Donald diversified: Longtime local businessman reflects on his life's work and interests
WORTHINGTON -- Many people know Donald Hanson as a salesman -- the longtime proprietor of Hanson Town & Country Furniture in Worthington who joked with his customers while selling them a sofa or recliner.
But Don also has some lesser-known talents -- aviator, ordnance technician, embalmer, ambulance driver, deliveryman, artist, photographer. At one time or another in his 89-year lifetime, Don has engaged in all those endeavors.
Born in Yankton, S.D., Don spent his early years in South Dakota, his dad, N.L., serving as a funeral director in Sioux Falls and then Garretson, S.D.
"I had quite a great-grandfather," he noted about his family history. "My mother's mother's dad wrote a history book. He was in the legislature when it was the Dakota Territory and then in the South Dakota legislature after it became a state. Before that, he was in the cavalry .... His name was Abraham Lewis Van Osdel. I got to know him pretty good, too. He lived to be 91, so I was 16 years old when he died. He lived in Mission Hill, S.D., which was where all my relatives came from."
Don remembers accompanying his dad to a funeral director convention in 1930 in the Black Hills and witnessing the early work on Mount Rushmore.
"They were just down to Washington's nose," he recalled.
"Then in '33, we drove out to a convention out East and stopped at the World's Fair. Sally Rand (a burlesque dancer and actress famous for her fan dance) was there, but my dad didn't think I was old enough to see her," he added with a chuckle and a grin.
When he was 14 years old, Don's father bought a furniture store/funeral home (a common combination back in those days), the store located next to Meier Bros. Pool Hall in downtown Worthington. The family lived in the big white house that was the funeral home headquarters a bit farther down 10th Street, near the present hospital location. He graduated from high school in 1938 and attended the University of South Dakota at Vermillion, studying geology and then art during his two-year stay, but with World War II on the horizon, he returned home.
"I was sitting in the Adams Hotel, playing pinochle, when it came over the radio that Pearl Harbor had been bombed," he said. "With the indications of war, I had signed up for the draft, and I also took an aviation mechanics course out here, and you could also learn to fly. We rebuilt one complete plane and flew it, even got to take a plane down to Des Moines one time."
With his pilot's license and some college under his belt, Don acknowledges that he should have gone into the Army Air Corps, but instead he rode along with some buddies and enlisted in the Navy. His friends who joined the Air Corps died in combat.
"So I guess I made the right choice," Don reflected.
And if he hadn't joined the Navy, Don would never have met wife Rita, who was a Navy WAVE-- Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service -- stationed in Jacksonville, Fla.
"I was in ordnance. She'd bring me my orders to work on a plane," Don recalled. "One day, we were going to go to the circus, but we had the whole day off and had some time to kill, so we decided to go to the courthouse and see about getting a marriage license. While we were there, they asked who was going to marry us ... and the judge was available, so we went ahead and he performed the ceremony. ... Then we went to the circus."
Don's assignment in ordnance involved taking care of the guns and loaded bombs on the Navy's aircraft. After he and Rita were married, he was sent to the West Coast and was soon aboard the USS Nehenta Bay, a carrier that escorted tankers to refuel the fleet, traveling almost as far as Australia.
"My carrier was a baby one, about 30 planes on it," Don explained, recalling a bad storm at sea when the carrier tilted 45 degrees and the planes fell off the deck. "We came back to San Diego to get it repaired. Then we went to Hawaii."
With his previous aviation experience, Don took the flight school test and received orders to return stateside. Flight school training was a bit closer to home, at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa.
"I just got through with school and the war had ended," he said. "But I still had orders to go back out to San Francisco, so I went there for 10 days, then it was back to Minneapolis to get discharged. Then I took the bus back down here."
Don went into the family business and soon headed for more schooling -- embalmers school at the University of Minnesota.
"When I was up there, (former Vikings football coach) Bud Grant roomed across the hall from me, so I played cards with him," Don noted.
The combination of furniture stores and funeral homes probably stemmed from the carpenter trade, the carpenter making both furniture and coffins, Don explained, and a funeral home also usually ran the town ambulance service, the hearse serving as the emergency vehicle.
"That was a headache," Don said. "The funeral service didn't take up nearly as much as the ambulance. You'd have to take two guys out of the store for an ambulance call, and we'd get $7 for the two guys and the ambulance for a city call. ... We didn't have any oxygen or anything; we just hauled 'em."
Upon his return from World War II service, Don tried -- unsuccessfully -- to talk his dad into buying an airplane for use as a flying ambulance.
Eventually the hospital took over the ambulance duties. The Hansons expanded their furniture selection to a second location in the former Boote hatchery building at 90 E. 12th St. and called it Hanson Town & Country Furniture. The downtown location was closed in 1957, and they sold the funeral home business in 1960.
The former hatchery building was 20,000 square feet, providing ample space for a large furniture showroom -- although there was additional storage space in the warehouse across the street -- and a busy drapery department. But the building wasn't without its problems, and Don recalled one time when it rained for six straight days, just after a new roof had been put on the huge structure.
"I had to put hoses on the roof to siphon it off," Don remembered. "There was two feet of water up there. Then I came in one morning, and it was dark and all I could see was white -- the insulation. The whole ceiling had caved in."
On the home front, Don was surrounded by females. He and Rita have four daughters -- Jan, Karen, Lynn and Robin. The female dominance continued in the next generation, with seven granddaughters and four grandsons, but "things have evened out now," Don noted, with three great-grandsons added to the mix.
When he wasn't selling furniture at the store, one of Don's favorite activities has long been golf. His family joined the local country club soon after moving to Worthington. He can remember when there was no clubhouse and sand was used for the greens, and in his much younger years, there was a day when he played 72 holes of golf -- walking the entire way -- and then hitchhiked to Rock Rapids, Iowa, to attend a dance.
"I've been 75 years out at the country club," he reflected. "I'm not able to golf anymore -- we're just social members -- but I still go out in the golf cart and drive around and take photos. ... I never was a real good golfer. I played a few good games over the years, but I was never in a class with some of the other guys who played in tournaments. But I enjoyed it."
Hanson Town & Country closed in 1991 and Don retired from business, although golf, photography, doodling, playing cards and other social activities have kept him busy in the interim. xArthritis and additional aches and pains have limited Don's mobility recently, but he still loves to joke around and tell stories -- he's just full of stories.
"I didn't tell you about all the girls I knew," he said, a twinkle in his eye.