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Outstanding businessman, sports booster 'Swede' Lundgren dies at 90

Submitted Photo Robert "Swede" Lundgren, left, shown in this 1970s photo with former employee and current owner of Center Sports Harlan Handevidt, was an outstanding businessman in Worthington for many years, and a tireless community volunteer and promoter of local sports.1 / 2
Submitted Photo Robert "Swede" Lundgren poses for a photograph with two local boys for a Lundgren Sporting Goods store ad from 1966. Lundgren, who died Saturday, was inducted into the Sporting Goods Industry Retailer Hall of Fame in 1987.2 / 2

WORTHINGTON -- He may have been Worthington's foremost supporter of local athletics. He was undoubtedly an outstanding businessman and a tireless volunteer in his community.

Robert "Swede" Lundgren died Saturday at Crossroads Care Center in Worthington at the age of 90. He left behind a legacy that, according to his countless friends, might be difficult to fit into a book.

A 1941 Worthington High School graduate, Lundgren served in the Army during World War II in North Africa, Sicily and Italy, and earned a Purple Heart. He purchased Dingler Sporting Goods in 1960 and until his retirement in 1986, went to work at making his Lundgren Sporting Goods business known far and wide for excellence.

In 1966, he was named the Sporting Goods Dealer Baseball Retailer of the Year. He was named to the Sporting Goods Industry Retailer Hall of Fame in 1987.

He was an indefatigable supporter of local athletics. Through 1987, he served 12 years as a Little League coach, 40 years as a sponsor of Little League teams, 25 years as athletic coordinator for the local VFW and 20 as district director of baseball. He served eight years as housing director for the National Junior College National Wrestling Tournament, 15 years as regional amateur baseball commissioner, 10 years officiating football and basketball games, and 25 years as American Legion baseball organizer.

He was the founder of the St. Mary's School basketball program and served 16 years as coach, later teaching skills to St. Mary's students during retirement until 1993. In his younger days, he played amateur baseball for the Worthington Turks and Cubs. Active with the Worthington Community College Bluejay Booster Club, he earned the Worthington Community College Service Award. He served for at least 31 years as chairman of the Worthington High School Athletic Banquet. He was head timer at the Trojan Relays for 35 years through 1989.

Lundgren was president of the Worthington Country Club and president of the Downtown Retailers Association. He served two terms on the Worthington Chamber of Commerce Board and also served on the YMCA Board of Directors. He was chairman of SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives).

In 1989, he was inducted as part of the very first class into the Worthington Senior High School Hall of Fame.

He attended countless local sporting events and didn't limit his attendance to Worthington, but happily lent his enthusiasm to other communities' activities as well.

'He led a good life'

Robert Lundgren was given the nickname "Swede" while still in high school. He and his wife Donna had three children -- Tom, Jean and Jim -- and seven grandchildren.

Tom, the oldest child, remembers a childhood that revolved around athletics.

"It was a very sports-based youth. Any sport I did, (dad) was like a coach," he remembers today.

But what may have impressed Tom the most was his father's genuine love of children -- all children -- and he cared about children right up to the end. He remembers that even last June while in the throes of his struggle with Alzheimer's Disease, as Swede stood in line at a medical clinic reception desk, he spied a father cradling a toddler in his arms. Tom said Swede's eyes "lit up," and he pointed to the child and reached out to gently touch him.

"Look at him. Look at how cute he is!" Tom recalled Swede's words.

Tom said his father didn't push athletics onto his family, nor did he preach about volunteerism.

"I don't know if it was taught," he said. "It was observed."

But even with so much time spent volunteering for the community he loved, Swede Lundgren had ample time for family. Tom remembers being taken on lengthy driving vacations. In the late 1950s, he got to see a Milwaukee Brewers baseball game.

"Of course, this was before we had the Twins. For someone my age who collected baseball cards and kept score of the games in scorebooks, it was a big deal," said Tom, who was about 10 years old at the time.

The family also took trips to the New York World's Fair in 1963, and to numerous Minnesota Twins and Minnesota Vikings games in the teams' early years.

Because Swede was so involved in youth sports, he sometimes served as coach of his children's teams. And Tom remembers, "If he wasn't coaching, he was still there."

It cannot be easy to summarize a life so fully lived, but when Tom was asked on Monday to describe his father's life in a single sentence, he grew quiet for only a moment before answering, "Other people have said to me, 'He led a good life.' That's been the common theme."

Mentor and friend

Before Lundgren earned recognition in the Sporting Goods Industry Retailer Hall of Fame, he was nominated by two people who worked with him -- Harlan Handevidt, who purchased the business in 1985, and Kevin Flynn.

"He was one of the most organized people I ever worked with. He was phenomenal," recalled Flynn. "He was just a special guy. He was a tireless worker, he was a good boss, and it was pretty impressive to see how organized he was."

Handevidt remembers all the time Lundgren spent traveling through northwest Iowa and southwest Minnesota drumming up new business.

"He was an excellent mentor," Handevidt explained. "I hadn't been here very long and he just kind of took me under his wing, helped me learn the business. At that time, I don't know if either of us had the idea of me buying the business someday."

The number of friends Lundgren made through his business associations are too many to count. But Tom recalls the many times he'd go with his father to Twins games and people in the stands would call out to him, "Hi, Swede!"

Mark Schwarz, who worked with Lundgren for six years, is grateful for having known him.

"He gave me the opportunity. When I moved here, I just came for an internship from Brainerd."

But at the end of the internship, Lundgren asked if Schwarz would consider staying on. "He was an honest, very personable person to me," Schwarz said.

Throughout the decades, Lundgren became good friends with many area high school coaches. One of those was Elmer Menage, who coached and served as athletic director at Luverne.

"He was always a great guy to work with. Very gracious person. Always looked out for the people he sold stuff to and made sure they had the best," Menage said.

Now retired himself, Menage remembers playing golf with Lundgren a few times and that his sporting goods buddy was "a competitor."

But, he added, "I never saw him mad, though."

Doug Wolter

Doug Wolter is the Daily Globe sports editor. He served as sports reporter, then sports editor, news editor and finally managing editor at the Daily Globe for 22 years before leaving for seven years to work as night news editor at the Mankato Free Press in Mankato. Doug now lives in Worthington with his wife, Sandy. They have three children and seven grandchildren. Doug, retired after a lengthy career in fast-pitch softball, enjoys reading, strumming his acoustic guitar and hanging around his grandchildren. He also writes books on fiction. Two of his stories, "The Genuine One" and "The Old Man in Section 129" have been distributed through a national publisher.

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