Weather Forecast


Willmar notebook: A handyman with a ready smile

Tribune photo by Rand Middleton Kevin Madsen photographed in the Civic Center lobby, a project that connected the Cardinal Arena and Blue Line Center in 2007.

Kevin Madsen went to college for graphic arts, worked construction building houses and garages and all the while had a gift for treating people like long-time friends.

Part artist, part handyman, part “politician” — in the best sense of the word — and you have the right fit to manage a citizens’ building with a pair of ice sheets.

His tenure as overseer of the Civic Center complex on the city’s northeast side ends officially on Sunday. He has worked there 27 years, the last 18 as boss.

“It will be a load off my shoulders,” Madsen told me in a sit-down interview last week. “But I will miss the challenges. The opportunities to satisfy peoples’ needs are rewarding. Working around the hockey players and the coaches was frosting on the cake.”

It’s much more than a hockey venue. Since opening the first week of January 1980 (interestingly, the first event was a women’s hockey game), the Willmar Civic Center has become an all-season catch-all. The attached arenas, with generous parking, market themselves, Madsen said. Events re-up at a “phenomenal” rate, he claims.

Let’s see: there’s the KWLM Spring Show, the West Central Ag. Show, the Builders Trade Show, Rebel Camper Show, the West Central Tribune’s Life Connections and its two wildly popular “Garage Sales,” the tranquil Horticulture Society Plant Sale.

And there are auctions, tool sales and, in the pre-casino days, stage shows that brought in acts such as Toby Keith, the Statler Brothers and Reba McIntire. There’s the Shrine Circus and, now going on 30 years, the Jose Cole Circus. Ridgewater College holds its spring graduation here and parents have held graduation parties in the lobby or the Blue Line Club. Most recently, the semi-annual gun show moved from the City Auditorium to the Civic Center.

Military funerals for Sgt. Kyle Miller in 2006 and Sgt. Joshua Schmit in 2007 were both held in the Cardinal Arena before huge crowds.

“What a tremendous honor that was for us and the city,” Madsen said.

And then there is this little camp-out spread around the Civic Center and the high school. Sonshine moved from the college grounds to the Civic Center 27 years ago.

“There were 3,500 that first year here,” Madsen said. “It peaked at between 22,000 and 23,000 several years ago,” and both arenas are put to full use.

Curling emerged this century as an regular ice-user. The sport of brooms and stones soon hooked Madsen and many others. He was fascinated by the specialized ice required. He has become a nationally recognized authority on making arena curling ice, something he and a volunteer crew do twice weekly in the Blue Line Center. The building is prominent on the USA Curling map.

In March 2013 Willmar hosted the National Mixed Doubles Tournament.

“We’ve got two pages of compliments in the office from officials and curlers,” Madsen said.

In 2016, the Civic Center will host the Junior Nationals.

The Diamond Edge Figure Skating Club emerged in the mid-1990s. Working closely with the St. Paul Figure Skating Club, the program grew and became so successful it attracted the attention of the U.S. Figure Skating Club which strongly suggested that sanctioning might be a good thing. The annual show at the end of February fills the bleachers for two recitals, plus an elite skater from the national ranks.

“It’s perhaps the best-produced show in the Midwest outside a metro area,” Madsen said.

In a Herculean effort, the Willmar Hockey Association, needing more indoor ice time, employed fundraising, volunteer labor and in-kind services to build the Blue Line Center next door in 1998. The City of Willmar and the Blue Line Club worked in a partnership for six years before the city took over operations. New locker rooms were built and, a little later the two arenas, linked in 2007 by a roomy lobby that gave the entire venue a fresh, inviting look. Madsen involved himself in concept, design and execution.

It was early in our conversation that Madsen pointed to the Civic Center staff that makes it all go: administrative secretary Lynette Christenson, who worked under former manager Bill Abel starting in 1983, and building engineers Keith Hendrickson (15 years) and Jeremy Marcus (8 years).

Madsen grew up in New London (NLS ’67) and married the former Linda Peterson (NLS ’68). They raised three children (Alison lives New London, Danielle in Big Lake and Aaron in Shanghai, where he works for Nova-Tech Engineering). The couple has 10 grandchildren.

The Civic Center works closely with the high school across the field to provide additional P.E. opportunities and occasionally space for spring practices. The school and city even share their folding chairs.

Scheduling prime ice time is a challenge, he notes. His mantra is “you’re never going to make everyone happy; try to make every one equally unhappy.”

He leaves his successor, Troy Cierna, with several challenges. The heating, ventilation and air conditioning system in the Cardinal Arena is 35 years old and is overdue for replacement. Ice arenas everywhere must replace the refrigerant Freon by 2020. The Cardinal Arena refrigeration plant is the original unit. Replacement must be considered, perhaps with a common compressor for both ice sheets.

All the time, Madsen has tried to run the Civic Center as a place for the people, not select users. He’s made sure there is time for open skating, open hockey and open curling.

“I guess the job fit me,” said the handyman. “I’ve had a terrific team here to work with and it’s been terrific working with the hockey people, the park and rec board and the school system. This job let me use my art background, construction knowledge and people skills. Mainly, that was just getting people to get along.”

Turfs up

City dump trucks came back from St. Cloud State last week with 48 free rolls of turf. It should be enough to mat the Blue Line Center. Strips will also be used for football sidelines, batting cages and perhaps goalie boxes. If more rolls are available, it might be possible to cover half of a practice football field at the high school.

While visiting with WCER director Steve Brisendine, I asked him about the retiring Civic Center manager.

“An all-around good guy; old-fashioned in some ways but always open to new ideas,” he replied. “A real pleasure to work with. His hard work and skills were really a key in the developments out there in the last 20 years. You look at taking the Blue Line Center from a shell with a dirt floor to where it is now. It’s remarkable with that (second-level) viewing area and counter area around one rim. He could handle the big projects, like joining the building, and the smallest ones. It’s been non-stop progress for two decades.”

Coach recovering

Mike Hanson (Madison High School ’62) was undergoing chemo for B-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma when he came down with a severe lung infection. He spent a week in intensive care at Mayo (a son, Wade, is a Mayo physician). He’s back home in southwest Willmar. I visited while he separated and potted fronds of a large hosta recently dug up for installation of an air conditioner. Karen and Mike won’t be spending all summer on George Lake, as usual.

The lung infection was a setback, but he insists he’s getting stronger after losing 42 pounds. There are three of six chemo sessions to go. Fortunately, this particular cancer impacting the immune system is one that responds well to treatment.

Mike coached and taught science here from 1971 to 2001, and he was head boys basketball coach 1985-2001.

Keeping his spirits up are his grandchildren’s spring tournaments: college sophomore Marisa Toivonen placed fourth at the NCAA Division II golf tournament in North Carolina, the highest finish ever by an Augustana women’s golfer. Cardinal tennis player Tate Hovland competed in the Section 2AA final four doubles tourney while his sisters, Bailey and Cayle, are competing this week in Section 8AA Track and Field.

Traveling teacher

Sue Thell Barltrop leaves middle-school teaching (for good) after 34 years on June 9 and begins a 4,625-mile bicycle group ride from Vancouver to Canada’s eastern seaboard on June 12.  The 12 riders will take 72 days, 60 of those on the bike averaging 77 miles per day. She rode across America early in the century. Few are the continents Willmar’s intrepid instructor has not explored. Web site for this adventure is

Rand Middleton
Tribune photographer/videographer. Began working in radio and at weekly newspaper in Munising, Michigan, in 1972. Started parttime at West Central Daily Tribune Sept. 1974. Fulltime news/sports beginning Feb. 1979. Married to Tribune news clerk Donna (Miller) Middleton, formerly of Kerkhoven. 2 grown children. 
(320) 214-4334