LOOKBACK: Austin man saves two lives from Cedar three decades apart

Hulet makes rescues as new high school grad; later as off-duty police officer — both at Austin Mill Pond area

Cedar River Watershed District
7 min readMar 1, 2024


John Hulet heard his calling in 1933 while throwing horseshoes near the Cedar River in Horace Austin State Park.

A man standing on the iron bridge that once extended North Main Street over the Cedar saw a 3-year-old boy fall into a bend of the river just upstream from Austin Mill Pond. The man yelled out to the 18-year-old Hulet, who ran to the river and pulled the boy out of about 5 feet of water.

On the shore, Hulet gave CPR or “artificial respiration” to the boy — Roland Zook — for a few minutes until Zook showed signs of life, the Austin Daily Herald wrote Sept. 18, 1933.

Sept. 16, 1933, edition of the Austin Daily Herald

“(Hulet) then carried the boy to the Zook home, where he was worked on for about an hour,” the article stated, adding that Zook was placed between warm blankets because he was blue from the river’s cold water.

1930s-era aerial photo of Austin Mill Pond looking west toward the old bend in the river and iron-truss crossing installed there in fall 1931.
Yellow arrows points to the former bend in the Cedar River from an old aerial photograph overlayed on a modern-day image of the same area of Austin Mill Pond and North Main Street. The yellow rectangle highlights where the old iron-truss bridge crossed the river from 1931 to 1961, when the bend was filled.

By the next day, however, Zook had “completely recovered from the narrow escape from drowning.”

Zook went on to live until age 88, passing away in 2019 in his northern California city of Lincoln. After moving with his family to California, Zook served in the U.S. Marines during the Korean War; married his wife in Los Angeles; and raised two children while working as an iron worker and insurance agent.

Old iron-truss crossing — Fox Drive Bridge — that extended Austin’s North Main Street over the Cedar River where it used to make a sharp bend on its way into Austin Mill Pond.

Nearly 30 years after Zook was saved from the river, Hulet — now an Austin police officer since 1945 — heard another scream for help from the Cedar River at Austin Mill Pond. While off duty on the Sunday afternoon of June 23, 1963, Hulet was fishing in the river near mill pond’s southwest corner.

Four boys — about age 8 to 10 — had formed a chain while swimming in the river when one of them broke loose and went underwater where the riverbed had a steep drop.

June 24, 1963, edition of the Austin Daily Herald

Hulet dove into the river, which was deep enough to go over his head, and pulled the boy out of the water. Hulet told the Herald that the boy appeared uninjured but was so scared that he ran home before he could be identified. A woman at the scene, however, verified seeing the rescue to the Herald.

That article, unfortunately, never referenced Hulet’s previous river rescue of a child from 1933.

1963 aerial of the Cedar River at Austin Mill Pond when the second Hulet river rescue happened. The old riverbend — where Hulet rescued the 3-year-old boy in 1933 — had been filled in the preceding years, with a new channel created in the Cedar River that exists today.

Hulet the hero

In the early 1930s, Hulet and Zook lived a block apart along Lansing Avenue — today’s First Drive Northwest — with their families’ backyards overlooking Austin Mill Pond and Horace Austin State Park. Their homes later were removed for building Austin’s first YMCA (today’s Mill on Main apartments) and the Red Cedar Inn (present-day Cedars of Austin senior-living complex).

Possibly the Zook family home along with others removed for the construction of the Red Cedar Inn hotel-motel in the early 1960s. Today that building is the Cedars of Austin senior-living facility.

About 4:30 p.m. on Sept. 15, 1933, the 3-year-old Zook joined a 4-year-old girl in walking down to the state park near the Rayman boat house on a sharp bend of the river. The Rayman property was where the original YMCA and its parking lots later were built; the river used to curve there around the property that today hosts Bremer Bank.

In 1961–63, the city created the present-day river channel flowing into Austin Mill Pond’s north side and filled in the old river bend, which took up to 25 feet of fill in some spots.

The river was deep at this bend and had taken the life of 13-year-old Austin boy Frankie Clay Jr. in December 1906 when he drowned after falling through the ice while skating near the Rayman property.

On that evening in 1933, Zook and the girl were playing along the river when something got Zook’s attention not long after they left for the park.

“The Zook boy thought he saw a fish in the water and reached down to seize it,” the Herald wrote. “He lost his balance and tumbled in. The water was about 5 feet deep.”

A man — who was never identified — was standing on the iron-truss crossing (installed in 1931) over the river called the Charles Fox Bridge at the time but more commonly known as the Fox Drive Bridge until its removal in 1961. He saw the boy fall into the river and he called out for help to Hulet, who just graduated four months earlier from Austin High School.

“At this time of the year, there are very few people near the state park along the Cedar River,” the Herald wrote. “The only persons at the park at the time the boy fell in the water were the man on the bridge and Hulet.”

The Herald initially reported Sept. 16, 1933, that Hulet provided CPR to the boy for “about an hour” before Zook showed signs of life. Two days later, the Herald ran a front-page note correcting the timing for Zook to be revived, which was after a few minutes of CPR by Hulet.

Either way, Hulet’s “quick action” in pulling the boy from the river and use of CPR “to good advantage” on the boy were credited by Zook’s father with “the saving of his son’s life.” The father told the newspaper he wished he could find the unknown man on the bridge to thank him.

Dec. 26, 1961, edition of the Austin Daily Herald

Life of service

At the time of his death in 1989 at age 74, Hulet was described in a Herald obituary as an avid fisherman who “spent many pleasant hours on the shores of many a river and lake.”

“A well-known and well-respected man in the community, he always had a ‘word of greeting’ to anyone who crossed his path,” the obituary stated April 2, 1989. “He was a kind and loving husband, a caring and dependable father, a protective grandpa and a faithful friend.”

After graduating from high school in 1933, Hulet, whose family moved to Austin in 1925, worked for 12 years at the Hormel Foods plant along Austin Mill Pond’s eastern shoreline across from the state park that eventually turned into a city park by around 1960.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Hulet kept busy with amateur sports, playing in leagues for baseball, basketball, bowling and even hockey, a rarity in southern Minnesota in the 1930s.

While he was a good scorer as a center in local basketball leagues — he played for the Methodists in the church league and the “Cedar River Rats” in another league — baseball was Hulet’s best sport.

In 1937, Hulet, known as the “big Austin third baseman,” was named the “most valuable player” at the Minnesota State Amateur Baseball Tournament, receiving the Governor’s Trophy.

Hulet played on Austin teams in what was the D-F-S league of the 1930s. Mower Motors was one of those teams but he also played on Hormel employee baseball teams until the Austin Packers amateur team came about in the Southern Minnesota League in the 1940s.

In 1945, Hulet, a father of five, left Hormel to start a 24-year career as a patrol officer for the Austin Police Department. He was highlighted for his police work numerous times in the Herald, including in photos showing him demonstrating elements of police training.

Hulet didn’t stay retired for long, however, as he then chose to work as a custodian for Austin Public Schools until 1977, when he officially retired for good.

When he passed in 1989, Hulet’s funeral services were at the Worlein Funeral Home when it was located just uphill from the sites of both of Hulet’s river rescues.



Cedar River Watershed District

Formed in 2007, CRWD works to reduce flooding and improve water quality on the Cedar River State Water Trail and its tributaries in southern Minnesota.