WORTHINGTON, Minn. — The friendship between Martin Aaser and Bruce Lease of Worthington, Minn., has spanned roughly 50 years.
Together, they were involved in local fraternal organizations, and they were a part of a group of men that had coffee regularly at the Blue Line Travel Center.
Now, the two are unlikely neighbors.
Aaser took up residence in the south building at Ecumen Meadows assisted living in Worthington one year ago this September, while Lease moved into an apartment directly next to him in June.
“Denise (Erwin, Ecumen Meadows Marketing Manager) came over one day and said, ‘Bruce is going to move in,’” Aaser, age 91, remembered. “I said, ‘great,’ and then it turned out he was going to be right next door in an identical apartment.”
“Every day we see each other, and we eat dinner together,” Lease added.
How they got here
Aaser arrived in Worthington in 1968, relocating from the small community of Lakota, N.D.
“One day I came home from work and told my wife ‘I think we should move,’ and she didn't object,” he said. “I called a friend in Minnesota and asked if he knew of any teaching openings, and he said he thought there was one at Worthington. I called Worthington, and the rest is history.”
That job was teaching agriculture at Worthington High School, where Aaser was joined by three other ag instructors — Walt Larson, John Wright and Ken Johnson. A portion of Aaser’s job involved teaching at what’s now known as Minnesota West Community and Technical College, and Aaser eventually became employed full-time there.
Lease, meanwhile, came to Worthington the day after his 1959 graduation from Iowa State University. Employed by Farmers National Co., he opened a farm insurance office in Worthington.
“I managed the farms for 10 years and I had 70 farms I was managing at a time,” Lease, 89, said. “Then, I actually thought I could be better myself by moving to San Antonio.”
Lease’s wife, Dorothy, had grown up in that Texas city, but after a short time the couple opted to return to southwest Minnesota.
“I missed agriculture … and the radio station approached me, as my old job had been filled by someone else in the meantime,” Lease explained. “I was offered a job as a farm broadcaster, and I took that job in 1969.”
Lease — who later became well-recognized locally for his frequent on-air proclamation, “It’s a beautiful day in Worthington, Minnesota” — would eventually mount a run for the Minnesota Legislature, but “got my butt beat” and was soon offered a new position at KQAD at Luverne, Minn., also as a farm broadcaster.
‘It’s natural that you meet’
Aaser and Lease were both members of the Masons and Shriners organizations for many years.
“Where you’re in the same profession, it’s natural that you meet,” Aaser said, with Lease noting that the work of each (Aaser teaching, Lease broadcasting) involved agriculture.
The friends agree that they became most acquainted through their membership in the Shriner Cycle Patrol, through which they rode in parades at Worthington’s King Turkey Day and other locales for at least 25 years.
“I always say that I entertained more than a million people,” Aaser said of the parades. “Bruce and I did some things together, but a lot of our time with each other was through the organizations.”
Aaser and Lease each served as officers in Masons and Shriners. Aaser is also a longtime Lions Club member, while Lease was involved with Worthington Kiwanis for many years.
“Of course, when you belong to these organizations, you end up in some kind of leadership role,” Aaser said.
“I also belonged to the Chamber of Commerce from 1959 to a year ago in one form or another,” Lease said of his community involvement, recalling such efforts as creation of the former Pork Bowl and a one-time golf tournament in which businessmen invited farmers to participate with them. (“Both died a natural death eventually," Lease said of those events.)
Life during wartime (and after)
Aaser had graduated from what’s now known as North Dakota State University in 1951 and was prepared to enter the Army, but instead wound up staying in that state while teaching agriculture under the GI Bill to farmers who had previously served in the military.
“I was a 21-year-old punk and those guys were 40 years old,” Aaser stated with a laugh.
Eventually, Aaser had to fulfill his military obligations, but was given a 4F classification and declared unfit to go. That’s when he ended up at Lakota, and he went on to marry wife Dorothy (“a farmer’s daughter from North Dakota”) while living there. Dorothy died six years ago; the couple enjoyed nearly 60 years of wedded bliss.
Lease, for his part, had grown up on a farm near Galva, Iowa. He began farming with his dad after graduating from high school and soon became eligible for the draft.
“Rather than become a soldier, I enlisted in the Air Force, and that took me to Omaha,” Lease said. “I spent four years in the Air Force — two years in San Antonio, where I met Dorothy, who would become my wife, and then Fairbanks, Alaska, to which Dorothy got to go with me.
“When I got out of the service ... my dad, in his wisdom, said ‘Why don’t you try something else?’ Lease continued. “So that’s when I went to college.”
That, of course, led Lease to Worthington — and Lease and Aaser ultimately to their long friendship.
Retired and relaxed
Aaser retired in 1993 and freely admits he’s “an old guy now — I’m even older than Bruce.” Aaser is 91, and Lease will mark his 90th birthday next month.
Aaser was proud to recount the manner in which he got to celebrate his 90th.
“I was visiting once with my son and I said, ‘I should get Mollie B (an International Polka Hall of Fame member) for my birthday,” he remembered. “He jumped on it right away and got in contact with her. It took about a year’s time before she had an opening where she could come to Worthington. … I thought she’d be here alone, but she brought a five-piece band with her.”
Mollie B and that band performed in a free concert in Chautauqua Park that Aaser said was both well attended and well received.
Aaser has three children: son Dean, who teaches at the University of Tennessee; a daughter, Joanne, who teaches in Storm Lake, Iowa; and another daughter, Holly, who works as a physician’s assistant in Seattle. He has eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Lease and his wife, who has lived for the past seven years at Crossroads Care Center in Worthington, have two daughters, Shari and Lori, and a son, Kevin. They have five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
“I had a condo on Collegeway … but I got to be a bit unsteady on my feet and fell and broke some ribs,” Lease said of what ultimately led him to Ecumen Meadows. His daughter came to Worthington to take care of him for a time, but a move to an assisted living facility ultimately was agreed upon to be the best option — though Lease does admit he “would have rather kept my independence, of course.”
‘You’re still pretty independent here,” Aaser told his friend.
“I suppose so,” Lease responded.
Aaser said he gave up “the nicest condo in Worthington,” but ended up moving to Ecumen Meadows after his children visited and told him he could no longer live alone.
And now, he’s no longer alone.
“We met at the Blue Line every day at 9:30 and had our coffee and told our lie,” Aaser said, recalling the time he regularly spent with Lease and other men. “Some days we’d have up to 10, and other days it was down to about five Bruce was kind of the captain of that bunch.”
“That coffee group has been going for about 30 years … but it’s getting smaller now,” Lease said.
In fact, it’s possible that Lease and Aaser may be heading up a coffee group of sorts at Ecumen Meadows, depending on some of their acquaintances’ long-term plans.