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Pepper Fest Good Neighbors: Merchaks fit the bill

Pepper Fest is a family affair for the Merchaks even if they don't get to spend a lot of time together. They managed this photo with two of their four children at last year's event. From left are Ken, Leah, Kollon and Kenny. Submitted photo

Ken Merchak doesn't look exactly comfortable with all the attention, but he and wife Leah definitely have earned the title of "Good Neighbors" at this year's North Hudson Pepper Fest.

Ken began volunteering at the annual Italian celebration in 1979 when he was a member of the Hudson Jaycees, helping out with the 10K run, the carnival and, of course, with the famous Pepper Fest food. After marrying him, Leah followed suit, as have each of their four children over the years. Leah recalls doing food preparation in the "scary basement" of the old village hall. And she has supervised one of the most important elements of the festival - the cleanup with the able help of the Boy and Cub Scouts. "We're there every morning of the weekend by 6 a.m. emptying the garbage cans. The younger Cub Scouts take over during the day keeping things clean throughout the whole weekend."

Despite the fact that they don't see a lot of each other during the event, the Pepper Fest is really a family affair according to Merchaks. "We all just love it so much. It is probably the most expensive weekend we spend but it is worth it. We all work hard and then we reward ourselves," said Leah.

The Merchaks feel like Pepper Fest is actually an extension of their family. "I think that's the appeal of it," said Leah. "No matter who you are, a native or just a first time visitor, you become part of this huge family celebration. There's a spirit that pulls you in. And once you go to the Pepper Fest, you just keep coming back."

In addition to the great food, company and music, the Merchaks say that Pepper Fest is just one of the ways they teach their children about the importance of community and giving back. "Our number one priority as parents is to show the kids the importance of volunteering in the community. Everyone needs neighbors and neighbors sometime need us. They've grown up seeing that all around them and the Pepper Fest is just part of that," said Leah.

Spending time with family is also a big priority for the Merchaks. To that end, Ken went looking for something the family could learn and do together. He hit on logrolling. "We all started out as beginners and everybody learned together. It's been fun and something we really love," said Ken. They got some expert instruction through a family connection with the famous logrolling Fischer family. And they can practice whenever in their own logrolling pool that Ken constructed in the backyard.

In addition to the Pepper Fest, the Merchaks volunteer in a variety of other ways. Ken is hockey and baseball coach, a member of the Knights of Columbus and volunteers with the scouting programs. Leah is a longtime volunteer at North Hudson Elementary where their last child just completed the fifth grade. She is a hockey team manager and coaches softball.

The family's other big weekend effort comes every Memorial Day when they make the rounds at observances in Bayport, Stillwater and Hudson.

Both the Merchaks have strong ties to the area Ken grew up in Hudson and graduated from Hudson High School in 1975. His parents are Viola and the late Joseph Merchak. Leah is a Stillwater native, one of six girls raised by her mother, the late Rosie Rose, an old family name in North Hudson. The couple have lived in North Hudson on "Merchak Circle, " land developed by Ken's brother, for 19 years. They have four children: Kenny, 17, Kora Jane, 15, Konnor, 13, and Kollon, 11.

Ken is a supervisor and draftsman for EcoWater in Woodbury, Minn. Leah does daycare for six of her nieces and nephews and is always available for "drop-ins when kids are sick and parents are stuck for help." She also works with Peaceful Living as a home healthcare assistant for special needs children. Ken also has a "hobby job" as a projectionist at the Hudson Cinema. "But I'm a bad critic. I like all movies."

Ken and Leah say they are honored to be named this year's Good Neighbors. It is a title they like having, especially in their hometown. Leah thought that when she moved to North Hudson all those years ago from Stillwater, she would be homesick and miss things like Lumberjack Days and her old hometown. But she didn't.

"This felt like home right away. It always has and always will."

The Merchaks will lead the parade down Sixth Street beginning at 11 a.m. on Saturday with grand marshals Tom and Janet O'Connell.

Additional coverage on Pepper Fest and a complete schedule of events is included in this week's Star-Observer print edition on page 7A. Click on the linked article for a brief rundown of the main events scheduled.

Meg Heaton

Meg Heaton has been a reporter with the Hudson Star Observer since 1990. She has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and Native American Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

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