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About 30 years ago, when I was a staff writer for the Morris Sun Tribune, editor Steve Lang assigned me to write a story about a Morris resident who had an extraordinary collection of cream separators. I didn't know what a cream separator was then and I'm not sure I know much more about them now.

A few years later, when I learned how to can dill pickles and finding dill was a challenge, someone mentioned that a Morris woman grew dill and might possibly sell me some. Ironically, I returned to the same home at which I had interviewed the collector of the cream separators. His wife wouldn't sell me the dill, but rather generously filled a bag -- more than enough to can a batch of dill pickles -- and gave it to me.

My life has come full circle in a lot of ways and I'm again writing an occasional story for the Morris Sun Tribune. I'm fortunate to talk again to the person who had that collection of cream separators; an extraordinary man who I'm sure believes he's quite ordinary: Walter "Slim" Hokanson.

For a gentleman at the youthful age of 99, Hokanson can run circles around those many years his junior. What your mother told you is true: the key to longevity, according to Hokanson, is "no alcohol, no tobacco, no coffee and plenty of exercise."

His life and welcome to it

Walter "Slim" Hokanson was born on April 9, 1910--"not 1810," Hokanson quipped with a grin. He grew up on a farm south of Evansville. There were four children: a sister was the oldest, one brother, and another sister who died in infancy.

"My brother will be 98 in December," shared Hokanson.

The nickname "Slim" was given to him early on, said Hokanson. "I must've been slim at one time."

In 1927 Hokanson came to Morris to attend the West Central School (WCSA) and Station (WCES) from which he graduated in 1930. He went to work for the Station (now the West Central Research and Outreach Center) the day following his graduation. He worked with livestock until, only two months later, he was named acting herdsman, "in charge of everything except the horses." As the WCES and its livestock expanded and herdsmen were hired in each livestock area, Hokanson assumed the dairy herdsman job.

Four years after he graduated from the WCSA and began working for the WCES, Hokanson married Lily Anderson. Lily, who taught elementary school in Cyrus, passed away in November four years ago. The Hokansons have four children, 18 grandchildren, 30 great-grandchildren and one great-great grandson.

Hokanson joined the National Guard in the '30s.

"We met every Monday night [for two hours], for which we received $1 per meeting," he said. "In 1940 I was commissioned a second lieutenant and expected to be called to active duty. But my job on the home front was considered important, so I was not called."

Following his retirement from the WCES 34 years ago, Hokanson became a part-time beekeeper. "I had no experience, but learned from outsiders and by reading."

He's also a Master Gardener. "I've raised and sold a lot of trees," he said. He's flown in a jet, been to Hawaii twice and, around 1977, took a 30-day bus trip to all parts of the U.S. "In those days you bought a ticket and you could get on and off (the bus) anytime."

Walking miles

in his shoes

Hokanson has been a familiar figure walking along 7th Street in Morris over the years. One day while walking on [the Morris] campus, "I saw track girls running by. I thought 'if they can run so can I.'" He ran in his first 10-kilometer race when he was 72. On his 75th birthday he ran 7-1/2 miles.

He's competed in races throughout west central Minnesota and spent 10 days biking in the Black Hills, among other treks. He rode annually for about six years in the well-publicized Jim Klobuchar bike tour; his participation was featured by Klobuchar in the former Minneapolis Star Tribune writer's newspaper column.

Hokanson still walks around the complex where he lives--"2.2 miles a day"--using his walker. He hasn't missed a day in over seven months. How does Hokanson know it's 2.2 miles? "I measured it with a tape measure. Five times around equals a mile. I make 10 trips a day." He also attends an exercise class in the common area of his apartment building twice a week.

And he keeps good track records: "On July 4, 2008, I made 40 trips around for 8.6 miles."

The cream separator collection

Hokanson had accumulated over 200 cream separators when he sold them at auction in 2004. His interest in the collection was a natural given his job in the WCES dairy barn.

"The top price for a cream separator at my sale was $1,600," shared Hokanson. "A buyer from Florida bought 16 separators. Thirty-seven newer stainless ones were exported to Latin America and one large creamery model went to Guatemala."

Living history

"When I came to West Central School, room and board was $21 a month. I worked in the dairy barn between my junior and senior years.

"We lived on campus all my working years plus my three terms in the classroom for a total of 47 years, eight months. My starting wage was $45 a month plus room and board, a good salary in those days.

"When I got married in 1934 we had two rooms on the third floor of the dining hall at $10 a month. Then we moved to the Farm House, located in the vacant area directly west of the dairy barn. There were six bedrooms upstairs and two bedrooms down on the main floor. Later, the house was moved to a new location south of the dairy barn. After I retired the house was torn down.

"People in town used to buy dairy products directly from the WCES' own barn. They'd bring their own containers to fill with milk. We'd also deliver directly to the coolers in the WCSA Dining Hall (now Behmler Hall). Prices were five cents a quart; in 1940 they went to seven cents a quart. There wasn't refrigeration in those days. There was an icehouse located by the heating plant. An ice wagon would be driven around campus to put ice in coolers, like those at the Dining Hall."

Hokanson served under six of the seven WCSA and WCES superintendents--Paul E. Miller (1917-1937), Theodore H. Fenske (1938-1947), Allen W. Edson (1947-1958), Herbert G. Croom (Acting, 1958-1959), Rodney A. Briggs (1959-1961) and Ralph E. Smith (1961-1963).

One son and two great grandsons have attended the Morris campus. Of the current campus, said Hokanson, "I think [that UMM] is doing a great job."

These days, in addition to his walking routine, Hokanson continues to read, watch the news--"I like to know what's going on"--and enjoys living in Morris. His faith plays a significant role in his life. He prays a lot and reads the Bible.

"I've been richly blessed," he said.