Generosity was Ufkin’s legacy
When I visited Virgil Ufkin in his room at the Minneota Manor in late December, it was just a few days before he would turn 100 years old.
“I've made it this far, I might as well go all the way,” he mused about his soon-to-be milestone. Ufkin's century mark was celebrated at the Manor on Dec. 27.
Many of his friends and family turned out for the occasion to share cake, coffee and stories. The kind-hearted and generous man that I got to know the past two years passed away on Jan. 4, just eight days after his 100th birthday. I met Ufkin in person six times in all. I wish it had been five hundred and six.
To me, Ufkin was what Bud Grant is to the Minnesota Vikings. What Sid Hartman is to the Minneapolis media.
Even though he grew up on a farm in Yellow Medicine County and graduated from Canby High School, Ufkin was Mr. Minneota to me. He was a longtime businessman in town who had to leave the Gambles Hardware business he had just bought in town in 1941 with his first wife Ruth to serve his country in World War II.
My first face-to-face meeting with Ufkin occurred in 2016 when I interviewed him for a story about his military life, which was as fascinating as any story I've had the fortune to write about. He was more concerned about my well-being that day than his own story, often asking if I wanted coffee or a cookie, if I was comfortable in my chair, or if the light was good at the kitchen table where we were seated.
Ufkin became a supply officer and was assigned to the Third Army’s 71st Division where the commanding officer was the legendary General George S. Patton. Ufkin told me how he found himself only a few feet away from Patton on several occasions, but didn’t realize the significance of the man until after the war.
When the war ended, Ufkin and his Infantry Division went inside of two of Adolf Hitler’s 10 homes/headquarters, including the Berghof in the Bavarian Alps, where Hitler spent more time during than World War II than anywhere else.
Hitler’s homes were hit hard by British aerial attacks and Ufkin’s 71st Division was ordered to check the buildings for any enemy soldiers hiding out.
Ufkin pulled out a photo showing him and other soldiers standing outside one of Hitler’s homes. Ufkin, who also served in the Korean War, would return to Minneota and ran his hardware business for 30-plus years before his son, Bill, took over.
“The people of Minneota have been so good to me,” Ufkin said.
After the article came out in the Feb. 3, 2016 issue of the Mascot, I got a call from Publisher Byron Higgin informing me that Ufkin had left a check for me and another for the Mascot to show his appreciation for telling his story.
Ufkin also called me on two separate occasions to say “thanks” for coming to Minneota from my home in Willmar to interview him. The second meeting was also at Ufkin’s home, just weeks before his second wife, Mary, would pass away.
Virgil had given me some information to read on my own time about his experiences in the war and I was returning them to him.
During that visit, Ufkin told how he had read in the Mascot about my then two-year-old granddaughter having liver cancer, and eventually a liver transplant, and insisted on giving a donation to her family to help defray medical expenses. Those who knew him were familiar with his generosity.
Not long ago, Ufkin donated $40,000 to the Minneota Public Schools for a scholarship fund. He also used to build lavish grandfather clocks in glass cases and donated three of them — one each to St. Edward’s Church, Hope Lutheran Church, and the American Legion — so they could auction them off to raise money.
And he was instrumental in funding and in founding the Minneota Community Swimming Pool, Minneota Manor and Countryside Golf Club started. “I just wanted to give something back to the community that has been so good to me,” he told me.
Ufkin was also a 63-year member of the Minneota Rotary Club, as well as a charter member of the Minneota/Taunton American Legion Post.
I ran into Ufkin and his daughter, Jean, during the past Boxelder Bug Days and visited with them for several minutes.
He mentioned how much he enjoyed getting outside to soak up the sun. The final three times I visited him were at the Manor when I was in the area.
Even though it was only six meetings with him, he made me feel like a lifelong friend.
And for that, I will be forever grateful.
Generosity isn’t taught. It’s a gift.
And Ufkin was Minneota’s gift.
Rest in peace, Virgil.
You will be missed.