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Jacob Wetterling memorial: 'Our love for you will never die'

Patty and Jerry Wetterling smile during a light-hearted moment during the community memorial service for Jacob Wetterling at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University in St. Joseph, Minn., Sunday, Sept. 25, 2016. (Pioneer Press: Scott Takushi)1 / 2
U.S. Senators Al Franken, left, and Amy Klobuchar attended the community memorial service for Jacob Wetterling at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University in St. Joseph, Minn., Sunday, Sept. 25, 2016. (Pioneer Press: Scott Takushi)2 / 2

ST. JOSEPH, Minn.—His face and story were known across the world. His disappearance nearly 27 years ago devastated a community, became international news and spurred leaders to pass new laws to protect children.

But on Sunday, Jacob Wetterling was remembered as a very real 11-year-old boy who loved hockey and fishing, who had just learned to waterski, who sneezed when he looked at the sun, who was bothered when things weren't fair.

Thousands of people filled Clemens Field House at the College of St. Benedict for a community memorial service for Jacob. About 1,000 more watched from an overflow area.

Among those in attendance were dignitaries like Gov. Mark Dayton and U.S. Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar. But also gathered together were countless ordinary people touched in some way by Jacob and his story.

In an emotional 75-minute service, Jacob's life was celebrated in songs, prayer and the memories of those who knew and loved him.

Since his abduction in 1989, his family members have chosen not to recall his life in the past tense, preferring to focus on hope of bringing him home.

Finally, with the Sept. 6 court confession by Jacob's killer and the recent discovery of his remains, it was time to remember Jacob's life, a boy with a sunny smile, a competitive spirit and a sense of humor.

"I guess for us, planning for the future rather than talking about Jacob in the past was our way to keep his hope alive all these years," said Allen Overturf, Jacob's cousin. "Now, 27 years later, we realize that not a day has gone by that Jacob's life hasn't been shining through each one of us.

"This is Jacob's hope: the little moments in his life that we eventually look back on and smile, because we can see that hope is alive in our celebrations, in our laughter and in our love for one another. Jacob, you're loved."

Jacob loved the Minnesota Vikings and the Denver Broncos. He put peanut butter on his cereal and loved to fish, even when the weather was terrible, Overturf recalled.

When he learned to read his first book, Dr. Seuss's "Hop on Pop," while in the car on a family trip to Iowa, his mother congratulated him and asked if he wanted to read it again. "Nope, I got it," Jacob responded with self-assurance.

Family photos displayed on large screens showed Jacob as a curly-haired toddler, blowing out candles on a birthday cake, holding a spoon and eating cookie dough. A home video played of a skit the Wetterling children performed for Father's Day, with Jacob playing the role of his father, complete with newspaper and glasses.

It was important for Jacob that things were fair in sports and in life, Overturf said. He recalled Patty asking Jacob, who played goalie, if it bothered him when someone scored on a goal against him.

Not really, Jacob replied. If it went in, it was a great shot. If I stopped it, it was a great save.

Over the years, Patty Wetterling collected stories of missing children who came home even after long periods of time.

"And every time she heard of another child that was found, she heard Jacob saying, 'That was a great save,' " Overturf said.

Jacob's family members and friends lit 11 candles in his memory. His parents and siblings Amy, Trevor and Carmen thanked the community for their support.

"We wouldn't have survived the past 27 years without the love and support of all of you," Patty Wetterling said.

"Jacob, we will always carry you in our hearts, and our love for you will never die."

Jerry Wetterling, Jacob's father, asked past and current members of law enforcement to stand up, then anyone who had volunteered to help with the search, and finally, anyone who'd ever said a prayer or sent a positive thought to the family. No one remained in their seat.

Music has been an important shared bond in the years of searching for Jacob, and it provided a heart-wrenching and uplifting backdrop to Sunday's service.

Red Grammer performed Jacob's favorite "Listen," accompanied by the St. John's Boys' Choir, while the audience clasped hands. The lyrics, "Listen, can you hear the sound of hearts beating all around the world," seemed especially poignant.

Douglas Wood sang "Jacob's Hope," the song he wrote after Jacob's 1989 abduction and that became an anthem for missing children everywhere.

Gospel singer Robert Robinson gave stirring renditions of "You Raise Me Up" and "You'll Never Walk Alone," with the line, "Walk on with hope in your heart, and you'll never walk alone."

The service concluded close to 11:11 a.m., which has become a symbolic number and a way for Jacob's loved ones to carry on his memory.

The audience filed out onto the lawn to follow Patty Wetterling's suggestion of how to honor Jacob's memory:

Be with friends, create joy, eat ice cream.

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