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Gjesdal chosen as Daily Republic Person of the Year for 2015

PLANKINTON -- Gary Gjesdal doesn't seek the spotlight. He just wants to help people. Living simply and spending carefully, the 59-year-old rural Plankinton man retired from farming about nine years ago to focus on a new passion: giving back. "The...

Gary Gjesdal has been selected as the Daily Republic's 2015 Person of the Year. (Matt Gade/Republic)
Gary Gjesdal has been selected as the Daily Republic's 2015 Person of the Year. (Matt Gade/Republic)
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PLANKINTON - Gary Gjesdal doesn't seek the spotlight. He just wants to help people.

Living simply and spending carefully, the 59-year-old rural Plankinton man retired from farming about nine years ago to focus on a new passion: giving back.

"The Lord has blessed me, and I just like to share with others," he said.

He has actively supported nonprofits like the Mitchell Area Safehouse, Goodwill, Dakota Wesleyan University and others. From giving gift cards to needy families to paying off student loans to helping people buy a house, Gjesdal estimates he has given away more than $1 million in the last nine years.

"Most of it, I can't remember where it went, and I don't miss any of it," he said with a smile. "It's all the Lord's gifts to me. None of it is mine."

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For his efforts and philanthropy and the impact he has had on the surrounding community, Gjesdal has been chosen as The Daily Republic's 2015 Person of the Year.

'All that is good in this world'

It's not the first time Gjesdal's efforts have been noticed.

Earlier this year, Gjesdal was among seven people nominated for the McGovern South Dakota Hunger Ambassador Award for service to their communities. The Dakota Wesleyan University McGovern Center chose John Lushbough, of Vermillion, as the recipient of inaugural award.

Eight people submitted letters of nomination for Gjesdal to be The Daily Republic's Person of the Year, including Jackie Wentworth, director of alumni relations at DWU.

"Gary is unlike any other person I have ever encountered," Wentworth wrote. "He is humble, kind and so very generous. If he becomes aware of a situation where someone is in need, he quietly and discretely steps in to help, whether that be providing food, clothing, furniture, or financial assistance."

Wentworth added that Gjesdal doesn't focus on one charity or type of outreach, and as a result has touched many lives in the surrounding community.

"He is an ordinary man doing extraordinary things," Wentworth wrote. "He represents all that is good in this world."

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For his part, Gjesdal tries to keep a low profile on his philanthropic efforts, citing Matthew 6:3, which admonishes people who give to "not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing."

"The only reason I ever say anything is to maybe put a bug in their ear, and if they ever have something in surplus, they might be able to help someone else in need," Gjesdal said. "I try to kind of keep in the shadows and not say a whole lot."

He hopes his efforts help inspire others to give. He's willed his farmland to DWU, and continues looking for bargains to pass on to others. On Tuesday, he pulled out a stack of recently purchased Culver's gift cards, which he'll pass around as he sees a need. Sometimes, when out and about, he'll see a frazzled mother with young children, and he'll offer a gift card to brighten their day. Other times, he'll leave a gift card with a thank-you note in a hotel room for the cleaning staff.

Knowing that he is brightening others' days, and maybe inspiring others to pay it forward, is thanks enough for Gjesdal.

"It's a good feeling. You know that you're doing what you're supposed to be doing in life, what the Lord asks us to do," he said.

Humble beginnings

Gjesdal still lives on the farm where he grew up about 20 miles west of Mitchell, which boasts a rural Plankinton address and a Mount Vernon phone number-when he still had a landline.

"Now all I've got is a cell phone," he said.

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His earliest memory is when he was about 2 years old, he would push oats through a hole in the barn floor, which would funnel down to his father below. His dad would then grind the oats into feed for their few pigs and chickens and calves.

"I remember, he'd always look like Casper the ghost, just covered in that white itchy stuff," Gjesdal said. "My dad worked hard in his life. So did my mother."

By the time he was 5, Gjesdal was driving a tractor on his family's small farm, where they raised crops and a few pigs, a few cattle and some chickens. It was hard work to make a living, he said, but he doesn't regret being raised that way.

"It was a good life," he said. "A good, honest life."

He and his two sisters, Gea and Amy, grew up simply. Their family didn't have much money. Gjesdal, knowing he would stay on the farm, didn't attend college. Both of his parents attended Dakota Wesleyan University.

Through family, Gjesdal also inherited more land. Now, Gjesdal owns about 1,500 acres-something he never would have dreamed of in his younger years.

"It's amazing how the Lord works things out," he said.

But when he turned 50, Gjesdal decided to do something different. Burned out on farming, Gjesdal rents out his farmland to a neighbor and dedicates most of his time to paying it forward. Constantly on the lookout for a bargain, Gjesdal will buy things such as food, clothing or other necessities, bundle it up, and give it away. He said he'll periodically take things to the Mitchell Area Safehouse, Abbott House, Wesley Acres-wherever he sees a need.

Coleen Smith, shelter coordinator at the Mitchell Area Safehouse and Family Visitation Center, wrote that Gjesdal approached the safehouse to see what its needs were. After finding out, he soon returned with a van full of donations. Smith said it took five people to unload all of the donations, which included food, personal supplies, toys and a stack of gift cards.

"Gary's generosity not only helped the Mitchell Area Safehouse tremendously, it also allowed us to share the donations with clients in our community and rural counties we serve," Smith wrote. "Gary's continuous generous spirit is very much appreciated by our organization and our clients."

Other Mitchell residents wrote similar praises, including Shannon Nelson, a Birth-3 Family Service Coordinator, and the management of Mitchell's Goodwill.

"I am so blessed to be Gary's friend. He is truly a 'behind-the-scenes' servant of the people," Nelson wrote. "If you knew Gary, you would realize that he gives more to other people than he will even allow himself to have. He does not do it for the recognition."

Gjesdal said he hasn't always been in a position to give so generously.

His parents, he said, were generous people, but poor. He recalls attending church as a child, and his parents would put in two $1 bills in the collection plate.

"And that's all we had," he said, tears filling his eyes.

Now that Gjesdal has more, he plans to continue giving more.

A man of faith, Gjesdal said his desire to give stems from a love of Christ and his gifts to him, not a need to try to "give his way into Heaven."

"You can't outgive God," Gjesdal said. "It doesn't work that way. You're saved by grace through faith. Jesus paid the price ... he's done everything for me. But in appreciation for what he's done, I like to try to help out others in need."

And, it's not just for the "poor folks," Gjesdal noted. He looks for ways to spread love and kindness all year round, sometimes with a birthday card or a note with a gift card, just because.

"Everybody likes to get a little treat," he said.

He lives a simple life, he said, without TV or Internet. He reads a lot, and listens to Christian radio. His only heat in the wintertime is a wood-burning stove, which he admits he struggles to keep up in especially frigid weather. But he doesn't need much, he says.

"The Bible tells us to be content with what you have. The Lord will provide for your needs," he said. "You can't take it with you, but you can pass it on ahead. And it's fun to give."

Other nominations

The Daily Republic asked for nominations from readers to help choose its 2015 Person of the Year. Here are descriptions of selected nominees in no particular order.

Matt Wilber, DWU men's coach

Under second-year head coach Matt Wilber, during the 2014-15 season, the Dakota Wesleyan University men's basketball team won a single-season record 32 games, set a record for most points in a season (3,166) and advanced the furthest out of any DWU men's basketball team in a postseason tournament.

An estimated 600 fans traveled to Point Lookout, Missouri, to cheer on DWU in the NAIA Division II National Tournament championship. After the championship game, Wilber was honored with the Rawlings NAIA Division II national coach of the year award.

One of his team captains, Jalen Voss, described Wilber as deserving of the award.

"It was awesome to see him get that," Voss said at the time. "He's a great coach, everyone loves him. There's no reason he doesn't deserve an award like that taking us to the national championship."

Delmont Zion Lutheran Church volunteers

When an EF-2 tornado hit Delmont on May 10, younger members of Zion Lutheran Church were in Sunday school. The church building caught the brunt of the storm, and sustained heavy damage.

But Barb Will, who teaches Sunday school, had her class of seven students in the basement making Mother's Day cards. From there, they huddled in a small bathroom and prayed.

Will and her 15-year-old daughter, April, said their ears popped because of the change in air pressure when the tornado hit, and she could hear the bricks falling from the more than 100-year-old church. Despite that, no one was hurt.

"God knows," she said soon after the storm. "It wasn't our time."

Wayne Edinger

Through the years, Wayne Edinger has made many contributions to local causes, ranging from scholarships for local students to Corn Palace exhibits.

Edinger and his wife, Sue, live in Mitchell. In September, Edinger, a Mitchell High school alumnus, sponsored a concert by Banjo Hall of Fame inductee Tim Allan as a fundraiser for scholarships for MHS students.

In 2013, Edinger paid for a new exhibit installed at the Corn Palace called Down at the Mill. The exhibit allows anyone to shell an ear of corn with a hand-cranked sheller, and then grind the loosened kernels with a manual stone-grinder into cornmeal. Visitors are allowed to take the cornmeal with them in a bag.

In 2007, Edinger saw the need for agricultural weather monitoring in Aurora County. He and his family provided financial assistance to make the White Lake Weather Station a reality. In 2014, Edinger and his son, Chet, and the family farm, Edinger Brothers Partnership, of Mitchell, partnered with Farmers Alliance and MJ Aviation/Aurora Co-op to sponsor the station to ensure its continued operation.

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