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.

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Walt Gislason, long-time Willmar business person. Tribune file photo

WILLMAR — Longtime Willmar businessman Walt Gislason died Saturday in Wayzata, according to a former employee and current owner of Walt’s 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.

A public visitation is planned for 2-5 p.m. Oct. 16 under a tent at Baker Field at Bill Taunton Stadium in Willmar.

Inductee Walt Gislason shares a laugh Friday at Hodapp Field during Cardinal Pride’s 2019 Hall of Fame Banquet. Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune


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.

Changing hands 2009
A vehicle is pictured Monday as it passes Walt's on South First Street in Willmar. Local businessman Walt Gislason has sold the gas station, convenience store, car wash and oil change business to four employees and another local business owner. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

“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.

Walt and Raeanna Gislason were awarded the Award in Philanthropy from the Willmar Area Community Foundation in 2007.

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Raeanna and Walt Gislason


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.

In 42 years in the newspaper industry, Linda Vanderwerf has worked at several daily newspapers in Minnesota, including the Mesabi Daily News, now called the Mesabi Tribune in Virginia. Previously, she worked for the Las Cruces Sun-News in New Mexico and the Rapid City Journal in the Black Hills of South Dakota. She has been a reporter at the West Central Tribune for nearly 27 years.

Vanderwerf can be reached at email: or phone 320-214-4340
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