Longtime Willmar businessman Walt Gislason has died
Walt Gislason, a Willmar businessman and philanthropist, died last weekend at his home in Wayzata. He was 86. He was the longtime owner of Walt's on South First Street in Willmar.
Gislason, 86, ran Walt’s — a gas station, convenience store, car wash and oil change business on South First Street in Willmar — for many years. He joined his brother Virgil in the business in 1971 and ran it until selling it to a partnership of his employees in 2009.
Gislason, 86, died Saturday evening at his home in Wayzata, according to Scott Barney, a co-owner of Walt’s.
Barney said Gislason was proud of his role in the development of the field, one of many community projects he and his wife, Raeanna, supported.
The couple's philanthropy had an impact on many community activities and were always ready to support causes that would benefit the area.
“Walt loved people,” Barney said. “The amount of people, employees and otherwise that he had an impact on their lives, is far greater than I can ever imagine.”
At Walt’s , the employees were like family.
“I call him a dad and a mentor as well as an employer, but he’s also my friend,” Barney said. “He took me in when I was 18 years old and gave me a job. ... I was a lost kid who he took under his wing, and no matter what I did, he kept nurturing me and loving me.”
Gislason was an active participant in a Willmar Public Schools program to provide work experience to special education high school students. That practice continues today, Barney said.
In a 2012 West Central Tribune story, Gislason and his staff said those workers were treated the same as any other and were valued employees.
“We have never had a disabled person work here; we have had some people with more challenges,” he said.
Gislason, born on April 16, 1935, was a native of Minneota, where he played basketball in high school and graduated in 1954. He graduated from Mankato State University and served three years in the U.S. Army. He was a teacher and coach before they moved to Willmar in 1971.
Gislason was a supporter of Willmar Cardinals high school sports, and he and his wife, Raeanna Gislason, made numerous donations to sports and other activities in Willmar’s schools over the years.
Gislason was inducted into the Cardinal Pride Hall of Fame in 2019.
They were active in the support of The Barn Theatre , and he spent several years as a volunteer firefighter in Willmar.
He was active in service organizations in the community and was a member of the American Legion.
In recent years, they had lived in Wayzata to be closer to children and grandchildren.