Friends remembered a prominent Brainerd area businessman as a man with an uncanny vision and a desire to quietly help people.
John Thelen, 69, Nisswa, died Thursday at St. Joseph's Medical Center in Brainerd after a long illness. He may be most widely known for the company that bears his family name -- Thelen Heating and Roofing in southeast Brainerd. But Thelen was also an integral part of the development of Brainerd and Baxter. He was involved in the Bonanza restaurant industry in Brainerd, South Dakota and Iowa and heavily involved in real estate throughout the years.
Thelen came to Brainerd in 1958 from St. Cloud. He purchased a sheet metal business from Barney Houle. His business was incorporated in 1965 and grew from there. Longtime friend, Dell Howard, Nisswa, met Thelen when he first came to the city. Howard said when they first started jogging on the river road, Thelen always lagged behind.
"Before three months were up, he was ahead of us," Howard said. "When he decided to do something, he did it."
When a young high school senior who lived on the edge of town was strapped for money, Howard went to Thelen and the student's graduation pictures were paid for anonymously.
"He was a good businessman and helped a lot of people out without a lot of fanfare," Howard said. "He did things on the quiet like that when anyone needed anything. ... He had a lot of vision. He could see a lot of things -- buying property mostly. He had a kind of an inner sense on that. He was sharp. He was just a good guy and helped a lot of people and built a successful business, that's for sure."
Thelen was also remembered as a man who was good to his employees.
Gladys Hansen worked for Thelen for 23 years. "Mr. Thelen was a great person to work for. ... He had a personal tie with his employees and treated everyone very well. And in turn, his employees had a high respect for him. We were just like family."
Business associate of 20 years and friend Kevin Close remembered Thelen as a man of his word who liked to do business on his word and with a personal handshake.
"He didn't like all the big documents that are kind of required today," Close said, noting Thelen also kept his good deeds to himself. "He was just a good friend and was there to help and a good businessman. He really did see the Baxter strip long before most people. ... He really believed in this area and that it was going to continue to grow and he invested a lot. He was a real visionary."
Chuck Albrecht, Brainerd Lakes Area Chambers of Commerce chairman, said Thelen was a highly regarded member of the business community.
"John was always, a behind the scenes, not drawing attention to himself, promoter of the development within our area, as well as a supporter of community projects. John was a mentor to many members of the business community and he will be greatly missed."
But most of all family and friends spoke of Thelen's quiet generosity.
"When no one else would lend a hand dad would be there and only ask for friendship in return," said son Mike Thelen. "A lot of people would need a hand or a favor. He'd always lend his hand to anybody. When nobody else was there for you my Dad was. He helped thousands of people that way. He had a heart of gold."
Father of seven children, Thelen was also active in the greater area community. He was an active member of St. Christopher's Catholic Church in Nisswa. He served on the board of directors of CreditAmerica Savings, Consolidated Telephone and Pumpco. He was a member of the Knights of Columbus, the Elks, Moose and American Legion. He was also an Army veteran.
Funeral services will be 10 a.m. Monday at St. Christopher's Catholic Church in Nisswa.
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