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Valentine’s skybox

They went on a first date in WWII. 70 years later, they fell in love.
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Gene Kispert and Betty Hoffman dated occasionally in high school, but it wasn’t until their 70th high school reunion that they really hit it off.

Kispert, of Owatonna, and Hoffman, of Faribault, both 90 years old, have known each other since elementary school. Their lives have been intertwined for decades: going to the same church, mingling with the same friend group, graduating together from Faribault High School in 1948 and serving on the class reunion committee.

The two recall their first date back in high school during World War II. Kispert recalled the day being very cold as they walked downtown for the meetup. He also remembers scraping up all of his money to hire a cab ride to take Hoffman home.

“Betty was my first date,” Kispert said.

The two continued as friends throughout high school and dated occasionally, but nothing solid ever came of it until many years later.

Gene Kispert and Betty Hoffman as juniors in high school in March 1947. Kispert was an athlete, participating in football, wrestling and track. Hoffman was a class officer for Student Council and was a secretary for the senior class. They graduated from Faribault High School in 1948. (Photo courtesy of Betty Hoffman)

Hoffman would go on to marry her first husband, another Faribault classmate, but he died of an incurable kidney disease soon after tying the knot. She’d work at the local canning factory, at Federated Insurance as a typist and traveled to California to visit friends for a month before returning home to work as the city engineer’s secretary. Later she would marry her second husband, becoming a stay-at-home mother and moving away. After her second husband’s death from cancer, Hoffman moved back to Faribault and worked at Wells Fargo while keeping herself busy by joining the bowling team, the local Eagles organization, church choir and volunteering.

Meanwhile, Kispert continued on to school in Mankato after high school. He later joined the U.S. Navy, serving for four years during the Korean War and married his wife while serving. After returning to Owatonna, Kispert worked at Jostens and then as a quality assurance manager until his retirement. He was also an adjunct instructor for South Central College for eight or nine years. Like Hoffman, he was busy with church and coached multiple youth sports.

Betty Hoffman and Gene Kispert view their high school yearbook. (Ashley Rezachek/southernminn.com)

Throughout the years, the two served on the class reunion committee, periodically hosting get-togethers. Kispert was always the toastmaster, while Hoffman made reservations for the meetings.

About three years ago, Kispert’s wife died and several months later, the class of 1948 had their 70th class reunion. It was there that Hoffman and Kispert really hit it off.

“When we all sat down to eat, we sat across from each other and got talking,” Hoffman said.

At the time Kispert had been teaching a lot of classes in Owatonna and was teaching a class on the Mormon religion. Hoffman told Kispert that she received a copy of the “Book of Mormon” during a trip and offered to lend the book to Kispert.

“So I used (the book exchange) as an excuse and I picked her up for breakfast and we met at 9 o’clock and we sat and talked until 12:30,” Kispert said.

Hoffman recalled watching other groups of people enter and exit the restaurant while the two talked away over multiple cups of coffee. From then on, they started getting together three to four times a week and on the days they couldn’t be together, they would call each other up to four times a day to talk to each other. After two years, they are still going strong.

“We have kind of a standing joke. People say, are we going to get married? And so we tell them we were going to, but our parents wouldn’t sign for us,” Kispert said.

The two say they love each other and lead very active lifestyles together and on their own time. Kispert is active in the Owatonna Legion, honor guard and church, while Hoffman has recently encouraged him to pick up singing and karaoke.

“Betty even has me singing karaoke and I got the world’s worst voice,” Kispert said, adding that he is more comfortable singing after receiving her support.

The couple also enjoys playing bingo, dancing and attending dinner theaters together.

Betty Hoffman and Gene Kispert’s 90th birthdays are just a few months for one another. Here they celebrated their birthday together. (Photo courtesy of Gene Kispert)

Even during the pandemic, the sweethearts are keeping themselves busy, talking for hours, ordering take out from their favorite places such as Broaster in Faribault, and watching old ‘50s-era classic films. They also enjoy the company of each other’s families.

Hoffman recalls meeting Kispert’s family during Christmas, two months after they had started dating. Not really knowing anyone that well at the time, she remembers being approached by Kispert’s great-grandson.

“He comes up to me and he says, ‘Are you going to be my new grandma?’” Hoffman said with a laugh, adding that she wasn’t prepared for that question.

Both Hoffman and Kispert understand the importance of family. They plan to spend this weekend’s holiday with a small group of family members, as Sunday is traditionally “Family Day.” Valentine’s Day celebrations will take place another day, they say.

“I might sneak you a few flowers again,” Kispert said to Hoffman.

Class picture of Betty Hoffman, then Betty Miller, is seen in a old high school yearbook. The class of 1948 often got together once a month at the local Perkins to visit prior to the pandemic. 

Despite being together for two years, Hoffman and Kispert say they have never had a fight and that they just “fit together.” With wisdom, they advise people in relationships to avoid fighting about the little things and to say “I love you” often because life is short. Accept people as they are, Hoffman adds.

“Well, I always said you’ve got to learn to give and forgive. You’ve got to do both …. Sure you get mad, but then you’ve got to give and forgive, you just got to do that,” Hoffman said.

They say couples have to be willing to work together, it’s a necessity in a relationship. And that’s exactly what Hoffman and Kispert have done, working together for a future together.

A class photo of Gene Kispert. He says he was selected for the guy with the “Best Hair” award for his class. “Oh he had a head of hair. You would not believe!” Betty Hoffman said. 

Entrepreneurship Week returns to celebrate past and present leaders

After a successful inaugural event in 2020, National Entrepreneurship Week will once again take the spotlight next week in Owatonna, celebrating the past and present icons in Steele County’s business community.

“National Entrepreneurship Week is the perfect time to celebrate the many innovators who have called Steele County home,” said Bill Owns, executive director of Owatonna Area Business Development Center, which will be spearheading the upcoming celebrations beginning Monday. “Our plan, both this year and in the future, is to recognize the achievements of those entrepreneurs of the past and present, while providing awareness of the many tools at our disposal to assist current and future entrepreneurs.”

As was done in the inaugural event last year, five more influential players in the area’s business community will be inducted into the Steele County Entrepreneurs Hall of Fame. This year, the 2020 inductees includes the Gandrud family of Gandy Company, the Kaplan family of Owatonna Tool Company, Otto Josten of Jostens, Carol Nelson of National Hydro-Ax and Cybex International, and the Lange family of Owatonna Canning Company and Festal Farms.

The new class will be joining Bob Ayers with FoamCraft Packaginng, Inc., C.I. Buxton of Federated Insurance, James Martineau of Viracon, Tom Peterson of Climate by Design International, and Harry Wenger of Wenger Corporation in the Hall of Fame.

Also returning for the second year, an Entrepreneur of the Year will be named.

This year’s finalists are Scott Limberg of Limberg Productions, Dan Kubista of Wagner’s Lunch, Scott and Jolayne Mohs of Mohs Construction, Scott Hagland of Straight River Coffee, and Foremost Brewing Cooperative.

With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the second Entrepreneurship Week celebration in Owatonna will look a bit different from its first year. Specifically, the banquet that will honor the newly elected Steele County Entrepreneurs Hall of Fame inductees and announce the winner of the 2020 Entrepreneur of the Year will be postponed until people are once again allowed to gather safely together. There is no tentative date at this time.

Beginning Monday, video interviews will be broadcasted with the second class of Hall of Fame inductees, plus videos with other local entrepreneurs telling stories about the history of innovation in Steele County.

The focus will shift to present-day on Wednesday, featuring a marketing competition among local high school students. The teams each presented 15-minute videos outlining marketing ideas they have for existing businesses. The winning teams will receive cash awards that can be used to further their education or help them start or expand their own businesses.

The week will end with a panel discussion and a closer look at the finalist for Entrepreneur of the Year.

All videos can be found on Owatonna Live, local public access channels, and on Facebook.

The Gandy Company

Though E.S. Gandrud held about 80 patents, it was his invention of the Gandy wheel that put the Gandy Company on the map. Using two pairs of pliers and a coil, the resulting wire model progressed into a rod measuring wheel that enabled one person to accurately measure acres where previously it had taken two. Approved by the Agriculture Adjustment Administration in 1936, the Gandy wheel instantly came into high demand to meet the measurement of field acres to qualify for farm programs.

Gandrud brought his firm to Owatonna in 1937 starting in a garage on Mill Street before relocating to a basement near the rear of the current Wells Fargo Bank in downtown. The firm eventually moved in 1945 by building a plant on the east side of Main Street to produce fertilizer spreaders for the military.

In 1980, Gandrud received the University of Minnesota’s Outstanding Achievement Awards and was inducted into the Minnesota Inventors Hall of Fame in 1984.

The Gandy Company is now located on Rice Lake Road in Owatonna and continues to be family owned and operated.

Owatonna Tool Company

The foundation for the Owatonna Tool Company’s success was created by a simple but effective gear puller patented by Reuben Kaplan called the “Grip-O-Matic.” By 1934, the company was selling a variety of mechanic’s tools to farmers and service stations. When World War II began impacting the United States, the Owatonna-based company sold large quantities of tools to both the Army and Navy.

In 1953, R.W. “Buzz” Kaplan began looking for new products for the company to manufacture while another company approached them about producing hardware for window awnings. Instead of just producing the hardware, the company’s engineers redesigned the device, creating the patented lever lock operator.

Today, Owatonna Tool Company – or OTC Tools – is a global supplier of vehicle electronic diagnostic instruments, fuel systems service tools, special service tools, general purpose tools, pullers, heavy-duty tools, shop equipment, and hydraulic components.

Otto Josten

What started as a watch-repair business, Otto Josten’s company founded in 1900 has become a household name for any American family who has a child go through high school. The Josten Manufacturing Company first produced scholastic pins, but as Josten recognized early the growing trend in the country for students requesting rings specifically designed for their graduation class, Jostens took off.

Josten founded the American Yearbook Company in 1950, later merging it under the Jostens brand. For over 100 years the company has been the preeminent supplier of class rings, yearbooks, graduation products, and photographic services to schools throughout North America.

Jostens is also the primary supplier for Super Bowl rings.

Carol Nelson

Always interested in starting his own business, Carol Nelson has founded several.

His company National Tree Expert contracted with utility companies to clear new and existing right-of-ways. When the machines weren’t fast enough, Nelson decided to find a more efficient way to do the job. The single brush mower attachment and brush cutter head developed by Nelson is still being used today.

Nelson is known as one of the true entrepreneurial spirits of Owatonna. If he wasn’t building a forestry product line, he was investing in two brothers’ dream of creating a new exercise equipment line – what would eventually be known as Cybex.

The Lange Family

In 1911, L.C. Lange purchased a pea cannery in Owatonna. That first purchase was the beginning of what would be known as the Owatonna Canning Company and Lange family philanthropic dynasty. Developing new ways to create fresh, healthy and local produce was always part of the family tradition, in one year the company processed crops grown on approximately 200 acres.

About a decade later, the organization was incorporated and came to notoriety with the highly acclaimed Festal Pumpkin – the gold standard for pumpkin pie during the holidays.

In 1997, the Owatonna Canning Company was purchased by Chiquita Brands International, later acquired by Seneca Foods and later again to Lakeside Foods, Inc. The Lange family remains an important part of the business through the ownership of Festal Farm Company, which consists of 7,500 acres of agricultural land leased to Lakeside Foods.

New scam targeting businesses reaches southern Minnesota

From car warranties to credit cards, it seems every week there is a new telephone scam circulating the area. Recently, the latest scam to strike in southern Minnesota is specifically targeting businesses.

According to the New Ulm Police Department, last week businesses began receiving phone calls from a scammer posing to be a member of the corporate office management. According to the reports, the person on the phone claims they are having items shipped to the store related to COVID-19, but that payment was interrupted. The caller stated the shipment was approved with store management and instructed the employee to remove cash from the safe and send a specific amount to ensure the products were delivered.

Each time the employee was threated to be terminated from their employment if they did not do what was requested, according to police.

One small business in Faribault reported having a similar call last week, but declined to comment further.

According to the Owatonna Police Department, there have been no reports of this specific scam hitting the area yet – but that doesn’t mean businesses shouldn’t be on the lookout. Capt. Eric Rethemeier said one of the most important tips he can give anyone when it comes to potential telephone scams is to never provide financial information in response to a request that came unexpectedly.

“Verify information before considering making any payment, either with law enforcement or someone you trust,” Rethemeier said. “Do not be pressured to act right away.”

Brad Meier, president of the Owatonna Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism, said scams that target small businesses are always concerning.

“They try to put employees in an awkward situation where they think they’re doing the right thing, not knowing it is a scam,” Meier said. “We encourage employers to talk with employees about these things. Never allow for conveyance of money or account information over the phone or without directly speaking with a supervisor.”

Though the business scam has yet to infiltrate the community, Rethemeier said two other scams this month have caught his attention.

In the first incident, an unknown person connected with a person, befriended them in a way that eventually led to suggestive sexual dialog and the exchange of explicit photographs. The scammer then demanded a ransom payment in lieu of making the pictures public.

In the second incident, Rethemeier said a local law firm was contacted as an intermediary in the purchase of piece of farm implement. The firm was sent a fraudulent check for payment and wired a large sum of money related to the purchase. The alleged purchaser is now the victim of identity theft and their credentials were being used to defraud the law office.

Whenever it comes to dealing with a person you do not know on the phone, whether the conversation is about finances or other intimate details of your life, Rethemeier said it is always best to err on the side of caution.

“If it sounds too good to be true – it probably is,” Rethemeier said.