Editor's note: Each week reporter Matthew Guerry shares the life stories of residents of Minnesota or the Dakotas who have died recently. Maybe you don't know them, but their stories are worth knowing. If you have a suggestion for someone to be featured, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 651-321-4314.
Jim Wegner wore a love of color on his sleeve.
Aside from his paintings and other works of art, the Austin, Minnesota, resident was known for a vibrant style of dress. Friends and family recall say he often sported brightly colored or intricately patterned or shirts and sweaters, some of which he sewed himself.
"If he couldn't buy it, he made it," niece Susie Putzke said in an interview.
Described by those close to him as attentive and giving, Wegner was known in Austin and elsewhere for a lifelong career in arts and arts education. He taught until recently at the Austin ArtWorks Center — oxygen tank in hand — before dying Aug. 4, 2021.
He was 91.
James Noel Wegner was born July 25, 1930, and raised in Paynesville, Minnesota. He graduated with an art education degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth in 1953. After two years in the U.S. Army, he embarked on a 38-year teaching career. He started teaching at Austin Public Schools in 1956. That same year, he married Catherine Brown, whom he had known since kindergarten.
It was at Riverland Community College, though, where Wegner left his mark. The art gallery there is named for him, and Wegner was one of several instructors in the late 1980s to found the college's travel-study program, which at the time took participants to London and Paris.
Bonnie Reitz, a friend of Wegner's and former French instructor at Riverland, called it a "fascinating program."
"It was such a fun thing to do because, with Riverland being a community college, we could have not only students but people from the community who could travel over with us, and we took anywhere between 20 to 30 people each year," Reitz said in an interview. "And the thing that we really liked about it was we would take people usually who'd never been to Europe before."
Wegner continued to be involved with Riverland up until the COVID-19 pandemic, friends and family said. He continued his own art education at U of M Duluth, eventually earning a master's degree in painting and art history, and studied with artists at the University of Colorado.
Known mostly for his work in acrylics, Wegner was also a talented sculptor, potter, photographer and printer. He also enjoyed music, having helped the Austin First United Methodist Church select an organ and sang for years in the church choir.
Samples of Wegner's handiwork can be found at the church to this day, including paintings that adorn its hallways and banners that hang high on the sanctuary walls.
The Rev. Dr. Donna Dempewolf was still getting to know Wegner, having started at the church only two years ago, but said faith was an "important part of (his and Brown's) journey, especially the worship aspect of faith." Wegner and Brown gave to the Wesley Foundation, according to Dempewolf, which is the United Methodist church campus ministry program, and attended foundations services while in college.
Putzke, an ordained pastor and hospital chaplain in St. Cloud, Minnesota, said Wegner was also generous with his art, giving paintings to family members for special occasions.
"Everybody had an original piece of artwork or a watercolor for a wedding gift," she said.
Wegner is survived by his wife and siblings.