Vinton has lost one of its most colorful, beloved personalities.
Dell Hanson, a long time Vinton farmer, businessman former county supervisor and state representative, died Monday, of complications cancer. He was 82.
My own favorite memories of Dell — whose wife Mona, is a distant relative on my Grandma Hazel (Hopper) Close’s side — are those of talking (and listening) to him at his implement shop Farmers Sales and Service, which was located just west of Hinkle Creek, between 3rd and 4th Streets. Dell decided to sell the business and tear down the shopt in 2011, a few years after it was flooded twice in 2008. Several people had for decades made a tradition of gathering in the front of the shop, where a few couches and chairs were lined up, for morning coffee and story-swapping.
Dell was always friendly to everyone, always joking, always full of laughter and farm analogies.
Everyone loved Dell. Friends. Neighbors. Customers. Fellow farmers. Members of Bethlehem Lutheran Church, where Dell was a long-time member and served in various volunteer roles, including occasionally singing. And even political opponents.
“That guy was packed with personality and lifted people just by being around,” said State Rep. Dawn Pettengill, a long-time friend as well as the opposing candidate who defeated Hanson, who had been the House of Representatives incumbent, in the 2004 election.
The best way for me to memorialize Dell is to share with you what I learned from a morning with him and his friends at Farmer Sales and Service, shortly before the building was demolished. Dell was about to sell everything he had used for decades at an auction, and was looking forward to whatever came next. He and several friends sat around a room at the front of the shop and talked and laughed for hours.
After sitting with them, I wrote this, on April 25, 2011:
The phone on the wall, behind the couch, rings once.
Dell Hanson reaches up to answer it.
“Farmers Sales,” he says.
“I will be in and out,” he says.
Another pause, as the customer (apparently) discusses what he needs, and the equipment problem he is trying to solve.
“Come on in and we’ll figure that out,” said Dell.
He hangs up the phone, surrounded by half a dozen men in overalls or jeans, and work boots, along with a woman sitting next to him, crocheting white baby blankets. None of them are his employees, although a few, at times, have been customers.
“Therapy,” he says. “A session at 10 O’clock.”
They all laugh.
He, of course, is joking.
But the customers of Farmers Sales and Service are used to jokes from the man who decorated his lounge with a flying pig; the guy whose business card offers the following services: “Wars fought, governments run, revolutions started, evictions served, marriages arranged, uprisings quelled, fortunes told, cities moved, skunks deodorized and tigers tamed (not to mention preaching and leading singing at revivals).”
The last one is not entirely untrue; Hanson, a member of the Bethlehem Lutheran Church, does at times sing at church functions.
And as a former member of the Benton County Board of Supervisors and the Iowa Legislature, some could argue that Dell, a Republican, has at times — for better or worse — at least attempted a metaphorical version of some of those other services listed on his card.
While “therapy” is not on the card, the business does have two couches and several chairs, where people come every day to sit and talk about their problems.
For a while on Friday, it was John Geater doing the talking. His problem: His calves refuse to suck, no matter what he does to try to get them to take their milk. Some of them have starved themselves to death. An area veterinarian, he says, has told him that other farmers have experienced the same thing.
Don Selken, another farmer sitting on another couch, makes suggestions. “Already tried that,” replies John, who has a simple explanation: “The calves are stupid,” he says.
“Maybe you need better bulls,” suggests Don.
A few in the small crowd laugh at this theory.
Soon the subject changes to reasons for the high price of sugar.
“Fareway has sugar on sale, with a coupon,” says the woman with the crocheting, Marge Mick. She saw several customers ahead of her using the coupons on Thursday.
Sugar is expensive, says Dell, because regulations have made it more difficult to raise sugar in the U.S., so it must be imported from South America.
Marge sits next to Dell on the couch near the phone. But she knows she can’t stay there long; she is sitting in Don Burmeister’s usual seat.
But when Marge arrives at Farmers Sales with her husband, Dave, she brings good news: The waitresses at 218 have addressed the rumors of changes at the business. The cafe is not closing, but the owners are opening a new restaurant in New Hampton.
The news is well-received. “There are not many places to eat here,” says one of the men.
Nor, many places to drink coffee early in the morning.
Farmers Sales & Service is a rarity these days, a business where people come simply to socialize.
But soon, it, too, will be gone. After seeing his place inundated with water from Hinkle Creek twice in one month in 2008, Dell thought about it for a couple of years. This spring, he decided to take up the city, and the federal government, on their flood buyout offer. Soon the property that is home to the office, the morning meeting room and a large shop area will become a “green space.” An auctioneer will sell what can be sold; bulldozers await what can’t.
But for the next few months, the conversations will continue from the couches and the chairs at Farmers Sales.
“Make sure you say in your story that we need a new place to meet,” says Larry Thiher.
Dressed in overalls, well-worn work shoes and a Coots Materials cap, Larry looks like a farmer from rural Iowa. He does not at all look like a basketball camp organizer who lives half of the year near in Phoenix, Ariz., where his son, Lee, runs a basketball camp.
But he is.
“Twelve of our guys have made it to the NBA,” he says. Two of them are this week hoping to lead their team through the playoffs to the NBA finals, where they met a year ago: Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett.
Larry talks about how after high school he became a basketball ref. Then when his kids needed a coach for their team, he got into coaching. He also talks about his 12-year effort to build a device that helps basketball players improve their shooting by counting the shots made and returning the ball. That project, he said, is still in progress.
Larry announces that he has a check for “Stuffy” — Kent Stufflebeam, who leads a group of local basketball lovers who sponsors the Vinton Merchants in the Prime Time League. Last year another big name played on that team: UNI star Ali Farokhmanesh, whose 3-point shots led his team to victory over top-seeded Kansas in the 2010 NCAA tournament.
Larry asks for an envelope for the check; Dell finds a used one. The check goes in the envelope; the envelope goes on the counter.
The Micks are “snowbirds,” too. The white blankets Marge is crocheting will be for babies baptized at their church in Arizona. She tells about a man there who also makes small furniture for the newest members of that church.
“They have lots of babies down there,” says Dave, referring to a statistic the U.S. Census confirmed last year: Hispanic families have more children than caucasian families.
Another Arizona reference comes up during Friday’s conversation.
“How’s Joe?” asks Dell.
“He’s fine,” replies Larry, adding that Joe is still handling criticism of his views of illegal immigration.
“Joe” is Joe Arpiao, the famous county sheriff known for his prison tent camps and tough position on illegal immigration.
Larry’s other job in Arizona has taken him to the place where Arpiao has become famous. He has done some work for the sheriff at his prison tent camp. Dell has been there, too, and has met the famous lawman.
The conversation, although at times almost drowned out by the sound of Dell’s son, Ken, cutting metal in the shop area, continues. Don Burmiester arrives; Marge gets up to let him have his customary seat. John Geater leaves. Rick Happel, too. A second woman arrives: Sharon Koopman. Delbert, who has been quiet most of the morning, says hello to his wife. She says she is going to Fareway, but nobody mentions the sale on sugar.
Dell’s wife, Mona, soon arrives and begins working. She picks up the envelope with the basketball check. Someone has to explain.
Mona had joked earlier that the people there must spend the night there, because the same ones from the day before were all there again.
Someone asks LeRoy Deutsch about his part-time work: Building playhouses. He said he recently received a request via phone, and will soon begin working on another project.
I ask the group what happened during the two years Dell was in Des Moines, serving in the Iowa Legislature from January through April.
“That was before our time,” says Marge.
Someone asks Dell what years he was in Des Moines. Not quite sure, he goes to his office and returns with the legislative directory that answers the question: 2003 and 2004. “Has it really been that long?” he asks.
The morning coffee meetings, he said, did not take place while he was in Des Moines.
Conversation turns back to the future.
“I may have to get a real job,” says Dell. Or, he says, he may become a greeter at Wal-Mart. He talks about future trips Mona has planned, and their last trip, where in Florida he left his hat in the car and got a sunburn on his head.
Larry speaks again, this time about age. His father died a few years ago; his mother is alive and well at 87. The doctor, however, is trying to get his mom to stop eating bacon and doughnuts.
But, he explains, someone who has lived to be 87 eating bacon and doughnuts is not going to appreciate being told to change her eating habits now.
The others concur on the aging issue.
“I call us Baby Gloomers,” he says. “There ain’t no ‘Boom’ left.”
They speak again about the future of their gatherings; someone suggests they meet at Dell’s farm. Someone else says he needs to add more parking space there. Someone else suggests the car wash across the street, adding that they’d have to get up every time a car came through.
“I suppose I should get to work,” says Dell.
He eventually does, but not before repeating that sentence several times.
The room slowly empties, but until the bulldozers show up, it will be regularly full of people, conversation and laughter.
* * * * * * * *
Now, 6 years later, as I look back on the 14 years I have known Dell, I can safely predict that visitation this Friday, and the funeral service this Saturday morning, will also be full of people, conversation and laughter, as well as countless stories about Dell, and memories of the many they remember him telling.
See his obituary HERE.