LUVERNE - Few things in this world bring greater joy than sharing a smile, a hug, a kind word or a good belly laugh. It keeps you young, it’s good for the heart and it does wonders for the soul.
For Rodger and Dianne Ossenfort, the same thing can be said for the volunteer work they do in their hometown of Luverne. They’re quick to admit that while they get to bring joy to others, it’s also brought joy to them.
Take, for instance, their roles as Santa and Mrs. Claus. Rodger has portrayed the jolly St. Nick for 30 years in both Hardwick and Luverne, while Dianne has donned Mrs. Claus’ red gown since 1989.
“I always worry from year to year if my dress is going to fit,” Dianne admits with wide eyes and a hearty laugh.
They are the most popular guests at Luverne’s annual Winterfest celebration in early December, as the children line up to sit on Santa’s lap and get a friendly greeting from the missus.
Between the two of them - Rodger grew up in Luverne and Dianne in Hardwick - they can connect some of the children with their older generations. It helps the kids feel at ease if Santa knows their grandparents or their parents, noted Dianne.
Portraying Santa and Mrs. Claus has brought the Ossenforts many laughs and special memories. One of their favorite stories is of the time a little guy - now in college - sat on Santa’s lap and asked for a tractor.
“We knew he was from Hardwick and was from a farm,” Dianne shared. “So Santa asked if he wanted a red one or a green one. He burst out in tears saying, ‘I just want a tractor!’ His heart was beating so fast.”
In another instance, Rodger mentioned to one little girl her home on Brown Street.
“She turned to her mom and said, ‘Mom! He knows where we live!’” Dianne said with a laugh.
It isn’t just the young children that appreciate Santa’s visit.
The Ossenforts make an annual trek to all of the nursing homes in the area - Hills, Edgerton, Jasper, Ellsworth and of course, Luverne - where they visit Hardwick natives and deliver them a sack of candy.
“I think (visiting) the nursing homes is very rewarding - their eyes get as big as the little ones,” Rodger said.
“In Hardwick, Santa goes to all of the homes of the widowed folks and brings them candy,” added Dianne. “This last year we had 11 stops.”
As Santa and Mrs. Claus, they make the rounds in downtown Luverne each December, greeting shoppers and business owners along Main Street. They are also frequent guests in private homes as families celebrate Christmas and seek a visit from the big guy himself.
“They lay gifts out that are for the kids,” Dianne said. “That’s just wonderful - we’ve visited a lot of homes over the years.”
The Ossenforts say it’s a toss-up as to who is more excited to see Santa - the children or the older folks.
“It just kind of warms your heart on both ends, old and young,” Dianne shared. “It just gives you a wonderful feeling that you can do something by such little effort. The people just appreciate it so much. It’s just a fun feeling.”
Rodger and Dianne have made it their mission in retirement to help out in their community, whether it’s logging many hours as Santa and Mrs. Claus, or volunteering two or three nights a week at the historic Palace Theatre in downtown Luverne.
Without people willing to fill the roles of volunteers, they fear some things wouldn’t get done.
“I just think community service ties you into so many different kinds of people and it’s just good for the soul,” Dianne said. “I just feel that this town has been so good to us. We’ve been able to raise our boys here; they got a great education here - they had an opportunity to dabble and do things.
“It’s a great place to call home,” she added.
Dianne is currently president of the Blue Mound Area Theatre (BMAT) Board and calls Rodger her faithful right hand. The 13-member, all-volunteer board oversees all activities at the Palace, from movies to concerts to theater productions and everything in between.
“Everytime I’m down there working, Rodger is down there,” said Dianne, adding that Palace activities have them serving up popcorn or helping behind the scenes at least once a week and every weekend.
“With this group (of board members), we do all the maintenance, cleaning, stocking of candy, making popcorn - you wear a lot of hats down there,” Dianne said.
The Ossenforts have been volunteering with the Palace Theatre for the past 15 years.
“If it was going to be open, it had to be volunteer (operated),” Rodger shared.
“They say Rodger is the best popcorn maker of anybody,” added Dianne with a grin.
She also serves as president of the Green Earth Players board, which works closely with BMAT to bring plays to the Palace.
Rodger helps her with her GEP responsibilities as well, although he says, “A lot of this I just go along for the ride.” Some days, he just wants to sit in his recliner at home.
Rodger and Dianne met while attending Luverne High School. Dianne had completed school through the eighth grade in Hardwick and, like so many of her classmates, finished her schooling in the larger Luverne district.
“We were high school sweethearts,” Dianne shared.
After high school, Rodger worked for Iowa Beef Processors (IBP) in Luverne until he was drafted by the Army and sent to Vietnam in 1969-70. Dianne went to work for Bell Telephone in Luverne.
They wrote letters back and forth while he was away, and then married in 1972 before moving to Texas. They spent four years in the southern state before locating to Kansas for six years.
Then, with two young sons, Matthew and Monti, the Ossenforts decided to move back home to Luverne.
“We thought it was time for the boys to grow up by their grandparents,” Dianne said. “It was a great move - it was a wonderful move for us.”
Rodger transferred back to IBP, where he remained until the plant closed in 1998. Then, after applying to hog processing plants in Worthington and Sioux Falls, S.D., Rodger accepted a position in management with John Morrell.
“Sioux Falls was the first one that offered me the job,” he said, adding that he retired in September 2014.
His retirement, however, lasted just six months. He needed something to occupy his time, and the plant manager at John Morrell coaxed him into returning to work for 20-30 hours a week doing special projects. He continues the part-time work yet today.
Dianne, meanwhile, stayed with Bell Telephone until their first child was born, working her way up from telephone operator to supervisor. She then became a stay-at-home mom and devoted time to volunteering.
In addition to the volunteer work they do together, Dianne also serves on the board of directors for Rock County’s Red Arrow campaign, the Luverne Aquatic Center board of directors, is a member of the Bookin’ Buddies at Luverne Elementary School and was recently asked to serve on the Luverne Street Music board of directors.
“I have no musical ability; I oversee the building and take care of it and oversee some of the cleaning there,” Dianne shared. “I told them I can sing while I clean if there’s no one there.”
“I keep telling her she should back off, but she gets more (involved),” noted Rodger.
He, meanwhile, volunteers with the Honor Guard through the Luverne VFW and American Legion.
“It’s a great feeling to go out there and honor your fellow veterans,” he said, adding that he participates in many of the military funerals and volunteers at the Minnesota Veterans Home in Luverne.
The Ossenforts are also assisting with the planning for Hardwick’s quasquicentennial this summer, as well as Luverne’s sesquicentennial celebration.
Aside from their volunteer efforts, the Ossenforts enjoy spending time with their grandchildren - Jackson, 13, and Connor, 10, of Omaha, Neb., and Emery, 5, and Finley, 2, of Boston, Mass. They are expecting their fifth grandchild, a girl, in April.