Toni Poletes, the face of Marine on St. Croix, dies

“Let’s be honest,” KARE 11’s Jana Shortal said in her story last December, “Toni Poletes runs this town.”

Poletes ran Marine on St. Croix, Minn., from Ostlund’s Marine Garage while fighting stage 4 cancer.

Many in the town of 600 people got naked for a 2015 calendar to raise money to help her pay for her medical care.

“The people. How do you give this up?” Poletes said.

She died yesterday morning. She was just 56.

Mary Divine at the Pioneer Press says the people in town called her the town’s “mother confessor.”

“What happens here, stays here,” she said in the 2011 interview. “My son said we should call it ‘Ostlund’s Marine Garage and Ministries’ because people do come in, and they just give it to me. It’s like they say: ‘It’s OK. She can take it. Oh, just give it to her. She’ll put it in the right place and listen, and then I can go on my merry way.’ ”

Poletes was an inspiration to town residents who have been diagnosed with cancer “because she beat the odds for years and years and years,” said Brown, a local teacher who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013.

“Doctors basically told her to go into hospice five years ago,” Brown said. “She just said, ‘No, you’re not giving up on me. I’m not giving up on me, and you’re not giving up on me.’ She just kept going. She was amazing that way. She was full of life and energy.”

Marine on St. Croix, pop. 699, quickly embraced Poletes — a self-proclaimed “Greek chick in a Swedish town” — after she and her fiance, John Ostlund, took over the downtown business in 2000.

She was the subject of a documentary, “Not Done Loving.

“People never had to wonder if she was being ‘Minnesota nice’ because that wasn’t part of her vernacular,” photographer Verna Pitts tells the Pioneer Press. “‘Yes’ meant yes, and ‘no’ meant no, and you never had to guess what she meant by anything. You always knew exactly where you stood with Toni. That’s a precious thing.”