BY GABE LICHT
DELANO, MN When researching the history of Delano, the first person to call was a no-brainer: Bill Eppel.
“Mr. Delano,” as Eppel was known thanks to his love of his hometown and its history, passed away June 7, at the age of 86, and is being remembered fondly by many.
For example, a social media post about Eppel’s passing garnered 356 reactions and 168 comments.
A number of people also shared their memories of Eppel with the Delano Herald Journal.
Bill and history
Ryan Gueningsman, who served as Delano Herald Journal editor from 2006 to 2014, said he met Eppel as the paper was getting established, and the two worked on starting “A Look Back,” a weekly staple featuring photos from Eppel’s extensive collection.
“We had an arrangement where he’d stop by about once a month, for sure, and bring seven or eight large books of Delano photos, and we’d sit and scan photos, and he’d give me some information,” Gueningsman said. “ . . . We had plenty of time to chat and catch up on happenings in the community, and what was going on in his life. I always enjoyed when he stopped in.”
Gueningsman said Eppel seemed to enjoy those visits, as well, along with the title that came along with them.
“He was our historical consultant on call,” Gueningsman said. “That goes back to when we started. He was pretty proud of that. He even referred to himself as that.”
Not only did Eppel share history with the newspaper, but also with city staff like Administrative Services Coordinator Paula Bauman, who scanned many of Eppel’s photos for the city to use in a variety of ways.
“You could always see his eyes light up when you came to certain photos, and he enjoyed telling stories about them,” Bauman said. “ . . . He talked about all the old buildings in town and how much things had changed. He would be my go-to if there was a project in town and we wanted to know what it looked like before. It was amazing how he could figure it all out. He’ll truly be missed by everybody.”
Delano Mayor Dale Graunke admired how Eppel was able to track down photos, postcards, and memorabilia connected to Delano.
“We didn’t have the internet, but he’d somehow or another find out about sales, trade shows, and card shows, and pick up random pieces here and there,” Graunke said. “He was forever constantly on the hunt. He preserved a lot of Delano history. He was someone who took that on. It was just his passion, just the thing to do.”
Jack Russek said he was impressed with how Eppel cared for everything he had collected.
“I was over there at his house and he was showing me. It’s all indexed,” Russek said. “I always asked him, ‘What’s going to happen when you’re gone?’ It better not get thrown away . . . He was so futzy with all his postcards and everything he collected. That was his life to collect it after he retired.”
In addition to Eppel’s photos and memorabilia related to Delano, his attire also paid tribute to the town. Such accessories included his Delano Municipal Utilities hat and his Delano belt buckle that garnered its own close-up shot when a KARE11 crew interviewed him about the South Fork of the Crow River hitting an October record in 2017.
“He didn’t wear his heart on his sleeve, he wore it on his belt buckle,” Gueningsman said. “You could tell that was near and dear to his heart, and something he cared about.”
Joe McDonald, of McDonald’s Studio, also immortalized Eppel in his own photography collection, and he posted about the experience on his Facebook page.
“This portrait is from about 10 years ago when I asked Bill to sit for a portrait,” McDonald wrote. “He said to me, ‘What do you want to photograph this face for?’ I told him, ‘For posterity.’ With that he had a slight grin and, at that moment, I clicked the shutter and captured Bill forever.”
Bill at the library
“He came into the library literally every day,” said Carol Plocher, who managed the Delano Public Library for 21 years.
She called him a “fixture” at the library and “an amazing presence in our town.”
She recognized him for his straightforward nature.
“One thing about Bill: he always spoke his mind,” Plocher said. “Some people could be offended by that, but it’s refreshing to have someone say what they think . . . If he didn’t like the way something was, he told you.”
Theresa Jacobs took over for Plocher in 2017, but had gotten to know Eppel when she worked as a sub at the library in previous years, and also because he lived across the street from a one of her family members for a number of years.
She wrote the following tribute to Eppel:
“Hi Bill! How are you today?”
“Well, we’re here,” he’d say with a headshake and a slight smile, his bright eyes looking around for the daily Star Tribune.
Every day he’d take the paper into the magazine room, read for a while, letting out a few deep sighs. Then, he’d get up and straighten the current newspapers, recycling the old ones for the library.
Bill would then take the cryptogram from the paper to the copy machine, enlarge it 100 percent, and count out 10 cents in change to give to desk staff. He’d dig around in his pocket ‘til he found just the right amount. Then, he would roll up the daily cryptogram like a diploma to work on at home.
He’d hang out with us: leaning on the counter, adjusting his Delano belt buckle or fixing his hat, and telling us stories while we checked in books. Stories about the Delano train depots, the floods, and the fact the first 4th of July parade in Delano was before Delano was even a town.
He told us stories about where he grew up, only missing one day of work in the city because of a winter storm that made the roads impassable, and driving the bus for Delano school kids. He shared his medical stories, swearing lightly about the doctors.
His gruff demeanor was not a constant. He was gentle with the long lines of preschool children visiting from area schools. He was grateful for a small volunteer gift of a small keychain flashlight, but told us to keep the chocolate as he had his diabetes well under control.
He had errands every day and we were always one of his stops. We would tease him about this and that, and he would give it right back.
Irreplaceable. Incorrigible. His own man. “Eh, nothing you can do about it” he’d say with a shrug.
We miss you Bill.
Bill at coffee
Eppel was so well known for frequenting Coborn’s and Flippin Bill’s for coffee and socializing that it is mentioned in his obituary.
Graunke’s memories hearken back to a different venue.
“In the early ‘70s . . . there used to be a coffee group that used to meet at the Roadrunner Café,” Graunke said. “We used to play euchre. He was friends with Ron Riebe and John Irwin, the photographer who covered everything and they called him Flash. Those guys were all buddies . . . We laughed so doggone hard because of the stuff we’d pull on each other.”
Graunke specifically remembers playing UNO, which came out in 1971, and Eppel taking joy in successful plays and victories.
“He always had a smile and a snicker,” Graunke said. “He was priceless.”
Russek added that Eppel would join in on the conversation of his coffee group.
“We’d sit and talk about the same things,” Russek said. “I said we’re like a bunch of old drunks: we sit around and tell the same stories for about two weeks until someone comes up with something new to talk about.”
Coffee time was just part of his schedule, Gueningsman said.
“He was very set in his ways, and he had the same routine every day,” Gueningsman said. “You’d always know where to find him. If he wasn’t at home, he’d be at Coborn’s or the library.”
Bill as a neighbor
Eppel was Lynn Bartels’ neighbor for many years.
She called him “a great neighbor to have and a wonderful man.”
He kept his lawn mowed, asking for help to do so when needed.
“It was not uncommon to see him out mowing his lawn on those hot summer days,” Bartels said. “A few years back, he asked if my daughter and I could mow his lawn for the summer due to hip issues. We were honored to do so but, the following summer, he said his doctor told him he needed more exercise, so he would be doing it himself.”
“It made me chuckle and a bit jealous that he still had it in him to do so,” Bartels said.
In addition to remembering historical facts, Eppel’s memory benefited his neighbors, Bartels said.
“He was also the neighbor we could rely on to remember what week was recycling,” Bartels said. “If Bill had his recycling container out, we all did, but we would wait for him so we knew.”
Eppel was forced from his home June 17, 2016.
It was one of the challenges he overcame in his life.
His mentality may have contributed to his longevity.
“He was always very upbeat and fun to talk to and kid around with all the time,” Graunke said. “ . . . He could get ornery, too.”
A full obituary will appear in the June 22 edition of the Delano Herald Journal, per the request of his family, in advance of a Mass of Christian Burial at St. Joseph Catholic Church at 11 a.m. Friday, June 29, which will be preceded by a gathering of family and friends one hour before the mass and from 4-8 p.m. Thursday, June 28.