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Les Knutson: A great neighbor who cared so much for his community

HERON LAKE — It was with great sadness on Thursday afternoon when I learned that my next-door neighbor, Don Steen, had passed away Wednesday evening at the Good Samaritan Center in Westbrook.

The last time I visited Don — on June 23 — he seemed upbeat and was positive he was improving and would be coming home in two weeks.

Unfortunately, that didn’t happen and, after 80 days in the nursing home, Mr. Heron Lake died on July 18 after dealing with the complications of congestive heart failure.

I wrote a story about Don for this paper’s Annual Report in March 2014 and dubbed him as Mr. Heron Lake because he was always so amazingly loyal and dedicated to his community, where he lived his entire life.

Don celebrated his 90th birthday at the Heron Lake Community Center in November 2014 and would have been 94 in another four months. He had a great long life, no doubt about it.

He grew up in Heron Lake as the third son of Henry and Theresia (Dobereiner) Steen, who had been farming southeast of Westbrook until Henry’s paralysis, due to polio, forced the family to move into town. For years, Henry operated a shoe repair and harness binding store in Heron Lake.

Don’s older brothers — twins Reinhold and Harold — were nine years older and became very good baseball pitchers. Rein was a lefty, and Harold tossed right-handed.

A modest man, Don told me he was “too slow” for most positions, so he became a catcher. He caught for both brothers in area “Town Team” baseball action. He also spent time behind the plate for area legends like Lakefield’s Stan King and Worthington’s Duane “Lefty” Krohn during the 1940s.

An amazing fact about Don Steen is that he never missed a single day of school. That’s right. He never missed one day in 12 years, first grade through 12th. He graduated from Heron Lake High School in 1942, with the second-best grades among 32 students. He continued working in his dad’s harness shop, while finding time to play baseball in the summer.

During the final two years of World War II, Don taught physical education at Heron Lake High and also coached the Falcon football and basketball teams.

“One of those seasons, I had 27 players out for basketball and we had only three balls — one new, one old and one with re-stitched laces,” he told me when I wrote his “story” for the Annual Report in March 2014.

That’s what so difficult about writing this piece this time. I don’t have Don to help me.

A mentor to both my brother and myself; a man with many ideas

I knew Don before Cheryl and I moved in next to the Steens (Don, Laurie and David) in August 1975. My dad, Lowell, was a friend of his, and my older brother, Dane, had played summer baseball for Steen.

“Don Steen was my American Legion baseball coach all through my high school years,” remembers Dane. “He was the best coach I ever had. He was a stickler for fundamentals and could be very intense and quite demanding. He expected hustle, and he expected effort. On the flip side, he was always positive and encouraging. When you made an error or struck out, Don’s favorite response was ‘keep your dobber up!’”

After playing for Steen, Dane — who is now a retired school counselor and lives in Sioux Falls — coached with him in Heron Lake for a couple of years (1966 and 1967) and credits Don for continuing to steer him in the right direction.

“After working with him, Don became sort of a life mentor to me, influencing and supporting my own pursuit of a teaching and coaching career. It was obvious that he believed in me — and that meant the world to me at that time in my life.”

That certainly held true for me as Don’s neighbor. He gave me lots of support and encouragement during my coaching years, even some advice, including what I dubbed as the “Don Steen Defense” — with three players going man-to-man, one player chasing the ball and one player guarding the lane and not allowing a layup. Over the years, we utilized that combination “gadget” defense a few times, and it was fun for the kids to play.

Don also contributed so many times with “Blast From the Past” features. He remembered lots of details and must have helped me out with at least a dozen “blasts,” including stories on Warren Gentry and Duane Krohn, both of whom were nicknamed “Lefty.”

A true “ramrod,” Don was always busy and he always had ideas.

Heron Lake hosted a Centennial Celebration in July 1983. And, oh, what a grand celebration it was. Don Steen was the driving force behind that memorable three-day event, coaxing people to help organize a wide variety of activities, which all blended together and brought folks back to Heron Lake. It was indeed a great time for our community.

In the March 2014 feature, Don was pictured in the front row of a photograph of the 1953 Heron Lake Lakers “Town Team” basketball squad, which played 46 games that winter (winning 39 of them). He was a big part of that team during its formative years.

Another thing was Don’s long tenure as a high school football and basketball referee.

While working full time as a railroad depot agent, Don spent many evenings traveling to area high schools as a game official. A stickler to details and proper application of the rules, he took his job seriously and was well known for his frequent ability to get 100 percent on the annual rules test.

“He was always getting the top score on that test,” remembers Worthington native Gary Schimbeno, who now works as an insurance agent at the bank in Heron Lake and refereed some games with Steen. “Don was a great official who really knew his stuff.”

Don married HLHS English teacher Laura Ottinger in 1955 and their son, David, graduated from HLHS in 1974. David, who lives and works in Minneapolis, was with me at Good Samaritan in Westbrook when I last had a chance to visit with Don.

There were tears in Don’s eyes that day when I said goodbye, and there were tears in mine on Thursday when I heard he had passed. Looking back, I never realized how lucky I was to have a great neighbor like him living right next door.

I know I will miss his frequent visits, his encouragement, his advice — and the treats that he often brought over, including various good things from his garden, just one of his many talents.

Heron Lake will miss Don Steen, that’s for sure. But as he would say, “keep your dobber up.”