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Take this job and...never let go

Franklin Roosevelt was president when Larry Petersen began selling cars for the River Falls Motor Company (now Roen Ford).

On Thanksgiving Day next month Petersen turns 96. While he no longer sells Fords, he still works part time for Roen as a title clerk.

"Why not keep working?" Petersen said. "It's something to do. Otherwise I'd have too much time to sit around and think about the past. That would drive me nuts."

Petersen not only works, he still drives. He tools around in a 2002 Ford Focus.

His recently renewed driver's license lists these quirky facts: DOB: 11-27-07; Expiration date: 11-27-07.

"At the licensing station they said they hadn't ever seen that before," Petersen said.

Petersen was born and raised in Hudson. He graduated from Hudson High School in 1925.

He attended the University of Minnesota for a year, studying advertising.

"I'm not sure why I left right away," Petersen said. "I guess I figured I had enough information."

For a while Petersen pumped gas at filling stations in Hudson and Minneapolis. In the late 1920s he was a traveling salesman for Cornell Wood Products.

"I had the northwest territory, so I drove all over North and South Dakota, Montana, northern Iowa, western Wisconsin in my Model A Ford," Petersen said. "It was a rough ride back then. The roads had no cement. They were all dirt and mud."

In 1935 Petersen was hired by the River Falls Motor Company as a car salesman. He also did the accounting.

The garage and car lot was located in downtown River Falls where Bo Jon's Flowers and Mr. Movies now stand.

Petersen was dating the daughter of the company's co-owner. Her name was Mary Kathryn Gutzler.

The couple got married in 1938 and had two children. Mary Petersen died three years ago.

The River Falls Motor Company garage was wiped out by a massive fire caused by a burning cigarette in 1962.

A new building went up farther north on Main Street at Roen Ford's current location - 40 years ago that was the edge of River Falls, bordered by farms and cornfields.

The business took on the name Roen in 1967.

Petersen said he was rejected for military service in World War II.

"I tried to get into the Navy, but they told me I didn't have enough teeth," Petersen said. "I told them I'm not going to fight a war with my teeth, damn it, I'm going to fight with a gun."

Petersen made his patriotic contribution to the war by getting hired at an airplane factory in Milwaukee.

"I was the second-shift foreman in a laboratory," he said. "We tested the steel and the propellers and other things for each plane that was built. I had 35 women working for me. I probably should have stayed on that job. I'd have had a good pension by now."

Petersen and his wife returned to River Falls after World War II, and Petersen got back into selling cars.

"It was different back then," he said. "We didn't wait for customers to come in and ask about cars. We would notice people we knew who were driving older cars and go out and visit them at their homes, trying to get them to buy a new one...We maybe got a sale that way on one out of every 10 tries."

Petersen said he sold a lot of cars not only in River Falls but also in Hudson.

"Since I was born and grew up there, I knew a lot of people from Hudson, and that helped," he said.

Petersen said the first new car he bought was a 1936 Ford Deluxe three-window coupe.

"That was their best car and I paid $690 for it," he said. "Today you can hardly buy a good set of tires for that amount."

Petersen said he stayed active for many years, playing tennis, sky jumping with the Hudson Sky Club, fishing at a cabin in northern Wisconsin.

Looking back, Petersen never imagined he'd still be on the job for a Ford dealer at this age.

"I probably thought I'd be dead by this time," he smiled. "But I exercise, I walk around the block a couple of times, do some stretching, take my vitamins and have a shot of brandy each day. The doctor said the brandy is all right long as I don't save it all for Saturday night.

"I like working, so why should I leave? I'll work until I can't go on anymore, and that might not be much longer. It could be next week, next month, next year. I just want to go quietly. I don't want to end up in a wheelchair."

Petersen has longevity on his side. Most of his eight brothers and sisters lived into their 90s.

One older sister, age 99, is living in a nursing home in Minnesota.

Petersen's mother was 92 when she died. His father, healthy at age 73, died in an auto accident driving a Model T Ford.

Petersen has a house he maintains on Seventh Street. He generally has a college boarder living in the basement. His daughter, Nancy Nelson of River Falls, keeps very close tabs on him.

"I have a nice big garden I take care of, I mow the lawn, mop the floors, paint, things like that around the house," Petersen said.

He also belongs to the local Moose Lodge and has achieved the highest rank of Pilgrim within that service organization.

As for friends, Petersen admitted there aren't too many left his age.

"I've outlived them all," he said.

Petersen hasn't sold Fords since 1975. He continued with his accounting duties for many years, according to Roen Ford general manager Terry Roen.

Today Petersen handles car title and license applications, and helps compile sales and insurance reports for the company.

"When you've been here as long as Larry, you write the rules about how you work," Terry Roen said. "Larry is amazing about his job. With a lot of people who are nearing retirement age, you hear, 'I've only got six months left and then I'm out of here.'

"That's not Larry. He's always been a team player, and he's brutally fair and honest. When he's caught up with his work, he's gone. He doesn't want to take a minute extra from his employer.

Roen said Petersen fills out all his paperwork by hand.

"He prints in a skillful, neat way and has the most beautiful cursive writing. It hasn't diminished a bit with age," Roen said. "He even got a letter of commendation not long ago from the state of Wisconsin for his neat, accurate work."

Gale Koehler, Roen Ford bookkeeper, said the 95-year-old Petersen still does "meticulous" clerical work.

"He's really remarkable for his age," she said. "He makes sure all the i's are dotted and the t's crossed. Nothing goes unnoticed with him. His hearing isn't the best, but he gets his work done accurately and in a short time."

Roen said it's a pleasure to see Petersen show up week after week at the car dealership.

"He's so durable, so dedicated to what he does," Roen said. "It makes you feel good having him around. You have to respect that kind of longevity."