tang Soo Do is a traditional selfdefense technique which combines elements of shotokan karate, subak, taekkyon, and kung fu. Ki Gong is a holistic system of coordinated body posture and movement, breathing, and meditation, while Haidong Kumdo is Korean swordsmanship.
The school expanded to Virginia in 2016 and also offers Ki Gong classes at Loon Lake Community Center in Palo. Range Martial Arts offers classes for Tiny Tigers (kids from 4-6 years old) and Little Dragons (ages 7-10). It also offers a general class (age 11 and up), advanced class and black belt class.
Ramona has been in the middle of it all through the years. She takes care of lesson plans for all classes, teaches the Tiny Tigers, advanced classes and Ki Gong (in which she was recently certified as a Level VI instructor).
After Sueann’s death, being able to teach her students has been a great help for Ramona.
“I’m happy (teaching). You have to be happy somewhere,” she said. “Happy is good, and (teaching) helps a lot.”
Her efforts have not gone unnoticed. She was recently named Instructor of the Year for Region 3 of the World Tang Soo Do Association. The region covers eight states in northcentral area of the country.
“Oh my goodness, it is so cool to know that somebody can recognize your accomplishments as an instructor,” Ramona said. “(But) it’s most satisfying when your students continue to test and move through the ranks even when they’ve moved on.”
Ramona is now a third-degree black belt. In order to reach the fourth degree, she has to be invited to go to the master’s clinic and will have to write a 20,000-word essay.
“They kind of compare the ranking system to education,” said Ramona, who by trade is also a social studies and learning disabilities teacher with a master’s degree in special education. She is now a substitute high school teacher in Chisholm.
“Working up to a black belt is like going through school. First through third degree is college. And now I’m in the master’s program. There’s a time element involved with moving up through the degrees in black belt and a lot of emphasis on being knowledgeable about the art and its history.”
Ramona will compete in worlds (the 2018 World Tang Soo Doo Association Championships) in July in Burlington, NC. Worlds are held every other year, and she has competed in 2012, 2014, and 2016 as well. She also volunteers on the first aid team at the event.
“I’m looking forward to it,” she said.
Ramona has touched the lives of many. Chloe, who started taking the self-defense classes two years ago with a friend who was being severely bullied, is one of them.
“She deserves (the award) so much. She cares for all of her students. She might scold like a mother does, but she loves us,” said Chloe, who intends to continue in martial arts “until I can’t do it anymore.”
Chloe added: “You should see when we go to big events all the people who know her and come up to her for a hug. Everybody loves her.”
Jim Smith, Chloe’s dad, has observed Ramona’s connection with her students.
“It’s really easy to see the genuine care she has for her students,” he said. “She’s always giving them hugs and encouraging them. I saw an example (recently). There’s a kid who’s about 14 who’s near his black belt. She’s been teaching him for years. He had to spar with two opponents, and he chose Chloe and Mrs. Wickstrom for about 30 seconds. At the end of the session, (Ramona) just swooped in and hugged him. I had tears in my eyes.
“She’s a special lady; just a genuine loving lady and good teacher.”
Ramona was rhetorical about her role with her pupils.
“Are mothers teachers? Mothers are teachers, and I teach like I’m as mother.”
Happy Mother’s Day, Mom, and Ramona and so many others who touch so many lives.
Until next time…
Brian Miller is a longtime local writer who resides in Eveleth. He welcomes glowing accolades and scathing reviews at email@example.com.