Weather Forecast


Atwater man's generous legacy is helping others

Email Sign up for Breaking News Alerts
News Willmar,Minnesota 56201
West Central Tribune
(320) 235-6769 customer support
Atwater man's generous legacy is helping others
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

WILLMAR -- Growing up in poverty, Marv Otto didn't have much. But as an adult, he invested wisely and gave much to others.

"Throughout his lifetime, he was very generous to many, many people and organizations in Atwater,'' recalls Arlys Winkelman of Atwater, a friend of Otto and his wife, Gladys, who many said inspired Marv's generosity.


"If people were down and out, he'd probably go down to the grocery store and say, 'Here's a hundred dollars for groceries for so and so, and it's anonymous,''' says Winkelman. "He told me so many stories like that.''

Gladys died in 1999 and Marv in April 2009 at age 92, but the couple's generosity lives on, thanks to a gift of nearly $3 million to two different funds with the Willmar Area Community Foundation.

The first fund is the Marvin and Gladys Otto Family Foundation and was funded with a bequest.

It is an endowed fund that will benefit the Atwater area and Kandiyohi County.

The second fund, the Marvin Otto Foundation, was funded through annuities and will benefit favorite charities of Marv and Gladys in the Atwater and Willmar areas.

Nancy Johnson, Willmar Area Community Foundation coordinator, praised Otto for sharing his wealth.

"I think he spread the wealth because he thought of community as being more than just Atwater. It was well beyond to include charities in Kandiyohi County,'' she said.

Winkelman said Otto was an orphan. His mother died shortly after he was born, his father moved to Minneapolis and the youngster was raised by an aunt and grandparents in New London.

"He knew poverty because his grandparents were not wealthy people, they were very poor,'' said Winkelman. "I think that kind of brought out in him the best.''

Otto first worked for Strong Motor of Atwater, one of Minnesota's first Ford dealerships, in 1937. During World War II, Otto served two years in the Army coast artillery in New Guinea.

After attending Hamline University for one year and the University of Minnesota for 18 months, Otto returned in 1946 and began work at a Strong Motor substation in New London.

The dealer later called Otto to Atwater for a "one-week assignment,'' which stretched to a 65-year career with the dealership. In 1957, Otto, Gene Walsh and Cliff Jacobsen bought Strong Motor and changed the name to Atwater Ford. In 1978, Otto sold his share of the business to Walsh, but continued working in the office either full- or part-time almost until he died.

Winkelman met Marv and Gladys through her Atwater beauty shop where Gladys had her hair done. During the last 11 years of her life, Gladys suffered from severe arthritis. Marv cared for her and Winkelman fulfilled Gladys' wish of doing her hair at home once a week -- and even for her funeral -- because her hair was very important to her.

Winkelman helped Otto plan his wife's funeral. Also, she assisted Otto in taking care of other personal matters. As Otto's health declined, Winkelman urged Otto -- a prudent investor -- to get his financial affairs in order, which he did with attorney Dean Anderson of Willmar.

Winkelman says Otto had a big interest in, and willed $10,000 to, the Atwater Fire Department. The department bought a used troop hauler with the money. A $5,500 grant from the foundation bought the equipment. An appreciation license plate from the fire department thanks Marv -- his name displayed in his signature.

"When we visited with Marv, he always talked about how special the fire and ambulance departments were in Atwater, their dedication,'' said Winkelman.

Anderson, director of the Willmar Area Community Foundation, said the foundation helped Otto realize his estate planning goal to benefit certain charities and allow the foundation to provide funds for charity for many years after his death.

"Too often, words like philanthropy and charitable giving and such get tossed around, and they're sort of abstract terms, seemingly removed from everyday life,'' said Anderson.

"But they weren't for Marv and Gladys Otto. They knew their place, in the very best sense, in the world,'' Anderson said. "And they didn't just take from it, they also gave back. Maybe there's a lesson for all of us. We need to take care of our place.''

David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150