At times in my life I’ve tried to be aware of — and to repay — old debts: writing a letter to a college professor who empowered me, taking a longtime friend who can no longer drive to the grocery store, visiting a former neighbor who lost his wife of 60 years.
But I’m a piker when compared to Les Heggernes, who repaid a debt he felt he owed that dates back to 1939.
Heggernes, who today lives at Boutwells Landing in Oak Park Heights, remembers going to the Union Gospel Mission’s Ober Boys Club when he was 14 years old. At the time, he lived near the State Capitol in St. Paul.
“I grew up in a tough neighborhood,” he said. “We didn’t have much money, and it would have been easy to go down the wrong path. But I went over to the Gospel Mission and met a counselor to whom I could confess anything. He was like a surrogate father and I never forgot him or the mission.”
The Gospel Mission is still serving youth today, providing homework assistance, day camps and classes at the Ober Community Center, while also helping adults rebuild their lives by offering safe shelter, nutritious food, medical/dental care and other programs, too.
When Heggernes saw a video and learned of the mission’s requirement that residents take a daily shower, he figured they could use soap and toiletries. Since March of 2018, Heggernes — with a little marketing help from his son, Mike Heggernes — collected almost half a ton of supplies from fellow Boutwells residents.
Each month the pair would bring to the mission their Boutwells Beautiful Bath Baskets (soap, shampoo, deodorant and even bath towels), which filled the trunk and back seat of the car, according to Mike Heggernes.
“If other people were showing the same empathy and enthusiasm as my father, this world would be a little better,” he said. “He is an inspiration and I hope we can continue doing this into the future. It’s a reflection and reminder there are a lot of great people still doing what’s right.”
What’s right for Les Heggernes is having a plan and a purpose.
“You know, this is something positive for me to do,” he said. “I don’t want to be sitting around drinking beer and watching daytime television.”
That makes LeNae Williamson, development manager at the Union Gospel Mission, very happy.
“People on the streets may not have had a hot shower for many days or even weeks,” she said. “Getting clean, smelling good, putting on clean and dry clothes can all do amazing things for how a person feels, both inside and out.”
Heggernes and his son made one more amazing effort for the Gospel Mission. On Oct. 16 last year, Heggernes orchestrated the collection of 1,635 bars of soap from residents of Boutwells Landing, a senior living community.
Residents were delighted to donate, dropping off their soap bars with smiles on their faces. They figure it ought to go down as an unofficial world record.
“Everyone seemed to benefit from the experience,” Mike Heggernes wrote in a report about the soap drive. “Residents increased their sense of community by participating in a worthwhile event. The Gospel Mission supported this effort by supplying the barrel and then retrieving the full barrel and overflowing boxes.”
Boutwells employees were encouraging and supportive.
“The unintended negative consequence was the potent fragrance (from the soap) that filled the air in the lobby,” Mike Heggernes wrote. Eventually, the perfume drove “the welcome desk person to vanish as the smell grew proportionally to the pile of soap.”
For me, the inspiration from the Heggernes bath basket brigade is the partnership between father and son. I suspect the two have never felt closer, and that’s enabled Les Heggernes to not only stay in the game, but to also round the bases. Not too bad for a guy who’s
94 years old.
Learn more about Boutwells Landing at preshomes.org.
Dave Nimmer had a long career as a reporter, editor and professor. Now retired, he has no business card, but plenty to do. Write him at [email protected].