Customers, former employees honor Walt, retiring owner of Willmar landmark business

WILLMAR -- A Willmar business owner who strove to give his young employees a good start in life discovered that what goes around really does come around.

Gislason 2009
Ruby Naber, a longtime neighbor to Walt's, is among the hundreds on Tuesday to wish Walt and Raeanna Gislason the best in their retirement. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

WILLMAR -- A Willmar business owner who strove to give his young employees a good start in life discovered that what goes around really does come around.

Employees current and past were among the hundreds of well-wishers making sure that Walt and Raeanna Gislason got their new lives as retirees off to the best start Tuesday.

"This cast and crew, you couldn't ask for anything better,'' said longtime customer Greg Dugstad as he gestured to the Gislasons and the employees and new owners at Walt's.

The iconic self-service gas station, car wash, oil change and convenience store at the intersection of First Street and Willmar Avenue South is now under the ownership of a partnership led by Mike Brown and Kari Bredberg and longtime employees of the business: Ruth Smith, Jeff Armstrong, Scott Barney and Matt Evans.

The new owners hosted a day-long celebration in honor of the Gislasons. The accolades were popping nearly as fast and furious as the trademark, Nebraska-grown popcorn that the former owner has been handing free to customers for almost 40 years.


Gislason said he joined his brother Virgil at the station in 1971, intending to take a one-year hiatus from teaching to help out. Virgil Gislason and a partner had opened the gas station and car wash in 1969, but his partner moved to Fergus Falls.

Walt said his brother needed someone with a mechanical aptitude. He could offer that, and he brought along some business and street smarts.

Walt Gislason credits his father with teaching him most of it. His father operated a hardware, appliance, plumbing and television store and International Harvester-Farmall implement business in the western Minnesota community of Minneota.

Every Saturday night in the 1940s, the young Walt Gislason set up his own shoe shine stand and popcorn wagon on the town's Main Street.

Gislason went on to college in South Dakota and aspired to a career in theater and education, although his undergraduate studies also included business. He met Raeanne during a tenure with the South Dakota Playhouse in Custer, S.D. He was teaching theater at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant when the call came from his brother in Willmar.

Walt and Raeanna have overseen the growth of the Willmar business ever since. Its expansion in size and services happened as opportunities presented themselves, not due to any grand plan, according to Walt.

The Minneota native made his name in his adopted hometown as much for his successful business as his unabashed civic boosterism and passion for helping young people, especially those facing challenges.

Gislason said it is the people who worked alongside him that he will miss the most by leaving the business. Knowing how many of his employees went on to successful careers and lives is also his greatest source of pride. "It's been a great stepping stone for people,'' he said.


The Gislasons have no major plans for retirement, other than to enjoy its freedom. Raeanna said she intends to continue her role as a piano instructor.

"It's been a long year, and a fun year,'' laughed Gislason in reference to his brother's call for one year's worth of help. "This has been so much fun.''

Brown said the business partners will continue Walt's in both name and spirit. As owner of the Floor to Ceiling Store, Brown said he had been looking for a successful business to purchase as he started the process of selling his store to its employees. He was attracted by the success he saw at Walt's, but Brown said he also appreciated Gislason for his commitment to helping those with challenges and community involvement.

And yes, the popcorn that Gislason always purchased by the pallet-load from Nebraska continues to be free for the taking.

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