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Award-winning citizenship grew from humble beginnings

Debbie Griffin photo

"You don't even know when you do it," said this year's Chamber of Commerce Citizen of the Year Henry Dreistadt about serving others. "You just do it."

He says growing up "dirt poor" in a small Pennsylvania town helped him understand the value of community. Technically orphaned at an early age, he and his brother bounced around from foster home to foster home after their mother died.

He said the people in town knew them, looked after them, kept them in line. He remembers the post mistress there named Edna who befriended him and took an interest in his well-being.

Also a Sunday school teacher, Edna once asked if he wanted to come to church or class.

"She invited me, so I went," said Dreistadt.

He also attended church camp and later, the seminary. Finished with college and a four-year stint in the U.S. Air Force, Dreistadt began a 40-year career as a Methodist pastor.

Service, service, service

Dreistadt served as pastor of the local United Methodist Church from 1970-1982, as well as a church in Green Bay for about the same number of years.

He also spent five years as district pastor for the northwest district of Wisconsin when he lived in Eau Claire.

He and wife of 25 years, JoAnn, moved back to River Falls in 1999 after Dreistadt retired.

He joined the St. Croix Valley Habitat for Humanity Board of Directors and served two three-year terms plus chaired the organization's family selection committee for four years.

Dreistadt put in three years on the board of Turningpoint for Victims of Domestic and Sexual Violence, including an 18-month term as president.

He volunteered to work at Turningpoint's Second Chances downtown retail store. He volunteers to drive people around town who can't drive themselves.

He volunteered for three years to pick up children at Westside Elementary and drive them to an after-school program at church.

He said he always had fun talking with the kids about how their day at school had been.

Dreistadt volunteered to help with a benefit for the late Rachel Grover -- a young woman, wife and mother suffering from cancer -- but doesn't take credit.

"All I did was make an announcement at church one day," he said about the big benefit. "The committee really did the work."

During his earlier days in River Falls, he helped start the community gardens, a five-acre plot on which church members grew food and sometimes flowers. He sat on a committee charged with studying the high school's curriculum and chaired school board Annual Meetings for several years.

"I decided that was an area I'd like to work in," he said.

Before long, he ran for the school board and got elected, serving it for two three-year terms.

"When I was on the school board, I had the privilege of handing out diplomas to both of my daughters," he said.

Dreistadt belonged to the Lions and Kiwanis Club as well as the American Legion. He helped on a hospital facility study committee. An inheritance from church members helped him grow a flourishing foundation.

He enjoyed serving as pastor in three very different-but-distinct communities: River Falls, back then mostly a farming community; Green Bay, an industrial community; and Lake Geneva, a resort community.

Growing up in railroad country, Dreistadt became fond of trains. He later volunteered at Green Bay's railroad museum, where "old timers" often asked which railroad he'd worked for.

"I think I've been a very fortunate person," he said.

He said he had a "great" experience in the Air Force during the Korean War. He traveled outside the United States once for a 30-day trip to Greenland, during which time it never got dark.

The military veteran said he benefitted greatly from the G.I. Bill that paid for him to go to college. He joined the service hoping it would boost him out of poverty and into a better life.

The honored citizen said he's slowed down a bit on community activities so he can help JoAnn as she faces health issues. Dreistadt said he nearly refused the award, adamantly believing that many others deserve the honor before him.

"I'm deeply grateful for it," he said about the chamber's award, maintaining he hasn't done anything extraordinary. "If you receive a lot, you also need to give a lot."