"Give your givin' while you're livin', then you're knowin' where it's goin."
This suggestion from a church official is one of the sayings which Phil Hess has kept in mind as he and his wife, Sharline, have shared the fruits of their success with others, including the Thief River Falls Education Foundation. It is also a suggestion they believe others could heed as they consider various ways of best using their resources.
"Education is everything," is the way Hess succinctly sums up his interest in assisting young people in getting a strong foundation for the future during their formative years. "Elementary school, junior high school, senior high school-- those are where students explore their interests, learn their values and develop the character that will go far in determining the success they have in higher education and their entire future lives," he added.
Phil, who was involved in the Thief River Falls retail community for nearly half a century, has an abiding appreciation for a group of high quality teachers who guided his own education, especially at Lincoln high school, where he graduated in the Class of 1942. "Miss Greenland, Blanche Larson, Mrs. Korstad, Clarence Pope, Dr. Mayer-Oakes, Bill Claffy..." the names of dedicated educators spring clearly from his memory.
"Morris Bye was the superintendent when we moved into what was then the new Lincoln high school," he added. "I was a junior and remember how proud we were of that new building with its huge gymnasium and real theater. Both of those facilities have served the public well for more than 60 years and are a tribute to the sacrifice and foresight of our parents and others who designed and built them. Now we have to carry on our part of the load.
"Those educators from my day all gave a lot of themselves to their students," he said, "and I was fortunate to be one of them. Largely because of their guidance and example, I was able to enjoy a certain amount of success in life. Now I have an opportunity to honor them by sharing to some extent in the interest they had in creating better lives for their students."
While Hess properly credits his teachers for their influence in his life, his work ethic and determination were instilled in earlier years. He moved to Thief River Falls with his parents at the age of two, and years later was self-employed shining shoes at Syvert Benson's barber shop. Even at the going rate of 15 cents
per shine, there were some days he did no business, but he persevered and on a good Saturday he could earn up to four to five dollars--big money for a little guy.
Phil's "shining" success didn't come without its costs, however. As "rent" for having his business in the barber shop, he had the janitorial responsibility of keeping the shop clean, including sweeping and scrubbing the floor, washing the windows, sweeping sidewalks and cleaning spittoons.
After graduating from Lincoln, he enrolled at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, but attended only one semester before enlisting in the U.S. Air Force during World War II, where he served for three years. Following his military service, and having worked in retail for Al Purdy at his clothing store and Roy Oen at his department store, he decided that what he really wanted to do was to get into the jewelry business.
"While I had been sitting at the shoe shine stand, I would see the big, black, expensive cars pull up in front of Elofson's Jewelers and the salesmen go in with their cases," he said, "and I thought there must be something worthwhile going on there. I needed 8,000 hours of experience and training to become a certified watchmaker, so I went to work for Harold Elofson and began learning on the job."
Later, Hess went to Denver, Colorado, for watch making school, and returned in 1950 with not only his graduation certificate and his license, but his new bride, the former Sharline Rasmussen of Denver. He continued to work for Elofson until 1951, when he and his employer partnered in starting The Jewel Box in a small space in the Falls Theatre building on LaBree Avenue. Two years later he bought out Elofson's interest in the store, and in 1959 he purchased the former Elofson Jewelry from Bill Watzke, who had bought it after Elofson's death.
"We moved the business into the store on Third Street and in 1964 we doubled its size," Phil said. It continued to be his place of operation until he closed it out in 1990 and retired. Three years ago the Hesses built and moved in to a new home in the Park Rapids area, so Phil and Sharline could be near their son Jeff and Phil could increase his work at Northern Pines United Methodist Camp, the church-owned camp which he has adopted as one of his retirement projects. His current efforts are aimed at restoring an A-frame chapel which he and other volunteers built in the 1950s.
"I considered it a privilege to attend the same church (United Methodist) in Thief River Falls as L. B. Hartz, Lowell Swenson and Orin Green, several of the people who, I felt, were not only successful businessmen but extremely generous in giving back to their community," Phil said. "They were great
examples and I watched and learned from them. And they were part of what I believe to be one of the greatest giving towns in number of benevolent people that there is anywhere."
Over the years, Hess served nearly all of the offices he could serve in his church, as well as being active in the Jaycees, Chamber of Commerce and Lions Club. He was a charter member of the Northland Community College Foundation and headed its formation with President Alex Easton. "We wanted to raise $100,000 from charter members at $1,000 each, and we raised about $80,000," he recalls. "Just recently that foundation paid out about $80,000 in one round off scholarships and grants, thanks to the support it has received."
Phil and Sharline's four children all graduated form Lincoln high school and their daughter Cynthia graduated from Northwestern College in Roseville before becoming a medical secretary. She now lives on a wheat farm at Richey, Montana. Their three sons - Steve, Jeff and Peter - all attended Northland college in Thief River Falls. Steve graduated from the Minnesota School of Business and worked in the local store for 10 years before starting and operating The Jewel Box in Grand Forks for a number of years. Now retired, he has purchased a small ranch at Ryegate, Montana and raises Arabian horses.
Jeff graduated from St. Olaf College in Northfield and worked at the store for six years. He is employed by an Amish furniture retail store at Park Rapids, Minnesota. Peter graduated from Moorhead State University (now the University of Minnesota, Moorhead) and worked at the store a short time before opening his own jewelry store and becoming internationally recognized through his nine years with the Gemological Institute of America. He died tragically in 2002 of a blood clot while recovering in the hospital from injuries suffered in a fall from a ladder at his home near San Juan Capistrano in California.
"I consider myself a religious person," Hess said, "and I believe God has a purpose for all of us. He has blessed me in a way that has allowed me to share some of those blessings, and I have enjoyed being able to give back to my home community and the future of some of its young people. I encourage all those who are able to share to any extent to do so as best they can. What better way is there to invest in tomorrow than to help positively influence our children of today?"
~ Article Written by Marvin Lundin