A regional benefactor many times over

Steve Williams donates most of his fortune to nonprofits, SMSU

Photo courtesy of Southwest Minnesota State University Bill Mulso, executive director of the SMSU Foundation and VP for Advancement, left, accepts a check for $991,000 from Jim Williams on behalf of his brother, Steve.

CLARKFIELD — Steve Williams branched out from his Clarkfield roots with a successful sales career that encompassed every corner of the United States.

Much of what he earned in the process is coming back to southwest and west central Minnesota through charitable bequests following his unexpected death in March 2018 at the age of 70.

Williams decided to give much of his assets, estimated at $14.5 million, to a variety of organizations that directly contribute to both rural Minnesota and the clients they serve. The contributions include $2.8 million for the planned veterans home in Montevideo and another $991,000 for Southwest Minnesota State University.

Additional bequests announced in the past week include between $500,000 and $1 million for the Wounded Warrior Project, the Military Order of the Purple Heart, the Vietnam Veterans Association, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Disabled American Veterans, the Muscular Dystrophy Association, the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Catholic Charities, the Fischer House program that locates its health care facilities next to VA hospitals, the St. Jude’s Hospital system headquartered in Memphis, Tenn., and the City of Hope cancer research center based in Duarte, Calif. near Los Angeles.

“Steve carefully researched all of the organizations he wanted to help,” said his brother, Jim Williams of Clarkfield. “They all spend high percentages of their revenue on serving their clients. All of them were also important parts of Steve’s life.”

He said the Montevideo-based donations came about with help from veterans organizations who voluntarily shared their bequests.

“I told Steve about what Montevideo was working toward a few weeks before he died,” Jim said. “He was very impressed and told me to keep him informed.”

The $2.8 million total represents the largest individual contribution ever made to a veterans home project in Minnesota. Gov. Mark Dayton proclaimed Saturday Jan. 5 as a day in honor of Steve Williams to publicly support his generosity

It raised the local share of veterans home construction funding to $7.4 million. The local share will be combined with $9.4 million in state bonds along with a $31.5 million federal appropriation pending approval from Congress.

The proclamation coincided with a public event at the Montevideo American Legion held to announce the donation. Minnesota 7th District Rep. Collin Peterson addressed the audience and pledged to do all he can to support Congressional action on the request.

Speakers noted that the concept represents about 11 years of planning by Montevideo area supporters. It includes land donated by the city and the prospect for an estimated 140 new full-time and part-time Montevideo-based jobs.

“It’s now a reality because of each of you who supported the project,” said Montevideo Interim City Administrator Angie Steinbach. “It’s what our veterans need and what they deserve.”

Like both Steve and Jim Williams, Steinbach is an SMSU graduate. She will advance her career at the end of January when she becomes the next Yellow Medicine County administrator based in Granite Falls.

Steve Williams obtained a business and marketing degree from SMSU in 1974. He achieved his degree after graduating from Clarkfield High School in 1966 and then serving in the Vietnam War in 1968-69.

His tour in the Army infantry took place shortly after the Tet Offensive on Jan. 1, 1968; a major military strike throughout most of South Vietnam by Viet Cong rebel insurgents and the Communist-governed North Vietnam. Williams was stationed in the Mekong Delta area south of the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon.

He applied his college experience to a career in sales and marketing, all of which was spent with Hormel Foods. A series of advancements led him to jobs based in Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Seattle. On the last assignment in Seattle, he directed Hormel sales activities in a territory that included Washington state, Oregon, Alaska and Hawaii.

“He just kept moving up the chain,” Jim Williams said. “If he was given company stock as part of his benefits, he used part of his income to buy more stock. He felt that if he worked for a company he should believe in it.”

He added that Steve was single for almost his entire life and did not have any children. In addition, he was a careful investor who led a simple life.

Jim said that combination of qualities was exemplified in his brother’s choice of cars. He was given a Hormel company car when he retired in 2004, and drove that car until 2017. He then replaced it with a modest Ford Escape.

“It finally got to the point where he needed a better car,” Jim said. “He could have had almost any kind of car he wanted, but he chose one that was nothing fancy. It was just a Plain Jane, one with no bells and whistles.”

Along with his frugality, Steve enjoyed life by having an outgoing personality that lent itself to his sales career.

“He was genuinely a people person,” Jim said. “He was always a happy, jovial guy who liked to have fun. He never thought of himself as anything more than Steve Williams from Clarkfield. He never forgot where he came from.”

He added that Steve made it a point to come back to his hometown at least once a year. It often corresponded to the birthday of his mother, Vera Williams.

Both Vera and their father, Donavon Williams, are originally from Lyon County. Vera’s maiden name was Engels, and her mother’s maiden name was DeVos.

Steve’s donation to the Muscular Dystrophy Association had its inspiration in the fact that the disease had family impacts as well as effects on Josh Cornelius of Clarkfield and the Cornelius family.

“Our dad faced it and so did Josh (whose family has been friends of the Williams family for many years),” Jim said. “Steve felt it was important to help other families who have the same health issue.”

A similar personal connection motivated him to donate to SMSU, which he saw as much more than simply a small step that he had to take before he could move on to “giant steps.”

“Steve is someone who really had a passion and an affection for SMSU,” said SMSU Foundation Director Bill Mulso. “He made sure we knew that whatever success he had was due to the experience he enjoyed (as an SMSU student). We’re grateful for his generous gift, which will go toward student scholarships.”