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Kelly Boldan: We knew him as 'Walt' and he loved city of Willmar

Most of all, Walt always cared about Willmar. The time is here for Willmar to return the favor. The Gislason family is holding a public visitation for Walt from 2 to 5 p.m. Saturday under a tent at Baker Field at Bill Taunton Stadium in Willmar.

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

Walt Gislason was a good man and he loved this city of Willmar.

Walt died Oct. 4 in Wayzata. He was 86.

If you spoke of Walt in this city, most everyone knew who you were talking about.

He was a longtime friend of the West Central Tribune . When I joined the Tribune newsroom in late 2001, Walt was one of the first people to reach out and take me to lunch.

Many times over the coming years my phone would ring and Walt would be on the other line with a story tip or suggestion. His calls continued even when he moved to Wayzata in recent years.

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Born on April 16, 1935, to Virgil and Mary Gislason in Minneota , Minnesota, he would graduate in 1954 from Minneota High School, where he played basketball.

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Walt Gislason, U.S. Army, 1956-1958.

Walt's commitment to service started early on in his life. He first served his country for three years in the U.S. Army from 1956 to 1958 at Fort Dix, New Jersey. He would continue his service as a proud member of the American Legion. He continued his support for veterans through offering free car wash days for veterans.

He valued education and earned a bachelor's in business education at then- Mankato State University and a master's degree in speech and dramatic arts from the University of South Dakota . He then became a teacher, a high school theater director and cheerleading coach. He also spent eight summers performing at The Black Hills Playhouse in South Dakota , where he met his pianist wife, Raeanna. They married in 1964.

In 1971, Walt and Raeanna moved to Willmar, where he joined his brother, Virgil, in growing a corner gas station into an iconic business, known simply as " Walt's ." The station grew into Walt's car wash, oil change and convenience store, which continues to operate today, providing meaningful employment to students, immigrants and developmentally challenged adults.

In his early years in Willmar, he was a volunteer firefighter with the Willmar Fire Department.

For decades, Walt was a strong community leader within the Willmar business community and the Willmar Lakes Area . He was an active supporter and member of The Barn Theatre, Rotary, Masons and Shriners. And he hosted many fundraiser days at Walt's for various community organizations.

"Walt was a highly respected leader in our Willmar Lakes area," said Tribune publisher Steve Ammermann. "He was a man so rich in spirit, character, kindness and generosity. The impact he had on our community was endless."

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Raeanna and Walt Gislason

Walt and Raeana were recognized with the 2017 Award in Philanthropy from the Willmar Area Community Foundation .

"Walt truly was a Willmar icon and a humble man. He was never the big community supporter for the notoriety. It came from his heart more than his checkbook when it came to community support.," Ken Warner, Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce, said.

Walt and Raeanna have been strong supporters of education in Willmar — making numerous donations to school activities — from music to athletics. Walt was instrumental in the development of Baker Field at Bill Taunton Stadium. He personally raised more than $500,000. The couple would later attend many Willmar Stingers games in the southwest Willmar stadium.

In 2019, he was elected to the Cardinal Pride Hall of Fame for his longtime support for Willmar High School .

Walt was a man who wore a Cardinal hat with pride. He loved this community and worked every day to help make it a better place. Over the past decade, even after moving to Wayzata, Willmar was often at the top of his mind and the telephone tree of various Willmar connections would ring for a discussion or a suggestion.

"They definitely don’t make them like Walt anymore. He always had a can-do attitude and he expected the same can-do attitude from others too. He was a leader in so many ways and a friend and mentor to many of us. I will miss our Walt talks," Warner said.

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Most of all, Walt always cared about Willmar. The time is here for Willmar to return the favor.

The Gislason family is holding a public visitation for Walt from 2 to 5 p.m. Saturday under a tent at Baker Field at Bill Taunton Stadium in Willmar.

Kelly Boldan is the editor of the West Central Tribune.

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