Lake Country Faces: Volunteer community raised Ehlert, so he's returning favor
Raised during the Great Depression, this Pequot Lakes Community Library volunteer learned a lot from YMCA volunteers as a young boy.
At the Pequot Lakes Community Library there are a lot of well-known and longtime volunteers. Among them is John Ehlert, who was likely destined to be a volunteer after they helped raise him.
Ehlert was born and raised in Minneapolis during the Great Depression. The odds weren't necessarily in his family's favor. He was the youngest of four siblings. Tragically, when he was only 7, his father died, leaving his mother to raise four children. Two were likely old enough to care for themselves.
"My big social life then was belonging to the YMCA," Ehlert said. "That was my mother's answer to having a male in the family."
Sure enough, he spent a lot of time under the tutelage of the volunteers at the YMCA starting at age 9.
"They had all kinds of activities for kids," Ehlert said. " We took trips to different manufacturing places, a packing house and that sort of thing. I think one of my favorite trips, they took us all out to France Avenue, which was wild territory. There was nothing out there. So we took a trip to see the neighborhood and played capture the flag and ran our legs off. They did all kinds of good stuff."
He got a taste for volunteerism and active living there.
"They very definitely had something to do with my growing up," Ehlert said. "When I became a biology teacher, instead of just teaching by the textbook I had activities for the kids to interact with."
Those years were important to Ehlert. He was not only exposed to the importance of volunteerism and community, it was there that he met important people in his life, including his wife.
"We had a youth group that used to get together on Sunday nights," Ehlert said. "We danced and went out for dinner and that sort of stuff. I got to meet her. She was a nice gal."
It was also there that he met a friend who would eventually lead him to Pequot Lakes.
"When I was in high school I was on the swimming team," Ehlert said. "And I met a guy by the name of Bob Uppgaard. He went to Washburn and I went to West, but we both got involved in YMCA activities, so I knew him pretty well."
After graduating, Ehlert spent a year at the University of Minnesota, followed by three years in the Army.
"I was really lucky in so many ways," Ehlert said. "I was lucky to be able to get out of the Army, because they put me in the infantry where I spent time during the war. I was in the Battle of the Bulge and I made it."
After the war he finished his bachelor of education degree before teaching at Edina High School for several years. Unexpectedly, the Cold War gave him an opportunity like no other.
"This was a time when the United States felt left behind because we were behind in math and science," Ehlert said. "We were afraid the Russians were going to get ahead of us."
The National Science Foundation gave teachers like Ehlert scholarships to Harvard for a master's degree before sending them back to the classroom as a teacher once again. He returned to Edina and taught for 38 years there. It was just before that time that Ehlert's old swimming buddy contacted him with a proposition.
Uppgaard owned a cabin on Whitefish Lake and a neighbor close by was concerned that some nearby lakefront property on Star Lake might wind up sold and turned into a laundromat. He worked out a deal with Ehlert to purchase the land and split it.
"I told him I had no business owning lakefront property," Ehlert said. "I was a school teacher and I wasn't supposed to be able to afford that."
In spite of his protests, Ehlert ended up buying the property. By 1986, he had built a cabin on the property. In 1988, he retired and in 1990, he and his wife moved from the Twin Cities to Star Lake where he's been ever since.
"It's the best thing I ever did," Ehlert said. "This is a wonderful part of the world."
Ehlert's also been active in the area ever since.
"Living up in this territory is a reward all by itself," Ehlert said. "It's a community that will accept new ideas. You don't have to have a Ph.D. to get involved in something if you are a warm body and want do do something. There's always some place you can apply whatever talent you have."
Ehlert was part of the group that organized and founded the local first response group. For years he's also led nature classes in the Uppgaard Wildlife Management Area and he used to teach yoga. In the last five years he added volunteering at the library to his long list of activities to fill in the cold winter months when the wildlife management area isn't accessible.
"At the end of the day or the end of a week I like to say I've done something that's worthwhile," Ehlert said. "And if you don't have something like this, you don't meet new people and you don't learn new things. That's kind of an empty existence, so I just love working here."
Travis Grimler may be reached at 218-855-5853 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Travis.