This article appeared in the May 2017 issue of Generations of Today magazine.
Reading time: 8 min
By Michael Ransom
I have known Lester and Dianna Horntvedt for many years, primarily through Rochester’s Zumbro Lutheran Church, where Les served as pastor from 1967 to 2000. I have been impressed with the way in which they humbly and tirelessly care about and care for others—at church and in the community at large. Dianna is more of an “in the trenches, behind the scenes” volunteer; Les is more likely to serve with organizations such as community boards. Together, Les and Dianna make quite a team, doing whatever good they can while quietly making a difference in peoples’ lives. I met with them in April and was interested in finding out about the people and events that have influenced them.
Dianna Edeskuty, the oldest in a family of six girls and one boy, was born in Minneapolis. Up until the fourth child arrived in her family, she, her two sisters, and her parents lived with her paternal grandparents. During this time, she grew particularly close to her paternal grandmother, who had emigrated from New Zealand. When I asked Dianna why she has spent so much of her life committed to helping others, she spoke lovingly of her grandmother:
“I think my dad’s mother—we called her Nana—had a significant influence on me and shaped me in ways that I didn’t realize at the time. She was continually involved in community-minded things. I clearly remember one time during the latter part of the Depression; I was probably four or five years old and was tagging along with her as she took soup to a down-and-out family that lived in a Minneapolis high-rise. We climbed several flights of rickety stairs. At one point, Nana grabbed my arm and lifted me up and over a gaping hole in one of the steps. I still have the image in my mind of looking way down through the opening. We knocked on the door and delivered soup to a mom and her many little children. I’ve thought back often to wonder if and how those kids managed to survive the treacherous steps.
“Another time, when I was about eight, Nana stopped by our house to pick up my sister and me. She often took us with her when she ran errands or attended meetings. We were headed toward downtown Minneapolis when she spotted several homeless people on the island formed where Hennepin and Lyndale Avenues come together. Nana crossed several lanes of traffic, pulled off to the side, and approached a man who was sitting on the curb. She ushered him into the car and drove to the Hennepin County Hospital, where she instructed the attendants to give him a bath and a good meal; then, away we went!
“A year or two later, Nana was on a mission to ensure that Native Americans living on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation were getting government money that had been promised them. She had joined a Minnesota business women’s organization, and this was one of their projects. We drove north to the reservation, and when we arrived, she marched in and spoke with the person in charge. While they talked, I played with children who were making small birchbark canoes. We left once she had been assured that those on the reservation were being treated fairly.”
Above left: Dianna's grandmother Alcestis (Nana) Edeskuty, 1943. Above right: Dianna (left) with her sisters Dorianna, Jacqueline, and Nonie
Dianna moved to Rochester from Hopkins in 1956, and over the years, she became active in many organizations such as the PTA; she also prepared and served meals to the less fortunate and “adopted” a single-mom family to help them as best she could. One of her first volunteer activities in Rochester was with The Arc Southeastern Minnesota, which was then called the Association for Retarded Children. She was moved to help The Arc for several reasons: a neighbor in Hopkins had had a little girl with Down’s syndrome with whom Dianna had become close; her neighbor in Rochester had a developmentally challenged son; and her good friends Dave and Sonja Dunn were actively involved. She joined the organization and served as its secretary. One of The Arc’s first projects came about when an institution for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities closed in Faribault and many of the residents were brought to Rochester. Some were given housing at the Rochester State Hospital; others were moved into group homes. The Arc helped find jobs for many and provided social activities. Dianna recalls, “Sonja Dunn and I often took them bowling. Our preschool children came along and enjoyed the outing and interaction. They loved to dance, especially the young adults, so we would go to the State Hospital for special occasions (New Year’s Eve celebrations, for example) and dance with them. Many were being introduced to ‘normal’ society through these activities for the first time.”
Les Horntvedt, the youngest of nine children, was born during the Great Depression in the small North Dakota farming town of Columbus. His parents lost their life savings in the 1929 stock market crash. (His father hurried to the bank to withdraw their money, but he was too late—all was gone.) During the 1930s, his parents were barely able to hang on to their farm. His father died in 1953 after years of faithfully making mortgage payments but before owning the farm free and clear.
Though busy with their family and farm, Les’s parents found time to volunteer. Les recalls, “My mother was involved in the church women’s group; I remember her collecting pennies for Lutheran World Action. My dad was secretary of our little country church for fifty years; he also served on the township board and the school board. Elections took place at my country school. I vividly remember the county sheriff driving into our yard, taking a big, sealed sack from his car, and giving it to my dad. The sack contained ballots for the upcoming election. The next day my dad went to the country school to open the building (school would be canceled for the day) and oversee the day’s voting; he later would bring the ballots home for safekeeping. In the next day or two, the county sheriff would drive back and pick up the ballots. That’s how voting was done in rural areas like ours. My dad was involved in those kinds of things. He did them, but he did not make any ‘to do’ about what he did. The one thing Dad disliked more than anything was bragging. He couldn’t stand a braggart, and consequently he never affirmed any of what my siblings or I accomplished. You just did it; you didn’t get any high fives.”
Les recalls the superintendent of the Columbus school district as providing a fatherly influence. “He was a great gentleman and a man of integrity. It’s interesting the simple acts of kindness one remembers. During high school, I worked after school and on Saturdays at the grocery store. One Saturday, the superintendent stopped by the store in a car he had just purchased and said, ‘Hey, Les, do you want to go for a ride in my new car?’ ‘Oh, sure,’ I replied, so we hopped in his beautiful black Desoto—chrome all over—and we drove down the highway for a five-mile ride. That simple little gesture to show that he cared about me meant so much.”
Les attended Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, and planned to be a physics, chemistry, or math major. He remembers filling out the entrance application and pondering over the question What do you want to do? He asked his mother, “What should I put there?”
She said, “Put down teacher,” which he did. He had trouble, though, with math and chemistry his first year. His Columbus high school education hadn’t equipped him to compete scholastically with the other college freshman, but he did the best he could and made no excuses. He came home to work on the farm when the school year ended. Les had become friends with the new pastor of the Lutheran church in Columbus. He recalls, “Our pastor was a good man—not a particularly riveting preacher, and not a theologian, but he played great ping-pong. He didn’t encourage me to become a pastor; he just asked me to do things, such as teach Vacation Bible School. He came out to our farm field one August day when we were combining. Dad stopped the combine and walked over to greet him. He came back to say, ‘The pastor would like to talk with you,’ and as I went to meet him, my dad started up the combine and continued working (one couldn’t tarry when getting the crops in).
“The pastor said, ‘I must go to a district meeting in Fargo in a couple of weeks. I can’t be here on the Sunday. I’d like you to lead the service and preach for my three churches.’ (One was in town and two were in the country.) That was scary. It meant doing everything. My dad, a good Haugean Pietist, questioned whether I should do this. (Nielsen Hauge was a nineteenth-century Lutheran lay minister, spiritual leader, and author. He led a noted Pietism revival known as the Haugean movement.) My dad felt that the pastor, and only the pastor, should lead a church service and preach the sermon. Our pastor, for whatever reasons, believed in more lay involvement. Despite my dad’s reservations, I agreed to the pastor’s request. I led the 9:00 service at our little country church, the 11:00 service in town, and the 2:00 service at the other rural church.
“When I returned to college for my sophomore year, I switched to an English major and a philosophy minor. I didn’t decide to enroll in seminary until the end of my senior year, so in four years I went from not knowing what I wanted to do with my life to deciding upon the ministry. I credit our church pastor with planting this seed. I believe that my mother prayed for me to become a minister, though she never told me of doing so. It is ironic that my first sermon, of the hundreds I would preach, was the only one my father ever heard. He died the next Christmas.”
Les’s lineup of pastoral responsibilities at Zumbro Lutheran Church initially left him little time or energy for personal community involvement. He says, “I was not involved with any significant commitments outside the congregation until the 1970s, when I served for six years with the Olmsted County Day Activity Center in various capacities (secretary, president, and so on).” Following that he became active in other areas, such as the Rochester Human Rights Commission, the Rochester Area Foundation, and Leave a Legacy, to name a few.
Seeing his parents work so hard on the farm while always making time for civic duties made a lasting impression on Les, just as the efforts of her grandmother on behalf of other people made a lasting impressing on Dianna. Looking back on her volunteering, Dianna says, “I feel that my grandmother—and people like her—whether intentionally or not, planted a seed that fostered later-in-life involvement in caring for those in need.”