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For leap year babies, age is a numbers game

Leaplings relish quadrennial day

In one school year in the 1940s, in rural Moose Lake, there were five sets of twins riding a bus to school. This is testament from Jim Eckman, who, with his twin brother Chuck, belonged to one of those sets.

Remarkable, yes.

Was there something in the water? Maybe, Jim says.

Of all those sets of twins, the Eckman boys stood out for a simple fact. They were born on Feb. 29. Leap year babies.

The boys were born on the Harry and Eva Eckman farm on Feb. 29, 1936. Eva went into labor two months early, which likely caused plenty of alarm, since Eva had given birth to twins a few years earlier, prematurely. Phyllis and Francille died shortly after birth.

Chuck came first. And then the midwife told Eva there was another baby coming. There had been no indication that Eva was carrying twins again. "She started to cry," Jim said. "She said she only had clothes enough for one."

So there were two 5-pound boys, seemingly healthy, but in need of some quick ingenuity from father Harry. He made an incubator using a basket and hot water bottles.

It all worked out. "The doctor came a week later and said we were OK," Jim said.

There were two sets of leap day twins born in Minnesota that year. The other received a lot of coverage in Minneapolis newspapers, likely because the father worked for the Minneapolis Star as a sports prognosticator.

Jim said that at one point there was a newspaper mention of those twins, Jenine and Janet Erseen, along with the Moose Lake pair. Eva kept in touch with the family for a while, Jim said.

There are so many advantages of having a twin, Jim said. "You always had a playmate, someone to do something with. It was wonderful."

Chuck died in 2021, age 85. Or, as the brothers would say, age 21.

"The big hole in my heart is losing my brother," Jim said. In turning 88, he'll be celebrating his 22nd Feb. 29 birthday next week. "He was a part of me. It's been a good life, but I really miss him. I was pretty fortunate to have a twin brother."

Jim has been in Moose Lake most of his life. He was a heavy equipment operator, working on projects such as Interstate 35 and pipelines in the region.

Chuck had an auto body shop in Esko and then Cotton. In 1999, he and Shirley moved to Eckman property in Moose Lake, next to his brother. Back together again, they shared two decades of shop talk and coffee.

Aside from having a constant companion, Jim said birthdays were always a grand occasion, especially when Feb. 29 came around every four years. In the off years, celebrations would stretch out, straddling the missing Feb. 29 date.

"It's been a fun birthday," he said. "In school, the kids thought it was a big deal. At 16, when I turned 4, my teacher in typing class brought me a cake."

That teacher, now 96, is still alive, Jim said.

This year, he plans to head up to a Duluth restaurant with his wife, Donna, and celebrate with friends. The couple has three daughters, the youngest with a set of twins at Moose Lake High School. Owen and Evelyn Johnson are seniors.

When they were born, Jim said he made a vow that he would see them graduate. "And here I am."

Jim expects plenty of hubbub come Feb. 29. "Because of the special birthday, I still get many phone calls and cards from friends and old classmates."

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