'Mr. Heron Lake' kept showing up
HERON LAKE — He never missed a single day of school during his entire 12 years, from first grade through graduation in 1942, and — several years later -— he taught himself telegraphy so he could become a railroad depot agent.
He also watched athletic events and studied rule books well enough to frequently achieve the highest score in the area — often in the whole state — on the annual football and basketball officials test, given to referees back in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.
Obviously, he believed that education was important, and he served on the school board of the newly-consolidated Heron Lake-Okabena district during its formative years in the late ’70s through most of the ’80s.
Yes, Don Steen — who will turn 90 on Nov. 24 — has been an active community-oriented fellow with a lot of energy, ambition and ideas.
“I’ve been interested,” said Steen modestly about his involvement with Heron Lake, the town he loves. “I have lived here all my life, and am proud of the people of this town and its history.”
During the early 1980s, Steen, along with Cammy Winkler and Tom Jay, chaired the central committee, which organized the amazingly successful 1983 Heron Lake Centennial Celebration — three very memorable days in the town’s proud history.
“That was so great,” recalled Steen about those first three days in July 1983, when many people gathered around the Heron Lake City Park and attended the huge Grand Parade. “I had to wipe away a few tears more than once. We had such tremendous cooperation, and so many people did so much to make it all happen.”
Especially Steen — who was the true “ramrod” of the venture, which included a Centennial Book detailing lots of the community’s history.
“That book was a collection of a lot of work by lots of people who cared about Heron Lake,” Steen said. “It sold out, and we had to print more copies.”
Five years later, two more books were published when the town celebrated its Centennial Plus Five in 1988.
For Steen, who grew up working many hours in his father’s (Henry Steen) shoe repair shop — while never missing a day of school — the success of those type of community celebrations provided much satisfaction.
“It was tremendous seeing so many folks come back and visit,” he said. “We had a great turnout and there so many activities — something for everyone.”
Repairing shoes, harnesses and binding canvasses, while also teaching and coaching
Henry Steen, the only American-born child in his German family, married Theresia Dobereiner from Fulda and the couple farmed together in Rosehill Township of Cottonwood County, southeast of Westbrook.
Not long before twin sons Reinhold and Harold were born, Henry was struck by lightning in the summer of 1914 while leading a horse (which was killed) when the couple was out in the field harvesting oats — known as shocking — and gathering up stalks into huge bundles that were transported to the thresher.
He survived that close call but was stricken with polio two years later, which paralyzed his body from his waist to his feet. Despite lots of therapy, including some from the Sister Kenny Institute of Minneapolis, Henry never walked again.
So he left his farming days (and his baseball and wrestling careers) behind him, moved to Heron Lake and began repairing shoes, harnesses and binding canvasses.
Don was born on Nov. 24, 1924, at the hospital in Heron Lake, which was across from the city park and was — at the time — one of best medical facilities in southwestern Minnesota.
As a young child, Don learned the importance of work, helping his mother in her huge vegetable garden (the Steens lived on the edge of town), along with working with his dad.
But through it all, he went to school every day, studied hard and participated in sports. Don played high school basketball for the Falcons and graduated second in his class of 32 in 1942.
Baseball became a favorite of Steen’s and he followed his brothers (and father’s) footsteps, playing for several area teams when the opportunities were right.
Harold was a right-handed pitcher, left-handed Reinhold was a skilled first baseman and did some pitching — and Don became a catcher.
“My brothers were nine years older and had played a lot,” remembered Steen. “They were both good players and were quick. I was slow, so I had to be a catcher.”
Steen later caught for the curve-ball throwing Stan King at Lakefield and for the hard-throwing Duane “Lefty” Krohn while playing with the Worthington Cubs in the late 1940s.
But prior to those peak years of catching town-team baseball, Steen became the school’s athletic coach and twice a week physical education teacher.
In the later years of World War II there was a shortage of certified teachers and coaches, so Steen — who was deferred because of his necessity at the shoe shop — was called to duty by the local high school, during the ’44-’45 and ’45-’46 school years.
“I worked all day at the store, except for a couple of hours on Monday and Wednesdays when I taught P.E. at the school,” remembered Steen. “We practiced football and basketball in the evenings.”
Steen was his own boss those two years of coaching and had no assistant.
“One year I had 27 players and just three basketballs — one new one, one old one and one with restitched laces.”
Being an innovator, Steen incorporated lots of different defensive schemes, including a combination zone and man-to-man tactic, which guarded three of the opponent’s top players man-to-man, had one player chase the ball and the fifth player guard the lane and not allow a layup.
“It worked well sometimes,” said Steen about his “gadget” defense.
45 years as a referee while working for the CNW railroad
While his teaching and coaching career were brief stints, as the war ended and the regulars returned, Don enjoyed an amazing 45-years as a high school football and basketball referee, starting with a six-man football game — with Darrel Jeppesen — at Storden in the fall of 1942.
Milt McKeown, Don Volk and Clayton Schaffer — all from Heron Lake — worked with Steen as a four-man football officiating crew for several seasons in the 1970s and 1980s. Steen was the head referee with the white hat.
“Steen, he was the organizer,” exclaimed Volk, who farmed north of town. “I think I worked 23 years with him and always enjoyed it, really looking forward to Friday nights.”
Round Lake’s Devere Johnson and Fulda’s Marv Heinrichs were among the partners who refereed basketball games with Steen, who more than once scored 100 percent on both the football and basketball rules test in the same year — and that was before the exam became open-book.
But officiating was just one of Steen’s many sidelines. He also played town-team basketball for the Heron Lake Lakers, a team which played 46 games (39-7) during the winter of ’52-’53, including a couple of preliminary contests to Minneapolis Lakers’ games at the Minneapolis Auditorium.
“That was an experience playing in that big auditorium and getting to see guys like George Mikan,” summed up Steen, who one night hit several long shots and scored eight points for the Heron Lake club. A few years later, after Don retired from playing, the Heron Lake Lakers played a couple of games against the Minneapolis Lakers (at Lakefield, once in 1958 and again in 1960), holding their own against the NBA team much of the way.
“We started out with all local guys,” Steen said. “But over the years, the (Heron Lake) Lakers became an all-area team with lots of high school coaches who had played in college, like Jed Dommeyer and Jack Kelly at Windom.”
As tractors began replacing horses in the 1940s, the harness and binding part of Steen’s Repair Shop began to dwindle.
Needing to find a new career, Steen learned telegraphy and began working as a relief agent for the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad, traveling to many towns in southwest Minnesota and northwest Iowa.
Don married Laura Ottinger of Valley City, N.D., in 1955, and the couple’s son David, was born the following year. Laura was an English teacher and the librarian at HLHS, and the young family continued to live in Heron Lake.
In 1962, Don became Heron Lake’s depot agent and was able to slice down his travel time for the next 10 years.
When the Heron Lake depot closed, Steen worked in Windom for several years before finishing up his 40-year railroad career as the depot agent in Worthington from 1977-1987.
That same year, he “reffed” his last high school basketball game — he worked some with Worthington native Gary Schimbeno in those later years — and eased into retirement.
“Don was always getting the top score on the test,” recalls Schimbeno, who farmed near Storden for several years and is now the insurance agent at the bank in Heron Lake. “I know one time, he was one of only two guys in the whole state that got 100 percent, while the rest of us were struggling just to pass it.”
While it has been nearly 27 years since Don Steen has had to get in his car to go to one of his jobs, he still drives every day — and not just up town to get the mail or to P & J’s Mini-Mart or the Heron Lake Grocery. Don and Laura still do quite a bit of traveling.
Summer trips to North Dakota are common, and the Steens just recently returned from a five-week journey to Florida.
“It was nice to get away from the cold for a while,” said Steen, who exercises daily with stretching and yoga routines, along with some light weightlifting. “But, there’s no place like home.”
Obviously, the lessons learned by his amazing school attendance record have served him well as Mr. Heron Lake maintains an active interest in the town where he has called home his entire life.