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Devoted family man, health care champion, industrious business leader leaves his legacy

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"If you find a need, fill it."

That short yet profound statement is attributed to former River Falls businessman Norm Hilleren, according to his daughter, town of Troy resident Sue Warren.

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The words were, Warren says, "...Dad's mantra in business."

Father of six, grandfather of many more and founding owner of the River Falls Care Center (now The Lutheran Home), Kids Care Center and MoundView Apartments (now WelLHaven Senior Apartments), Norm Hilleren died Saturday, Feb. 9, at age 88.

Though he spent most of his life in Minnesota, Hilleren had strong ties to River Falls in the form of the nursing home/day care/senior citizen complex that he envisioned and built here.

Warren says it was Hilleren's concern for his own aging parents and the rest home they operated in Red Wing, Minn., that led Hilleren and his wife Ruth to become involved in elder care.

That rest home was operated in an "...old mansion that had been converted into a rooming house for older folks," said Warren. But Hilleren's desire to create a more comfortable and age-appropriate setting for his parents and their "boarders" led him to investigate funding for a new building.

"When Dad visited a bank in St. Paul to inquire about financing, he was told that just the week before a group of businessmen from a town in Wisconsin called River Falls had come to see if the bank knew of anyone interested in building a nursing home, as River Falls was in great need of one," said Warren.

"The businessmen were Clarence Malmer of Malmer Grocery, Abe Benson of Benson Clothing and an attorney named (John) Davison. Because of the great support of these community leaders, the first nursing home was built in 1959 in the south end of River Falls."

Today that building houses the Kinnic Falls Halfway House.

In 1965, the Hillerens built another nursing home -- the Red Wing Health Center in Red Wing, Minn. Ruth, a registered nurse, and Norm both became licensed as nursing home administrators, and while Norm took over the operations in Red Wing, Ruth oversaw the River Falls Care Center.

Soon however, says Warren, "As nursing home regulations were added and changed, it became apparent that the (Orange Street) building," needed more modifications incorporated into it than finances would allow.

So, "Mom and Dad bought the Skycrest Motel (at 640 N. Main St.), and built a more updated nursing addition to it in 1973."

Keeping abreast of the latest advances and policies in nursing home care and becoming known as a leader in the area's health care industry, Norm was elected regional governor of Region 8 of the American College of Nursing Home Administrators in 1983, after having served as a vice governor two years before.

Hilleren was determined to follow that group's main objective: To include "...the maintenance of highest quality nursing home administration by developing a code of ethics; establishing standards of competence through voluntary professional certification in nursing home administration."

The Hillerens eventually turned over leadership of the care center to Glenda Zielski, of the town of River Falls, who served as administrator for almost 30 years.

Kids Care Center, MoundView Apartments

With two flourishing skilled nursing homes handling the needs of the elderly, the Hillerens looked to the other end of the age spectrum and in the early 1980s added another type of care service that found a home in what used to be the old motel.

Kids Care Center was created, "...out of which developed one of the first intergenerational (and award winning) programs between young children and nursing home residents in the state," said Warren.

Norm was again filling a need in the River Falls community, but he did not stop there.

In 1985, MoundView Apartments, at 119 Union St., was built, with an adjacent connecting hallway to the River Falls Care Center. It consisted of 60 apartments designed to meet the need for intermediate care for the elderly and disabled.

Today, as WelLHaven Senior Apartments, that building continues its mission providing that same type of care.

By creating the three unique business entities in River Falls, Norm enhanced the city's employment benefits. At one time, the nursing home/day care/senior citizen complex was River Falls' third-largest employer.

In turn, as the Hillerens grew older, there came the time to size down and slow down into retirement. When the time was just right, Norm sold the River Falls business to The Lutheran Home Association, that had its headquarters in Belle Plaine, Minn., though Zielski continued in her same position.

Warren said of her father: "Dad was 75 before he finally retired to 'sit by my garden and scowl at the weeds.'"

And now with his passing, the soft-spoken, savvy and sharp-witted man remains in the thoughts of many whose lives he touched.

"He taught us all to work hard and never turn up our noses at a task," said Warren. All six of us kids worked at one time or another in many jobs around the facilities, from washing dishes to operating the old fashioned switchboard in the Skycrest Motel."

Of her parents Warren said: "When I think about the positive impact that dad and Mom had on the hundreds upon thousands of residents and members of their families and employees and members of their families over the years in the two communities, I am humbled and very proud of them."

Hilleren died at the Red Wing Health Center after a long battle with Lewy Body disease. He leaves behind his wife, Ruth; children: Julie (Richard) Edstrom of Stillwater, Minn., Lorinda (Dwight) Austin of Hudson, Norman (Karen) Hilleren of Maiden Rock, Warren and her husband, Carl; David (Tracy) of Orlando, Fla., and Peter Hilleren of Brooklyn, N. Y.; 13 grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.

His complete obituary ran in last week's Journal.

Reach Vera Roy-Stoeberl at 426-1046 or vroy@rivertowns.net.

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