Ken Wilcox, who was instrumental in bringing hockey to Owatonna, dedicated his life to improving the community, including at the helm of the Owatonna Foundation for nearly a decade.
Wilcox died on Saturday in Golden Valley, Minnesota. He was 85.
Wilcox was born in 1935 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and graduated from Starbuck Collegiate High School in 1952. He attended the United College in Winnipeg, followed by the Graduate School of Banking at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He married his wife Norma in 1957 and moved to the United States shortly thereafter.
He began his career at Great West Life Insurance Company in Winnipeg, then worked at several banks in the Midwest before coming to Owatonna to work as a loan officer at the Security Bank and Trust Company in 1963. He rose through the ranks to become the youngest president in the corporation at age 40 in 1976. He continued as the bank’s president until his retirement in 2000.
Wilcox’s interest in serving the community was a part of his personality, said Chad Lange, who served alongside him in a variety of roles in the community. Ken and Norma were a “dynamic duo” in the community, Lange said.
“Owatonna has benefitted greatly for having the Wilcoxes in the community,” Lange said. “Owatonna has been enriched beyond measure by Ken Wilcox and we will forever feel thankful that the Wilcoxes chose to live here in Owatonna.”
Wilcox was “one with the community,” said Tim McManimon, who succeeded Wilcox as Security Bank president after working for him for 17 years. Wilcox stressed volunteerism with his employees and encouraged them to be leaders in community groups and nonprofits.
“Ken understood and he believed our banking business could only be as successful as the community,” McManimon said.
He was a kind man who taught his employees to treat people with dignity and respect. McManimon said he never heard Wilcox say a bad word about anyone.
The bank’s board was filled with community leaders who would have “spirited conversations” and Wilcox was always able to maintain order and control in his own way, said Lange, who added that he always enjoyed those meetings.
Wilcox brought his hockey coaching style to his business. He would coach his employees, lay out the plan and then let them run the plan, McManimon said. He would make corrections when needed, but the freedom he gave his employees to carry out the business plan allowed them to become confident leaders, McManimon said. He also taught his employees to be patient in business, showing them that they could have a rewarding career while staying in one bank location instead of chasing promotions from city to city. His employees became invested in the community and then would stay in the community, McManimon said.
Wilcox’s mentor created the Owatonna Foundation and then Wilcox picked it up from there, McManimon said. Wilcox spent 44 years serving the Owatonna Foundation, including nine as its president. Lange said Wilcox was “Mr. Fundraiser” in the community and was one of the most capable fundraisers he has ever met. He wouldn’t pressure people to donate, but would instead tell them the story of why the money was needed and they’d want to donate by the end, Lange said.
McManimon said Wilcox was proud of the work he did in the community, but he never wanted the limelight.
“He just wanted to do the work,” he said. “He was there to serve, not for personal interest or recognition.”
Wilcox was also key to the restoration of the Louis Sullivan-designed National Farmers’ Bank building, which is now Wells Fargo. He found joy in taking ownership of the bank and enjoyed showing people around the building, McManimon said. Wanting to preserve the building, he lobbied for its remodel in the 1990s.
“He wouldn’t take no for an answer,” McManimon said.
A longtime hockey player, Wilcox led the fundraising efforts to construct the Four Seasons Centre and its expansion, and helped build the hockey program. The Owatonna Foundation memorialized his efforts with a bench in Central Park in 2018. A rink at the Four Seasons is also named after him.
Wilcox was “a giant in the community,” said Todd Hale, who broadcast high school hockey games with him for years. Wilcox was a leader in everything he did, working “sun up to sundown,” Hale said. He was proud that he became a part of Owatonna, which included coaching a youth hockey team. He was at almost every high school hockey game, using his knowledge to provide analysis during the broadcasts, Hale said. Ken and Norma also have a hockey scholarship in their name.
“He was a great person to have by my side,” Hale said. “He never forgot the game that he loved so much.”
The theme of the night was clear: The community needs one another now more than ever in the unprecedented and challenging world of 2020.
Steele County community leaders gathered at the Oakview Event Center on Thursday night to celebrate those who have best modeled and represented the vision of the United Way of Steele County through the Live United awards ceremony. The group wore masks and remained socially distanced in the open air venue, and speakers spoke behind plexiglass stands on loan from Wenger Corporation, the 2020 corporate campaign leader.
“These amazing individuals are a testament to the work we do in the community,” said UWSC President Annette Duncan as she announced the community volunteer awards for 2020. “This year we were so thankful to be able to have an amazing group of educators who helped to ensure that every child in this county was able to get the education that they deserve — and it wasn’t easy.”
The Community Volunteer Live United award recipients were Owatonna Superintendent Jeff Elstad, Blooming Prairie Superintendent Chris Staloch, Medford Superintendent Mark Ristau and NRHEG Elementary Principal Doug Anderson.
“This is the hardest work we’ve ever had to do,” Elstad said as he accepted his award. He noted the obstacles the COVID-19 pandemic has created for area educators after schools were pushed to distance-learning in the spring and have reopened with mostly hybrid models this fall. “But when we have supportive communities like Owatonna, NRHEG, Medford, and Blooming Prairie that continue to step up and support our kids and put kids first — we all win.”
The Small Business Live United award recipient for 2020 was the Owatonna Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism, recognizing the tireless efforts the organization put toward supporting small businesses within the community throughout the pandemic.
Chamber President Brad Meier said while it is an honor to be recognized by UWSC, nothing they accomplished could have been possible without the collaboration of local government, school districts and other business leaders.
“It is our businesses who take risks every day and continue to press forward,” Meier said. “If this year has taught us anything, it’s that we really do need each other. We couldn’t do it — any of us — alone.”
A new award was presented this year, titled the Live United Innovation Leadership. The inaugural award was presented to Shields of Steele, a grassroots effort led by Mike Beckman with Federated Insurance that brought together leaders from throughout the community to provide a wide variety of personal protective equipment to small businesses and organizations in need.
“We have put together 50 PPE kits and we have refilled them,” Beckman said on behalf of the 117 individuals who comprise Shields of Steele. “And we will keep refilling them until this is over.”
As the corporate campaign continues forward, Duncan said they are on track to meet their goal of raising $800,000 to assist 27 different agencies supported by UWSC. Dave Albrecht, president of the Owatonna Hospital and chair of the UWSC board, challenged the community to not only surpass it, but to make it a joyous event.
“Our community needs that and three-fold,” Albrecht said. “If we live united, we will get through this — there will be another day. There will be a new normal, and while it’s not normal today, we will get there. It’s exciting to anticipate what comes next.”
Since the construction of the Steele County Detention Center nearly two decades ago, the criminal justice system has continued to evolve and change in a multitude of ways.
Originally built to continually serve contracts with the Minnesota Department of Corrections as well as surrounding counties with small and limited jails of their own, the 154-bed facility today seldom sees an inmate population that pushes max capacity. Jail Administrator Anthony Buttera said he understands how someone from the outside looking in could see the jail as being “overbuilt.”
“Our normal population is 80-90 inmates, with Steele County inmates hovering around the 40 mark,” Buttera said, noting the county still does contract work with other counties to house their inmates.
He noted that Steele County still has contracts with other counties to house their inmates. The county had more contracts when the detention center was constructed, but dynamics have changed in the criminal justice system in terms of sentencing with an emphasis on treatment for drug-related crimes, he said.
“In the grand scheme of things, if you can get people better that’s a good thing,” he continued. “But our ability to pull inmates from other counties has gone away, so it’s those kinds of outside forces that have weighed on us.”
To ensure the detention center is being used to its full potential, the county is embarking on a best practices study — or space study — to help determine how every area of the facility should be used. The goal of the study is to use historical trends, data and programming to determine the best use of the facility for effective jail operations.
“We are a big part of the county’s budget every year, so with how much money is spent on the jail and detaining the inmates it is important to know we are doing things as efficiently as possible.”
Buttera said the space study will consider possible consolidation of county entities that would generally serve as a savings for the taxpayers. While it would be difficult to redesign the area of the facility that was specifically built to house inmates, Buttera said the space study could result in like-minded, public safety services being relocated to the detention center.
Commissioner Greg Krueger said during a county board work session that he believes finding the most economically feasible way to use the facility is crucial to the county’s financial health, with Board Chair Commissioner Jim Abbe echoing Krueger’s sentiments.
“I think the key is we need to determine whether we want to continue the operations the way they are or convert it to another type of facility,” Abbe said. “Maybe the way it was designed was a bit overbuilt and we’ve had issues from day one with that, but I think the question is what’s the best use for that facility now and how do we identify that?”
Buttera said he has never heard of a space study being conducted from an outside agency with the idea of reducing or eliminating inmate population, and that typically the studies take place when a jail has reached its life expectancy. He said he is also not surprised with the concerns because it is not a new conversation.
“Before I took over it seemed we were having this conversation every couple of years,” Buttera said. “At the end of the day we are a part of the law enforcement community, and I know that we need to be there. We play a bigger role than I think most people actually see in the criminal justice community.”
The Steele County Board also approved last month in a 4-1 vote a security upgrade project for the detention center with an estimated price tag of $1.8 million. The project will include important integrated security control system upgrades, control modifications, and some potential perimeter modifications including a possible security fence on the north side of the facility. The overall project design is yet to be finalized, but the approval from the board allows the county administrator to enter into a consulting contract to begin the process. Krueger was the sole opposition in the vote, noting during the meeting that he wanted the space study to be completed first to avoid any potential redundancy.
For some new drivers, the long line for driver license services will no longer be a pain at least for now.
The Minnesota Department of Public Safety (DPS) recently announced an option for Minnesotans to take the knowledge test for their Class D learner’s permit online.
The test can now be taken online at home with proctoring from a parent, guardian or other adult who is 21 or older, no appointment necessary. Additionally, the test will be available at select testing locations, including Driver and Vehicle Services-certified deputy registrars, high school driver education programs and community organizations.
“There’s only certain stations in the state that are open and you have to have an appointment to come in, which I think is part of the push to allow drivers ed programs to give the test after they’ve gone through the classes, instead of trying to get their appointment set up at those other sites,” said Tim Larson, who is one of two driver’s education instructors at Medford schools.
The decision to expand services was made to help alleviate the long lines at DVS exam stations as well as the long wait times for appointments due to the pandemic, according to the DPS’ announcement.
“So that really backlogs a lot of kids, not only kids, but ... older individuals who can do the driving test and get a reduction on their insurance, even they are forced to get an appointment at one of these places, and a lot of them are anywhere from six to eight weeks out before you can get the soonest appointment,” Larson said.
The pandemic hasn’t just created longer lines for prospective drivers, it’s also changed the way the driver’s education class is taught. Larson’s next driver’s education session will begin in a few weeks. The course will use the school’s auditorium as a classroom, students will be socially distanced and the teachers will teach from the stage.
“We hope to have everybody on their school devices so that they can pull up the manual online, as little paper handouts as we can do is what we try to do, and then in class we also have every week a chapter test that they do online,” Larson said.
The course is open for anyone 15 years of age or older, Larson says. Typically three driver’s education sessions are held throughout the year.
“We were supposed to have a class that was in April, May. We’re not big enough to have a class every month like say Owatonna and Faribault,” Larson said.
A session was held this past summer to accommodate the COVID-19 restrictions. The three-hour-long classes were held from the last week of July through the first week in August with 27 students. Students are required to complete 30 hours of documented classroom hours before they can take the test.
DVS Director Emma Corrie told Minnesota Public Radio that her agency had considered offering the exams online, but wasn’t planning to do so until the pandemic hit.
“With the need for social distance, the fact that many of our customers are struggling with coming into our locations, and putting health and safety as a priority for our customers and our staff, it was a no-brainer that we needed to go here,” she said.
The agency tested the online exam last month with about 120 students and is ready to roll it out to the public, Corrie said. The exam will be limited to 30 minutes and will include randomized questions and security features to make cheating difficult, she said.
Larson said the online knowledge test will be a good option for students instead of driving to Fairmont or Mankato to take the test.
“I think it’ll open up a lot of areas that are being stockpiled, I mean you go to some of these driver’s stations and there is 10 to 15 people standing outside waiting to get their licenses or plates and stuff,” Larson said.
Request to take the drivers test online by going to drive.mn.gov, then click on the “Take a Class D Knowledge Test” link located on the sidebar. The online option is only for the class D knowledge test for learner’s permits. Commercial and motorcycles licenses are not available online. The road test will continue to be taken in person.