By Starrla Cray
HOWARD LAKE, MN “To know him was to love him.”
That comment from Laura Hoffman of Howard Lake captures the essence of what friends and family remember about Arnie Wannebo, 72, who passed away from cancer Jan. 1 of this year.
Arnie and his wife, Jeannie, came to Howard Lake in 2006, and Arnie’s musical talent and jovial personality quickly helped him make friends.
“He was a people’s person,” Jeannie said. “Music was a way for him to see people and be with the public.”
Arnie led the popular “Wagon Wheelers” country and western music group that appeared throughout the region on a regular basis.
“He played country music for 50 years,” Jeannie said.
Arnie was born in Waverly, and raised near the Crow River between Buffalo and Montrose.
He worked for Old Dutch Foods for 30 years, retiring in 1995. More recently, Arnie mowed grass for Ace Sod in Howard Lake.
“He loved mowing lawns,” Jeannie said. “He said it was so peaceful. That was his relaxation.”
Arnie’s claim to fame, however, was his natural affinity for playing rhythm guitar and singing country and gospel songs.
The Wagon Wheelers played nearly every weekend, except during the winter months, which the Wannebos spent at their home in Arizona.
Arnie enjoyed performing at Legions, VFWs, weddings, funerals, fundraisers, benefits, church activities, threshing shows, and other events throughout Minnesota.
In the mid-1990s, the Wannebos purchased a home in Arizona, where they spent the winter months. When he wasn’t in Arizona, Arnie and his band performed almost every weekend.
In order to learn the songs people requested, Arnie simply listened to a recording.
“He would listen to it once or twice and would just pick it up,” Jeannie said.
Arnie never needed to practice, but he would sometimes get out the guitar and just play for his own enjoyment.
“He didn’t read a note of music,” Jeannie said. “What a God-given talent.”
Arnie’s family was also musically inclined, and most of his siblings played instruments. Eddie Hoffman, a fiddle player from Howard Lake, was the one who officially taught Arnie how to play the guitar, Jeannie said.
“They’d get together and play for their own entertainment,” Jeannie said. Laura Hoffman, Eddie’s wife, said they all used to spend weekends together.
“We had jam sessions,” Laura laughed. “When we’d get together, there would be a lot of laughter.”
Arnie was also a gifted songwriter.
“He’d be up in the middle of the night writing songs,” Jeannie said. “One was about a granddaughter of ours whatever he was thinking about in that particular moment.”
As time went on, Arnie became more involved in gospel music, in addition to old classic country.
“His love in the last few years was doing gospel concerts,” Jeannie said. “He has three CDs out, and the last one is a gospel CD.”
Arnie never got rich off his musical abilities, and he often volunteered his time and talents.
“He was a very giving man,” Jeannie said. “He wasn’t in it for the money.”
Arnie: a friend to many
Randy Decker, who lives south of Waverly, worked with Arnie at Ace Sod. They quickly became good friends.
“He was quite a guy,” Decker said. “Everybody that he ever talked to just loved him.”
When Decker’s nephew got married in Hawaii, Decker invited Arnie and Jeannie along for the trip. Arnie also enjoyed watching Decker’s softball team.
“He was always a happy-go-lucky guy,” Decker said. “I only knew him for seven years. I wish I had known him a lot sooner.”
In addition to his many friends, Arnie also had a loving family. His two children are Bill and Debbie, and he also has six grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.
“He was very much a family man,” Jeannie said.
“He had a super personality,” Laura said. “I don’t think he had a single enemy.”
One of Arnie’s friends wrote in his guestbook: “He will be missed in so many ways all over the country.”
Another friend commented: “He had a heart the size of Texas, and a smile as wide as the Colorado River. He was such a pleasure and joy to be around.”