46 years at a ‘second home’

Published 8:04 am Thursday, September 10, 2009

Ron Skjeveland gestures proudly to an antique balance instrument once used for scientific research. In his spare time, he has carefully worked to refurbish it. Someday, he hopes, it will be on display at the Hormel Institute.

“They’re all electronic now,” he said. “This is quite a unique one.”

Skjeveland, who turned 65 on Wednesday, puts the same care into his side projects as he does with his career, a job that has spanned 46 years at what he calls “my second home,” the Hormel Institute.

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After several decades dating back to when the institute was housed in Jay C. Hormel’s horse barn, Skjeveland is calling it quits. At least he believes he is.

The maintenance and operations supervisor of the Hormel Institute, Skjeveland estimates he is on the sixth job title he has held since he started at age 19, including “fireman,” or a boiler operator. Staying a long time in one place is his family’s tradition — his father also worked for his employer 46 years, and his brother was close with 44.

“It’s not too often you get a family that has been on the same job that long,” he said.

Skjeveland was hired at age 19, pulling day and night shifts at the original facility and the current building.

“I grew up in Brownsdale,” he said. “As a kid, I used to work around town for widow ladies, shoveling sidewalks.”

He was hired by the roller-skating rink in Brownsdale for various duties, from cleaning to “running records.”

An administrator at the institute lived near his family, and stopped by the rink to ask Skjeveland to apply for a custodial position. He went in the next day for an interview.

“It turned out very well,” Skjeveland said. “I’ve always enjoyed working here. It’s kind of been like a second home to me — sometimes a first home. I was always on call.”

The scientific research world has made vast changes since 1963, and Skjeveland has seen it all first-hand, though he may not have been a direct part of it.

The institute’s first focus was on lipid research, an interest Jay C. Hormel had and invested in at his mansion property.

The current facility was built in 1959, but the original building was housed near the mansion now home to Gerard Academy. Skjeveland split his time between the two facilities until the original one closed in the 1970s.

“He wanted it to be separate from their Research and Development (department),” Skjeveland said of Jay C. Hormel. “He didn’t want the Hormel company to govern it.

“There was one little corner of the horse barn,” he recalled. “As the horses kind of faded out, they kept remodeling. It was a very well-constructed facility.”

Eventually, the whole building became research laboratories. In 1963, there were four research sections in that building and eight in the newer location, with a focus on lipid studies.

In the early 1960s, the first building had a nutritional department, Skjeveland said. One of its most famous projects was research on miniature pigs.

“By the time you spent all the time training it, it grew up too fast,” he said. “It became easier for him to handle.”

The famed animal trainer Frank Inn came to find an easier animal to train for the TV show “Green Acres;” the regular-sized pigs for the role of “Arnold” became too heavy too fast.

The research taught Skjeveland a lot about atherosclerosis, or build-up of the arteries. The research taught scientists how cholesterol affects arteries.

“I got to find out a lot about and see how the aortas, where the atherosclerosis built up,” he said. “It got to see them opened up and where all that blockage was.”

Another project there featured ginkgo trees.

“Supposedly, that’s one of the trees that survived the Ice Age,” Skjeveland said. “I can remember them … we had a patch of ginkgo trees out here, and they would hook up their instruments to the tree. They would extract from the leaves.”

Over the years, Skjeveland became close with many of the institute staff, including the scientists.

One famous scientist, the French researcher Jacques Chipault — Jay C. Hormel’s nephew — became Skjeveland’s mentor.

“He has his own section here at the institute,” Skjeveland said. “He kind of took me under his wing after three or four years. He gave me little jobs. He was impressed at how I went ahead and did things.

“The institute has had five directors,” he said, rattling off the names in order. “Four of them have been my boss. I got along with all of them. I was very fortunate where they just let me do my thing.”

Skjeveland has a wife, Cheryl; a son, Jamie, the superintendentl at Crosby-Ironton Schools; a daughter, Rhonda Anderson, a human resources specialist at Austin Public Schools; and a stepson, Dezi Wallace, a guitarist for the band Six Mile Grove. He said the decision to retire will make his winter vacations he takes with Cheryl to Arizona easier — he can go any time, instead of two weeks in November, January and April. He takes his sister and 97-year-old mother with them each trip in April.

“I really got into going down there in the wintertime,” he said. “I’ve had enough winter.”

Plans include adding on an “Arizona room,” or addition, to his vacation home, and maybe more restoration projects with the institute’s research equipment.

“Three years ago I decided on retiring, but the director and the assistant director thought it would be nice if I hung around until the building project was done,” Skjeveland said. “About three months ago, I decided I was going to retire in September.”

When executive director Zigang Dong found out, “He hustled me into the conference room and tried to get me to stay three more years,” Skjeveland said with a laugh.

Skjeveland’s last day is Sept. 25.

“It’s been a really great ride,” he said as he recalled the numerous people he has met from around the world. “It’s going to be a tough day. You couldn’t ask for more wonderful people. If I had a million dollars, I would go visiting those people.

“I’ve put in my years,” he said. “I think it’s time for me to say, “Retirement is here.’”

A retirement celebration will be held Saturday, Sept. 26 at the Eagles Club.