His spirit lives on

Published 9:55 am Thursday, May 7, 2009

The man is gone, but his spirit lives on.

“As you go around the Southland school district, there’s plenty of evidence Jerry’s spirit is with us,” Larry Tompkins told a crowd at Wednesday’s Gerald A. Wellik memorial dedication at Southland Elementary School.

That spirit the former Southland superintendent of schools mentioned is tangible — the Wellik Fitness Center at the Adams public school — and intangible — the benefactor’s hopes for this year’s recipients of the Wellik scholarships in the 2009 graduating class.

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“He never forgot where his roots came from,” said Betty Rabine, a classmate of Wellik’s at Elkton Public Schools.

“He wanted to be sure youths in the rural areas had the same opportunities others had,” said Tompkins. “After he attended Southland commencements, he would also attend the open house graduation parties with his wife, Peg. He got to know the graduates’ families.”

“Then, he got students summer jobs at his LSI Corporation so they could work their way through college,” he said.

“Southland was a big part of who my dad was,” acknowledged Jamie Wellik, son of the honoree.

The Southland school district includes the communities of Dexter, Elkton, Adams and Rose Creek and the rural areas.

Wellik was a native of Elkton and a graduate of the public high school there in 1950. He died of cancer Sept. 30, 2007.

Wellik founded LSI Corporation of America, which manufactured plastic-laminated cabinets and shelves used in hospitals and schools.

He embraced technology early on in his business career, sent employees to Germany and Italy to study with the best toolmakers and pushed his cabinets and shelves to become the industry’s standard bearer.

As a sideline, Wellik was an accomplished Trans Am race car driver.

At the time of his death, he was retired and he and his wife, Peg, enjoyed life at their Gulf Lake home, where they hosted reunions of the Elkton class of 1950.

Steve Sallee, Southland’s superintendent of public schools, invited guests to Wednesday’s dedication and spring mini-concert by directed by Laura Freund.

Sallee, completing his first year as superintendent, said Wellik’s influence extended to the district’s athletic complex at Adams and media center, science lab and other classrooms as well as the fitness center which opened in 2004.

By conservative estimates, Wellik’s gifts to education totaled in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Kim Bruggeman, chairperson, presented Jamie Wellik with a gift from the Southland Board of Education and expressed the district’s appreciation to the Wellik family for the generous gifts and endowed scholarships to graduating seniors.

“He came to me with that idea,” Tompkins said of his first meeting with Wellik in 1987. “He was raised in the Elkton area on a farm and had a real belief in rural youth and rural communities that grew over the years.”

Wellik also endowed scholarships in the Grand Meadow school district in honor of his late-father, Anton, but did more for the Southland district, where his annual scholarships are the largest given out by the district.

Elkton graduating classmates donated a tree and a sign to commemorate the man’s generosity. They are displayed on the front lawn at Southland Elementary School.

Wellik classmate, Rabine, was joined by two other classmates from the Elkton class of 1950: Victor Pinke, Clear Lake, Iowa, and Carol Kraft Hamilton, Stewartville.

“In high school we girls always thought the boys were kind of dorky,” she said, “But as they grew up and matured, they became gentlemen.

“After we graduated and went on with our lives, the older we got the closer we got as classmates with our reunions,” she said. “We started having our children come to the reunions, too, and they got to know all of our classmates.”

“At our last class reunion, it was the time Jerry was in the hospital, getting his first chemo and blood transfusion,” she recalled.

“Our whole class was at my place and we were gathering before we went out to eat,” she said. “We got a call from Jerry and we all got on the speaker telephone and talked to him. He was a good friend to all of us.”

Wellik was commencement speaker at the 2000 Southland graduation exercises.

“Despite the advancements in technology in the way we learn and live today,” he told the graduates and their families, “let’s not forget there are many values that are the basic foundation of life and learning that should not change.”

He concluded his address, saying, “Southland will always be home for me.”