Trying to make a difference; Family, friends remember Val Pitzen’s giving spirit

Published 11:15 am Thursday, August 6, 2015

Val Pitzen leads a funeral procession with her draft horses carrying a coffin in the wagon. -- Photo provided

Val Pitzen leads a funeral procession with her draft horses carrying a coffin in the wagon. — Photo provided

Valerie “Val” Pitzen was known to sneak cookies into somebody’s home or start up a program for children or the community, but she never liked getting recognition for all she did.

“She was always trying to think of something different,” Austin Parks, Recreation and Forestry Director Kim Underwood, Val’s longtime friend and coworker, said. “Something new, but something also that would make a difference.”

Val, 54, of Stacyville, Iowa, passed away July 30, 2015, after battling cancer. She worked for Austin Parks and Rec as a recreation supervisor for about 29 years. When the position opened up years ago, Underwood said it made sense for Val to apply since she already worked with the Rose Creek Summer Youth program and worked closely with the parks and rec.

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“She would come to our office because she would bring kids from Rose Creek’s summer programs up here to play baseball,” Underwood said.

Val was known for creating different programs to make opportunities for area children, whether it was sports activities or seeing different farm animals they might not get the chance to see otherwise.

Val Pitzen holds an award she received for the Austin All Stars Youth Baseball Merit Award.

Val Pitzen holds an award she received for the Austin All Stars Youth Baseball Merit Award.

She started programs like summer track meets, a partnership with the Austin Noon Kiwanis, the Youth Activity Center, and enjoyed hosting the Minnesota State Volleyball tournaments, and many more.

“Her caring heart, she just would always make sure that, ‘Well if I can experience this someone else should be able to experience this too,’” Underwood said.

“Val was a well-oiled machine in our recreation department,” she added.

A love for animals and farms

Val and her husband, Ken Pitzen, lived on a hobby farm with many different animals, including chickens, peacocks, pheasants, bunnies, donkeys, draft horses, sheep, dogs, cats and more.

“Val loved animals,” Ken said.

Val started a program called “Do You Wanna What?” where she would bring some of their farm animals to the Oak Park Mall and set up games and activities for children, giving them an opportunity to learn about the different sports and activities parks and rec offered. She would also bring her animals to Sumner Elementary School to give the children a chance to see the different animals.

Ken recalled giving Val a few sheep for her birthday one year.

“Ten years ago I bought my wife a couple sheep for a birthday present. Two years ago we had up to 100,” he chuckled.

Underwood remembered Val’s caring soul for not only people, but animals and even plants. She remembered a plant Val found thrown out in an alley one time, which she brought in, repotted and it’s still alive in the office.

“If you came back there could be a stray kitten in the office,” Underwood laughed. “You just never knew.”

Ken said Val had a second nature with animals and could often times tell when they were sick before they even knew. Val’s good friend Denise Mayer said Val felt people should respect animals, and it would make Val angry if somebody was abusive to an animal.

Val grew up on a dairy farm, and the love for working with animals on a farm never left her. She met Ken through Denise’s husband, Bruce Mayer, who picked up milk on Val’s father’s farm. Ken and Val were engaged six weeks after they met and married nine months later. The two were married for 29 years.

Ken explained their Stacyville home was built off Val’s design in an empty part of a cow pasture.

“This was our dry cow pasture and she came here one day with me and she said, ‘This is where we’re going to build the house,’” he remembered. “It was just a blank space.”

The home was built 18 years ago, and Ken said they have been adding to it ever since. Val, an avid woodworker, carved many of the trimmings in the home as well as the banisters.

Val and Ken Pitzen dressed up for a cowboy-themed wedding.

Val and Ken Pitzen dressed up for a cowboy-themed wedding.

“She grew up doing that and took some college courses on doing it,” Ken said. “Her tool shop is envied by many a man, she’s got every tool you need.”

A giving spirit

Val was involved in many things in the area. She often worked with her draft horses, giving horse-drawn carriage rides to people at the Rose Pedaler each year, in the winter for school kids in Austin, at a country club in the fall, and even carried coffins during services. She started many programs in Austin, such as Tuba Christmas. Denise said she and her children learned how to golf because of Val. She was an EMT with the St. Ansgar Rescue Squad and an avid softball player. Val also spent time in Louisiana working with the Red Cross after Hurricane Katrina.

“Generosity to a fault,” Denise said. “She befriended anybody who was in need.”

Recently, Val would bake about 3,000 cookies each Christmas, bringing them to friends, family or people who had simply had a rough year.

“There’d always be somebody added each year,” Denise said.

Ken said if someone had a hardship that year, they would get added to the cookie list.

“My job was to sneak them into people’s houses without them knowing it,” Ken laughed. “We had one guy, we gave him cookies for at least five years before he found out where they came from.”

Val took the initiative when she felt something wasn’t right. Ken recalled a time when a family with children moved into a nearby town, but they moved to a busy road. Val saw many cars and trucks speed along the road, so she got the county to put up new speed limit signs.

Yet Val never wanted credit for the good deeds she did. She preferred to stay in the background and keep things running smoothly.

“Very modest,” Underwood said. “She didn’t want to call attention, she would rather be in the background getting it done than being in front and getting credit for it. She would always say, ‘It’s my job.’”

Mayer said Val didn’t want anyone to know about most of the things she did for others, and Ken agreed.

“I think there’s a lot of things we never knew she did too,” Ken said.