Fred Austin, who spent his career at Federated Insurance and retired as its president, was known as a people person.
“He cared about the three F’s: family, friends and Federated,” his son Brad Austin said.
Fred died at his home in Northfield on Dec. 21. He was 94.
He was born in Owatonna on April 19, 1926 and graduated from Owatonna High School in 1944. He served in the U.S. Army Air Corps from 1944-46. He attended Mankato State College to play baseball after completing his military service, but finished his degree in business at the University of Minnesota in 1949.
He married his wife Joyce on Sept. 25, 1948 and they returned to Owatonna to help raise his younger sister after his mother died of cancer in 1949.
He began working as an assistant group accident and health examiner in the Group Health Department at Federated Insurance in 1951 before moving into group insurance sales and rising through the ranks. He became vice president and director of sales in 1975 and senior vice president and director of marketing in 1984. He became president of Federated in 1986 until his retirement in 1990. He continued to serve on the Board of Directors until 1999.
Mike Kerr, current president and CEO at Federated, remembered Fred encouraging him to grab onto opportunities and begin thinking about marketing as a career.
“‘Grab the brass ring,’” Kerr said of one of Austin’s favorite sayings.
Federated’s growth from a regional company to a national one happened under Fred’s leadership in marketing and as president. Some of the programs and incentives he created at Federated that still exist today help marketers establish their careers, according to Kerr.
“To keep Federated working as a team, the least important word in our vocabulary should be ‘I’ and the most important ‘We,’” Fred’s mantra at Federated went.
Fred’s son Charlie Austin, who also worked at Federated for 32 years, called his father “very driven, very outgoing and very compassionate” and he was a man people could trust. His father wasn’t a flashy person who tried to be someone he wasn’t. He had a knack for remembering the people he talked to and what they discussed the last time they talked. At a luncheon hosted by Federated at a national convention, he’d be able to introduce everyone and he was skilled at connecting with people, Charlie said.
“When he was talking to you, he was talking to you, not looking over your shoulder,” Charlie said.
Federated Chairman Jeff Fetters also noted Fred’s interest in getting to know everyone and making them feel at ease.
“It felt like he’d known you for years,” Fetters said. “Fred, and his wife Joyce, had the incredible ability to remember names of people, meeting you once and knowing your name. Fred cared to know people.”
Since Fred’s death, many of Brad’s friends who work at Federated have reached out to talk about the impact Fred had on their lives.
“He really cared about people and people’s success even more than his own,” Brad said.
He built relationships and friendships throughout his career and passed on that grounded value to his children, Brad said. Charlie noted that his parents paved the way for their children.
“They poured their hearts and souls into their family life,” Charlie said.
Fred traveled a lot for work, but he could always be counted on to be in the crowd at his sons’ hockey and football games. Outside of work, he’ll be remembered for throwing a football around in the backyard with his sons and their friends, Charlie said.
“He valued what was important,” Brad said, adding that his dad’s motto was, “You work hard to play hard.”
Fred loved Owatonna and wanted to make it a better place, Brad said. He served as president of the Owatonna Parks and Recreation Board, was a director on the First National Bank Board and a member of the Board of Trustees for Associated Church. He was also instrumental in raising the money to construct the Four Seasons Centre as chair of its finance committee.
He loved the outdoors, including hunting and fishing, and took his family up their vacation home in northern Minnesota. He enjoyed traveling and Brad said they were privileged to have a father who wanted to ensure they had fun and rewarding activities in their lives.
“I’m very grateful to have him as a father,” Brad said.
For Muna Hersi, a former refugee and an Owatonna parent, the possibility that her children may need to take a standardized test during the pandemic weighs heavy.
Many immigrant families work in large food manufacturing sectors where there have been outbreaks of COVID-19, said Hersi, and when one person becomes sick with COVID-19, it affects the whole family. Quarantining is difficult in small apartments and trailers, where many immigrant families live, she said. If students need to take the standardized ACCESS test in person during the pandemic, it poses a similar risk to families already struggling.
Although she admitted she was nervous to do so, Hersi spoke out about the planned tests and more to a virtual crowd Monday evening during a national rally to forego this year’s ACCESS test, which takes about a month to complete.
ACCESS, which stands for Assessing Comprehension and Communication in English State-to-State for English Language Learners, evaluates the English progression of multilingual students annually. But during a pandemic year, many EL educators and parents believe that expecting students to take the test is not only counterproductive but imposes an increased health risk for students and those in their households.
The conversation has sparked a movement not only in Rice County but throughout Minnesota and the nation. Advocates first wrote letters supporting postponement of the test, a request the Minnesota Department of Education granted this week. But that was only the first step. At Monday’s rally, educators from rural, urban and suburban Minnesota, and even the CEO and coordinator of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education, called on the federal government to waive the it altogether.
“I ask our federal government to ensure the small amount of time we have left of instruction to be used on learning, on reconnecting with kids, ensuring that our students have a safe place that cares for them so they can do what they love and work toward achieving their dreams,” Hersi said.
“Don’t use the time to do a test that often incorrectly tells them they are lacking in English. My kids, our kids, aren’t lacking. They are gifted with multiple cultures, multiple languages; give them the opportunity to share it instead of trying to improve their English. I say no to the ACCESS test this year.”
Two other local voices, both from Faribault, spoke at the rally. Faribault Public Schools Multilingual and Equity Coordinator Sam Ouk facilitated the event, and School Board member Carolyn Treadway agreed to represent the Faribault School Board.
Treadway thanked MDE for extending ACCESS testing for over 800 EL students in Faribault’s K-12 population and urged MDE to now advocate strongly for a federal waiver. She described the challenges diverse populations have encountered during the pandemic, including food insecurity, job loss and crowded living conditions as well as academic struggles that come with remote learning.
With Rice County’s 14-day COVID-19 case rate at 77 per 10,000 on Jan. 7, Treadway explained that Latinx and African American families, who have a higher incidence of COVID-19 than their white counterparts, want their children out of school until the health risk is gone.
Because of the academic gaps that EL students experience during the pandemic, Treadway said these students “need every opportunity to continue their learning uninterrupted.”
“Requiring them to engage in four weeks of missed classroom instruction as well as EL support so they can participate in ACCESS testing absolutely flies in the face of equity and equitable education,” Treadway said. “I ask the new secretary of education, in the strongest terms possible, please extend a federal waiver for ACCESS testing this year. Faribault EL students as well as English language learners across the United State deserve no less.”
Educators from various areas of the state also described how the ACCESS test would infringe upon their already limited learning time.
Carolyn Bizien, EL teacher at Elton Hills Elementary School in Rochester, explained that expanding the test window shaves off more classroom time for her students. During a normal school year, she said EL students already miss minimally a month of classroom time to take the ACCESS test. When students can safely return to school, Bizien said she’d rather help them regain their footing in the classroom than push them directly into standardized testing.
St. Cloud Area Schools Multilingual Learning Director Kelly Frankenfield said many of the EL students in her district are from refugee experienced families, and this impacts their response to COVID-19. She cited a document MDE published in spring 2020 called “COVID-19 Guide to Supporting Immigrant and Refugee-Experienced Families,” which says, “Parents and community members are concerned about the impact of ‘social’ or ‘physical’ distancing on refugee-experienced students and families. These concerns are consistent with what mental health experts observe as vicarious or tertiary trauma, whereby the mainstream community’s response to COVID-19 can retrigger wartime and post-war type isolation, anxiety and fear.”
Other speakers representing various populations in Minnesota included Carissa Lick, elementary EL teacher at St. James Public Schools; Amy Hewett-Olatunde, EL teacher at LEAP High School in St. Paul; Kristina Robertson, EL supervisor for Roseville Area Schools; and Cherie Haas, English as a second language teacher at Triton Public Schools in Dodge Center.
Reflecting on the rally a day later, Faribault Schools’ Ouk said he especially liked that Jorge Garcia, CEO and coordinator of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education, called out the injustices happening in terms of racial inequity.
Garcia called the movement to waive the ACCESS test “a struggle for basic survival,” not about the values of the testing results, but about placing students who are already at high risk of COVID-19 into an even higher risk testing environment for the sake of a policy.
“There is no law that requires a child to take this test,” Garcia said. “These are state policies that could easily be changed. All it takes is one person who is willing to listen, but also who is willing to hear. One person could change that policy, one person with common sense, one person with empathy, one person with courage can say no to institutional racism and yes to common sense, health, safety and life. Any good manager can follow policy and do things right. It takes a leader to do the right things. It takes a courageous leader who is willing to listen, to hear our pleas: We can’t breathe.”
Despite facing a unique set of economic pressures, southern Minnesota’s growing fleet of food trucks persevered through 2020 — and now, they’re looking forward to growth and new opportunities in 2021.
Thanks in part to the relaxation of certain regulations, Minnesota’s food truck industry has become a big deal in a relatively short period of time. Even though the industry is a bit quieter in the winter, the MN Food Truck Association’s list of food trucks across the state, which doesn’t include several prominent local trucks, lists 39 trucks working throughout the winter.
That’s a far cry from just a decade ago, when there were just 10 licensed food trucks period. Now, food trucks have established themselves as an easy and accessible way to enter the food preparation business, enabling vendors to travel to customers and build up loyal clientele. Food trucks have also benefited from a dramatic rise in the number of microbreweries across Minnesota.
The number of taprooms across the state surged following the state legislature’s passage of the “Surly Bill” in 2011, which allowed breweries to sell their brews onsite.
Many of those breweries had no interest in investing in a full-service kitchen, so they turned to food trucks. Local breweries that invested in that strategy are Imminent Brewing in Northfield and Mineral Springs Brewing in Owatonna. 10,000 Drops Craft Distillers in Faribault and its neighbor Corks & Pints, have also welcomed food trucks on many a weekend.
Since opening last year, Mineral Springs’s Bill Cronin said that the brewery has used about eight trucks on its special “food truck pad,” built specially to provide all of the electrical connections needed to ensure smooth operation of the trucks.
According to Cronin, nearly every food truck used by Mineral Springs is based in southern Minnesota, within about a 40-mile radius of Owatonna. He offered high praise for the trucks, saying they have consistently provided high-quality food and service.
“These food trucks are the epitome of small business, they’re scraping and clawing for everything they get,” he said. “They serve up fantastic food.”
During the winter, Mineral Springs partners with New Richland-based Evan’s Eatery nearly every weekend. The truck, which got its start in part thanks to a loan from the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, is owned by Dan Miller and his wife April.
While the Millers are always experimenting with new recipes, there’s one constant across many of the burgers they serve up — the signature chipotle aioli. Thanks to friendly service and good food, Cronin said they’ve managed to become a draw week in and week out.
When the pandemic hit, Dan Miller said, the initial effect was jarring. With everything from community festivals to kids birthday parties and school events cancelled, the truck’s schedule was effectively “wiped clean.”
However, the truck has since managed to make a comeback by pivoting instead to serving lunches and at breweries, offering a safer alternative for hungry customers who might otherwise be dining in a restaurant.
“People really appreciate the fact that they can order our food and eat it outside,” he said.
Even though many trucks close for the winter, operating Evan’s Eatery is a full time, year-round gig for the Millers. Even though sales have been down as the weather has gotten colder, Dan Miller said that word of mouth has helped bring in enough customers to keep the truck going.
Brian Freed of Uncle B’s Last Chance BBQ Shack is among the local truck owners who closes up shop in the winter. Freed said that the Shack will return as soon as March. In the meantime, he’s focused on getting healthy and rested up for a strenuous summer schedule.
Freed said the truck did remarkably well in 2020, posting its strongest sales in seven years. When bars and restaurants were forced to close, Freed said his phone began to ring off the hook as people organizing small group events rushed to secure his catering services.
In Northfield, Imminent Brewing co-owner Derek Meyer said that traffic has slowed a bit with on-site taproom sales so limited. Roughly a half-dozen trucks are continuing to serve food, down from roughly twice that throughout the summer months.
According to Meyer, traffic tends to be best when the weather is nicest. Imminent books its trucks well in advance. While many come from the Twin Cities area, others hail from southern Minnesota.
Among the local trucks Imminent regularly hosts is Ellendale-based Noris Cuisine. A native of Venezuela, Noris Hemingway founded the truck in 2018 and has since served up her homemade arepas and empanadas across the state. As the only authentic Venezuelan food truck in the state, Noris Cuisine has built a devoted following, with some customers driving as much as an hour to get their food. Like the Millers, Hemingway got her start with help from SMIF.
Now, she’s interested in taking the business a step further by starting up a new cafe that will function as part coffee shop, part Latin American restaurant. More details are likely to come in the near future, as Hemingway works to finalize a lease agreement, and the cafe could open as soon as June 1.
Hemingway said that she has no intention of giving up her food truck. While she hasn’t set a final schedule yet, she suggested that it might be closed once or twice a week so that she can bring the food truck to Imminent or other breweries she frequents in Rochester and Mankato.
However, she believes that the cafe would fill an important niche in the community, providing a place for people to socialize or work over a cup of coffee or an empanada.
“We don’t feel like the area has a lot of coffee shops or cafes, so we want to bring something new for people to be excited about,” she said.