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A lifetime of giving: Van Roekel named The Daily Republic's person of the year

Gary Van Roekel spent 44 years operating a business in Corsica. Now living in Mitchell, he's spending his retirement in the business of giving back. Between working at the Mitchell Food Pantry and the Prehistoric Indian Village in Mitchell and th...

Gary Van Roekel is The Daily Republic's Person of the Year for 2018. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Gary Van Roekel is The Daily Republic's Person of the Year for 2018. (Matt Gade / Republic)
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Gary Van Roekel spent 44 years operating a business in Corsica. Now living in Mitchell, he's spending his retirement in the business of giving back.

Between working at the Mitchell Food Pantry and the Prehistoric Indian Village in Mitchell and the Center of Hope in Sioux Falls, driving to and from Sioux Falls for the Disabled American Veterans, pitching in for Habitat for Humanity and completing numerous tasks for his church on a regular basis, Van Roekel, 66, spends between 20 and 30 hours each week helping community members.

The Daily Republic received multiple letters from community members, some of whom are clients at the food pantry, touting his enthusiasm, kindness and endless energy put toward helping others. Between those nominations, 29 people signed their names in support of Van Roekel being named 2018's Person of the Year.

Though he doesn't seek recognition for his work, even telling The Daily Republic earlier this week that he thought others might be more deserving of it, Van Roekel's efforts have not gone unnoticed.

"He always treats me like I'm his favorite customer," wrote Delmar Dolliver in a nomination letter. "When he sees me each month, he acts like I'm his best friend and that he's glad I came in ... Mitchell needs more people like Gary Van Roekel."

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Mona Hento, the secretary at the First Reformed Church, said she's happy to see Van Roekel get recognized for his efforts, which include not only scheduled volunteering, but helping wherever possible.

"If you need something done, as far as putting a desk together, getting a floor ready for carpet, etc., he's always willing to step forward and get it done. And he will work at the project until it's finished, no matter how long it takes," Hento wrote in an email nominating Van Roekel.

A busy retirement

Van Roekel is fairly new to Mitchell, having spent only the past four of his 66 years in the city. Before moving, he lived in Corsica his entire life.

Van Roekel graduated from Corsica High School in 1970 and then started working at a local gas station. Nine years later, he bought that gas station and a bulk gas business, later adding a garbage and recycling business, which he operated for 44 years before selling it and retiring in 2014.

Even while running a business, Van Roekel still found time to volunteer in Corsica, serving on the town board and with a number of other local organizations, including working for the Corsica Volunteer Fire Department for 25 years and spending several years in charge of the city's museum. The Corsica Jaycees named him their "outstanding young citizen" in 1986.

Van Roekel and his wife Wilma opted to move to Mitchell out of convenience for Wilma, who previously had to make the drive back to Corsica after working 12- to 13-hour night shifts as a nurse's aide at Avera Queen of Peace.

When he retired, Van Roekel didn't want to spend his time sitting around. He does what he does simply because he knows someone needs to do it, and he has the time.

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"I knew I couldn't sit down all the time doing nothing. Watching TV does get sickening," he said.

His involvement with organizations came about naturally when he got to Mitchell, stemming from relationships he already had. For instance, a friend from Stickney first informed him that the Disabled American Veterans needed a new driver.

"My dad was a veteran, so I thought I'd apply," Van Roekel said.

He first got involved with the Mitchell Food Pantry, where he gets the bulk of his volunteer hours each week, when it was just starting up. He and some other church members volunteered to paint the food pantry as part of the church's "Kingdom Hands" program, which does home improvements and repairs that might be too much for a homeowner to handle on their own, but too small to justify hiring a contractor.

Now, Van Roekel spends 13 to 14 hours weekly volunteering at the food pantry. Every Monday he heads to local grocery stores, where he fills his minivan with donated food and brings it to the food pantry to be unloaded, sorted and distributed. Of the 10,000 pounds of food that the food pantry takes in every month, Van Roekel estimates he moves between 3,000 and 4,000 pounds.

"It's a necessity in our community, and I've got the time," he said. "It does you good to feel that you're helping somebody that really needs it."

Between driving for the food pantry and driving to Sioux Falls every Wednesday to volunteer at the Center of Hope, Van Roekel drives around 7,500 miles every year. That doesn't include the mileage he puts into transportation for the Disabled American Veterans.

Van Roekel's volunteering even extends beyond the volunteering he's signed up for.

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"Even when I tell him I don't need him to come in, he still shows up," said Karen Pooley, who works at the food pantry.

Van Roekel's position as groundskeeper at the Prehistoric Indian Village - another place that was brought to his attention by someone he knew from Corsica - is intended to be a paid one, but he frequently does the work for free.

"All of it is (paid) if I want to, but they're a nonprofit," he said. "So half my time - I'm guessing - is volunteered, and half I get paid for mowing."

Staying connected

Van Roekel also dedicates time regularly to his family and friends and often incorporates that time with his other responsibilities. When he goes to the Center of Hope, he sees his sister, who has worked there for years. He goes back to Corsica once a week, partly to drop off recycled cardboard from the food pantry, but mostly to have coffee with those who still live in Corsica, such as his brothers and his son, Mitch, a bookkeeper for a trucking company.

"It was tough, after 62 years of living in a small town," Van Roekel said of his move. "And that's what I miss most, is going back to Corsica. I've got to do that once a week to go have coffee."

Every year, Van Roekel also makes sure to carve out plenty of time for his granddaughter, a fourth grader named Marie, who lives in Rochester, Minnesota, with his daughter.

"When I retired, I said my first priority was babysitting my granddaughter, and I do that whenever I'm called upon," he said.

Van Roekel makes a point to go to Minnesota to see his granddaughter for several weeks every year, and she comes to stay with him for about a week every summer, when the First Reformed Church holds its Vacation Bible School - another event Van Roekel consistently helps with.

He also enjoys traveling with his daughter, Katie, who works as a registered nurse at the Mayo Clinic. This year, they're planning a bus trip from Rochester to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls.

Van Roekel said he plans to keep doing as much as he can for as long as he can.

"As long as I feel good, I'll keep going, I guess," he said. "I might have to give up the DAV bus because of my eyesight. I've got a disease in one eye, and it kicked in here again in the last year."

From his family in Corsica and Rochester, Minnesota, to the people he's helped in and around Mitchell, Van Roekel has spent a lifetime helping people in ways that, while often small, have a much larger impact on the area. And he does it all without hesitation.

"God has blessed me so I can help out physically," Van Roekel said. "It makes you feel good when you are helping those who are less fortunate than you are."

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