Wind chimes blew gently in the August breeze as Garfield resident Jan Esala, 82, sat on her front porch and watched cars pass by.

“I guess I’ve been really fortunate in many ways,” Esala said. “Things really have been good. Can’t really complain.”

Esalawould describe herself as easy-going and willing to help.

“Hard to say no when somebody asks me to do something,” she said with a chuckle. “A pretty outgoing and friendly person.”

Getting involved

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The farm where she grew up is just a few miles from her house now.

Esala graduated high school from Alexandria in 1955 and wanted to go on to college, but her father died her junior year and her family didn’t have the finances to support her.

If she would’ve attended college, Esala wanted to become a middle school math teacher.

“I thought that would’ve been interesting, but it worked out OK,” she said. “We have to take each day the best we can.”

Instead, she went right to work. She got a part-time job at the Garfield Creamery as head bookkeeper her last two years of high school.

After graduation, she started working at the Alexandria library. She then went on to work for the superintendent, but she quit after a few years to move to Minneapolis in 1959. She worked at multinational food processing company Archer-Daniels-Midland and the Small Business Administration office.

Esala and her husband, Ken, would come back up to the area nearly every weekend to get out of the city.

She and Ken met at a benefit for the Holmes City baseball team, and now they’ve been married for 60 years.

“We’ve just hung in there through thick and thin,” Esala said.

Ken was offered a job as a draftsman for Bellanca Aircraft, which brought the Esalas back to Alexandria in 1962. He later taught mechanical drafting at Alexandria Technical and Community College.

Esala spent about a year working at KCMT Television because that was one of the only job openings she could find.

As soon as the superintendent called her up, she went back to working for the Alexandria school district.

After her first daughter was born, Esala continued to help out and work part-time at the school wherever she could until she took on the role of business manager in 1981, which she did until retirement.

Esala said she was thankful for the superintendents she worked under during her career. She was reluctant to accept the business manager position because she didn’t have a postsecondary degree. When Esala suggested to the superintendent that she should take a few more classes, he said he hired her because she could do the job without the traditionally required experience.

She was one of the first females to be in that position and one of the only employees without a bachelor’s degree. Esala was also one of the first of three women to join Alexandria Kiwanis Club.

“They were major stepping stones at that time,” she said.

After retiring in 1997, Esala went to the Albany school district three different times and Little Falls school once to help out as an interim business manager while they searched for someone to fill the position.

She served as the Relay for Life treasurer and volunteered her time to do taxes for low-income individuals.

“I just felt that everybody has to give back to their community,” she said. “If everybody did a little bit, you learn more about the community and these organizations when you get involved.”

Another one of Esala’s pastimes is gardening because she said she likes having fresh produce.

“It was kind of an outlet when you came home to just go out and dig in the dirt for a little while,” she said. “It’s nice to have something to get your mind out of your work.”

Esala has also been a treasurer for St. John’s Lutheran Church in Garfield and a secretary for the Alexandria Kiwanis Club for many years.

“Sometimes, people have said, ‘Maybe you should say no once in a while instead of yes to all these things,’” Esala said. “There’s always things you can do and I do do, whether it be just monkeying out in my flowerbeds and doing a lot of quilting and volunteering.”

Bowling leagues

When she has free time, Esala enjoys golfing and bowling. She’s been to 33 national bowling tournaments over the years.

Esala has been president and treasurer of both the Alexandria Women’s Bowling Association at the Garden Center and Women’s Golf Association at the Alexandria Golf Club.

When she was in high school, there weren’t the same number of female sports options as there are today, but students could choose to go bowling after school.

She let it go for a few years until moving to the Twin Cities. A group of her coworkers at Archer-Daniels-Midland went bowling together after work. There was also a co-ed team through her husband’s work, which Esala also participated in.

Ever since she started dating Ken, Esala said one of their primary shared activities has been visiting bowling alleys.

“It’s kind of a life-long activity,” Esala said. “It’s something you can start when you’re younger, and you can continue on. It just kinda kept going from there.”

Retired life

Even in retirement, Esala finds ways to busy herself.

She helps with accounting and finance at her daughter Jill’s business in Alexandria, Integrity Title.

Esala has three children: Jill, Wendy and Mark. She also stays involved in the lives of her seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Esala said she’s most proud of her family for doing well and working hard.

“We’re so happy to see them all be happy with what they’re doing and successful,” she said. “It makes you feel good.”

Esala also spends her time keeping up with her flowers, with about 150 different varieties of hostas in her yard.

Since she and her husband live on a woodsy property, Esala said she wanted to pick a “shade-loving” plant. Some are in the front, and others are around the back porch. Some are in the rock garden, and more line the driveway.

“When you’re working, you don’t have time for this,” Esala said. “When I retired, I thought, ‘Oh, this is kind of interesting.’ It was kind of a new endeavor.”



This is a part of "Friendly faces in familiar places," an occasional series telling the stories of the unique people that make up the Douglas County community through writing, photo and video. To nominate an individual to profile for this series, email Jasmine at jrjohnson@echopress.com.