March 12, 2007
Quiet support: Schwichtenberg wanted focus on his community, not himself
By Ivan Raconteur
Walking through the streets of Lester Prairie, one won’t see his name plastered on parks or public buildings, but in the minds of many city residents, he was instrumental in making them a reality.
Lester Prairie native Arthur (Art) Schwichtenberg died March 5 at age 89, leaving an indelible mark on the town he loved.
He was a businessman, city leader, and supporter of his community.
In an age where many benefactors seem motivated by gaining publicity for themselves, Schwichtenberg took the opposite approach.
He donated generously to causes in which he believed, without seeking or even accepting recognition.
He was known for refusing to attend award ceremonies, because he never wanted the focus to be on himself.
“We will definitely miss him, not only as a benefactor, but as someone we could always rely on to give us good, sound advice,” Lester Prairie School Superintendent Joe Miller said.
Miller recalled a time in the mid-1980s when, as a young teacher, he was among the leaders of a teachers’ strike.
In those days, any kind of labor action was a kind of quiet taboo, according to Miller.
“I received a call at strike headquarters, and it was Art. He asked me and the other chief negotiator to come to his house for ‘a little visit,’” Miller recalled.
He said it was a bit intimidating to be called to the home of one of the city’s leading businessmen under those circumstances. He was not sure what to expect.
“What we got was a political lecture. He didn’t appreciate the strike, but he didn’t tell us not to do it. He said ‘Know there is a limit, and don’t be dumb,’” Miller remembered.
Now, many years later, he thinks about that experience when he is sitting on the opposite side of the negotiating table.
Schwichtenberg also had an influence on Miller’s political career.
“He said, ‘You are always telling those kids to get involved in politics. When are you going to get involved?’” Miller recalled.
As a result, Miller ran for mayor in 1978, but Schwichtenberg didn’t make it easy for him.
“He took out a half-page ad in the local paper saying now is not the time to make a change,” Miller said.
At the time, the city was in the process of working with the federal government to get the new sewer plant built. Miller lost to the incumbent by seven votes.
Miller ran again in 1980, and was elected to the first of his four terms as mayor. Schwichtenberg was very supportive from then on.
Schwichtenberg was also very supportive of the school.
Over the years, his donations amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“He has had a profound impact on us,” Miller said.
Schwichtenberg supported the Dollars for Scholars program, and some of his contributions were used to establish a scholarship which, against his objections, bears his name.
The Schwichtenberg Scholarship is awarded to four Lester Prairie students each year. To date, 52 students have received $2,000 each to help with college expenses.
Despite his generosity, sources say that Schwichtenberg never asked for anything in return.
“One thing that always impressed me is that I cannot recall any time that he ever tried to influence decisions after making a donation,” Miller said.
Schwichtenberg graduated from Lester Prairie High School in 1935. He was the first editor of the school annual, The Reflector, and he was the person responsible for coming up with the name, according to Miller.
Among the major community projects that Schwichtenberg helped build were the city pool and the fire hall.
“He is one of the main reasons we have a pool,” Mayor Eric Angvall commented.
Schwichtenberg helped not only to build the pool, but also to maintain it when repairs were needed.
He was quoted in the May 28, 1965 issue of the Minneapolis Tribune, saying he supported the pool because he “wanted something that would give the community identity.”
Schwichtenberg’s community service also included serving as mayor from 1974 to 1977. In this respect, he followed in the footsteps of his father, Walter, who served as mayor from 1934 to 1935.
“He touched many lives and brought a positive value to the community,” Angvall said.
Schwichtenberg provided influence without being outspoken.
“He endeared himself to people. He earned respect, and when he talked, people listened. His opinions were always well thought-out,” Angvall commented.
“He was a breath of fresh air. He did not force his opinions on others, but he was willing to offer advice when asked,” Angvall said.
He added that when Schwichtenberg said he believed in something, he backed up his words with actions.
During his lifetime, Schwichtenberg touched many people in the community, as an employer, providing jobs as president of both Lester’s of Minnesota and Poly Foam, and as a community leader.
He was a lifelong member of the Evangelical United Church of Christ and a 60-year member of the Ray Kirkpatrick American Legion Post 463 in Lester Prairie. Some highlights from his life include:
• Schwichtenberg was born July 12, 1917, and graduated from Lester Prairie High School 1935.
• He served in the US Navy 1936-1940, and reenlisted 1942-1945.
• He married Marian Marx of Beaver Falls, Penn. Feb 29, 1944. The Schwichtenbergs had four children, Linda, Thomas, Joel, and Ann.
• May 1947, Schwichtenberg hired to manage the newly formed Lester’s of Minnesota, and in March 1954, became sole owner of the company.
• During the 1950s, the company introduced the “gothic arch,” that would become an industry standard, as did another innovation, the Insl-wall panel, which was introduced in 1960.
• Company sales reached $1 million in 1960.
• His first wife, Marian, died of cancer 1969.
• Schwichtenberg married Geraldine Jennings of Minneapolis 1970. She had two children from a previous marriage.
• By 1972, company innovations, including the Wingspan product line, led to sales of $10 million.
• Sales continued to grow, reaching $30 million in 1976.
• New corporate offices were completed in 1977, and additional expansion for warehousing and fabrication was completed in 1979, when sales reached $60 million.
• Schwichtenberg was selected to the Minnesota Business Hall of Fame in 1979 for “dedication and creation of quality jobs and employee development opportunities, and his demonstrated qualities of entrepreneurship and creativity.”
• The company erected its 50,000th building in 1985.
• Lester’s of Minnesota was sold to Butler Manufacturing in 1986.
Note: some information for this story was taken from book, “Lester Prairie Community 1886-1986,” written by Barbara and Milan Damman, and from www.lesterbuildings.com.