- Associated Press - Sunday, December 6, 2015

BALTIC, S.D. (AP) - On a clear October evening at the Monarch Steak House in Renner, Duane Schreurs gave away a sizable chunk of his life savings to people he didn’t know.

It was an impulsive but not untypical act for the 82-year-old farmer from Baltic, who invested wisely in South Dakota land and became a millionaire in the process. Sharing his fortune was part of the plan as long as he received no public acclaim for those efforts.

“I’m more comfortable behind the scenes,” shrugs Schreurs, who had to be prodded into allowing his story to be told.

The original vision called for the Catholic-born Schreurs to donate a substantial sum of money to religious causes upon his death, but he figured there was no time like the present.

“I had it in my will and everything,” says Schreurs, who once sold 5,200 acres of rural property in one of the largest land deals in East River history. “But then I figured that I should get some enjoyment out of it and not wait until I was gone.”

He decided to give away a total of $250,000 in 10 separate gifts to area churches, with family and close friends choosing the recipients. The generosity spread across denominations, from St. Peter Catholic Church in Colman to Messiah Lutheran in rural Flandreau, from East Nidaros Church in rural Baltic to Embrace Church in Sioux Falls.

Each pastor or representative received an invitation to the Oct. 2 banquet that read: “Please bring your intentions in written form. Your check in the amount of $25,000 will be delivered at this time.”

To Messiah Lutheran pastor David Bacon, the feel-good gesture was like something out of a movie. Schreurs’ son, Jeff, was married at the church in April, with Bacon performing the ceremony, but Jeff had only joined the congregation a year earlier.

“Then I get a call from him in September saying that his dad wants to give $25,000 to our church,” Bacon tells the Argus Leader (http://argusne.ws/1N6imFr ). “When I heard that, I hit the floor.”

Several of the churches plan to use the funds for community donations, ensuring that the memorable and unexpected gift keeps on giving, which seems fitting for this time of year.

Schreurs, whose cattle and dairy expertise led to agricultural outreach stints in South America and Russia, is retired and settling into his dream house with wife, Marilyn, on a modest five acres of land. On the night of the banquet, he stayed true to form and didn’t make any public pronouncements, preferring to stay in the background.

But Eldon Thurow, interim pastor of the Lutheran Church of Dell Rapids, engaged the old farmer in conversation and was impressed by the firmness of his faith.

“He told me that he recognized what he had materially was a gift from God, and that he had been richly blessed,” said Thurow. “It was a humble thing that he did, wanting to spread that blessing. He didn’t want any glory out of it. He was excited to be able to share.”

Crafting his version of the American dream, Schreurs found prosperity through hard work and opportunity despite humble beginnings. His parents, Leo and Elvera, lived near Larchwood, Iowa, before moving to a farm near Baltic, where Duane and his brothers carried their share of the load.

After attending high school and serving an Army stint in Japan following the Korean War, Schreurs returned to South Dakota and married Shirley Heinemann of Dell Rapids, who would become a registered nurse and his life partner for 56 years as they raised six children.

Duane built a successful dairy operation near Baltic and expected the kids to pull their weight, which meant daughter Mary was driving a tractor and hauling manure before turning 10 years old.

“Dad was a hard worker and that’s all we knew,” says Jeff, who recalls being head-butted repeatedly by an angry cow near a feeder wagon before being rescued at age 12. “At the time, sometimes you’re upset as a kid that you need to be working while your friends are at school events. In the long run, though, it was the best thing that ever happened.”

The family experienced enough tragedy to test anyone’s faith, but Duane and Shirley stayed strong. They lost their oldest daughter, Kim, to a brain tumor at age 22 in 1979. About two decades later, daughter Kathy, a nurse raising her own family in Indianapolis, died in a car accident that also killed her nephew, Matthew.

Duane still gets emotional to the point where he can’t talk about those losses, but most in the family believe the tragedies softened their father’s outlook and played a role in the spirited generosity he later displayed.

“We tried to get better instead of bitter,” says Mary. “It’s almost like they had a hand in this.”

As the kids grew older and started making their own plans, Schreurs sold the dairy operation and built a house a few miles away with a smaller farm to oversee. He and Shirley started searching for the next challenge, which turned out to be in South America.

They signed up for the Peace Corps and traveled to Ecuador in 1985 to receive training and engage in agricultural extension in an area where cattle farming was still primitive, allowing Duane’s experience to shine.

“They said there was no way to raise Holstein (cattle) in those conditions, but I proved to them after a year that it was by far the best animal they could have,” says Schreurs. “We invited people from all over (Ecuador) to visit our ranch down there and see what we were doing and apply it to their own cattle. Word started to spread as people built up their herds.”

Shirley helped with the cheese operation and used her nursing skills to assist those in need, but it was a difficult two-year stint. She and Duane lived in a bamboo hut with mosquito nets over the beds and struggled at times with their Spanish, using hand signals to communicate with the locals.

“By the time they got back, she said she was never going to go again,” says family friend Allen Brown, a longtime lawyer in Dell Rapids. “She said she never saw so many spiders in her life.”

But Duane was energized by the experience and longed to return. He got his chance several years later when he was contacted about managing a ranch in Paraguay that was struggling to turn a profit with corn, wheat and soybean crops.

“It was 154,000 acres, a mile wide and just about from here to Rapid City,” says Schreurs of the size of the ranch. “I had about 200 employees and they asked me before I went down if I spoke the language, and I said sure. Then I got there and realized they spoke Portuguese.”

The universal language of farming took over, allowing Schreurs to thrive. He turned around the fortunes of the farm operation and saved the business from failure.

“I was supposed to stay until they sold the place because they were deep in debt and had five banks that wanted to foreclose on them,” he says. “Someone offered them $12 million just to get them out of debt but I said, ‘Don’t do that. I’ll build it up.’ And two years later I cleared them $23 million.”

Back home, the Schreurs family received hefty bonus checks in the mail - one was for $150,000 - and relayed the good news to Duane on a satellite phone he kept for emergencies.

He returned home after two years and later received an offer to do agricultural outreach in Russia, helping out on a farm that had not seen much American influence.

“Every piece of equipment had two seats on it, one for the operator and one for the mechanic, and they had cameras set up all over the place,” Duane says. “I helped them out with cattle and dairy and large sheep herds, but then I was ready to come home.”

Faced with the prospect of how to maximize the money he earned on his travels and through previous farm transactions, Schreurs first turned to a traditional broker. But he never quite trusted the Wall Street crowd.

“I knew I could do better with my money than they could,” he says. “One thing that I knew for sure was land. I knew dirt. So that’s where I started to invest.”

The strategy seemed risky at times to Brown, the family lawyer and friend whose association with Duane spans more than 50 years. But Schreurs seemed to have the Midas touch.

“His theory was to invest money back into land, and he was not conservative like I would be,” says Brown. “But every time he made one of his moves, it ended up being very beneficial on his behalf.”

The sale of 5,200 acres through auctioneer Chuck Sutton in 2005 involved property that spanned Minnehaha, Moody and Deuel counties, selling for more than $12 million. Schreurs made sure his kids were taken care of but also acquired more land West River, leading to a later sale of more than 15,000 acres of farm and ranch property when the price was right.

Duane and Shirley lived in Whitewood and then built a new home in Faith that they enjoyed together until Shirley took ill in 2011. She died of cancer that summer, ending a life that had seen her hold the family together and continue her nursing career while her husband built the family fortune in South Dakota and abroad.

Little did Duane know that he would soon embark on a second marriage with someone he had known from his high school days, and that the twilight of his life still had a chance to shine.

Schreurs was visiting with his lawyer in Dell Rapids when he saw a photo of Brown’s former high school classmates from a recent reunion on the desk.

He asked about a blonde woman in the photo and was told her name was Marilyn. Like Duane, her longtime spouse had died of cancer and she was living in Nevada.

“I went to prom with her,” Schreurs told Brown, adding that he had been friends with Marilyn’s brother. “I dated her but then her parents moved away and took her with them.”

Marilyn’s family was Baptist and Duane was raised Catholic, which their parents didn’t see as an ideal match. They hadn’t seen each other in more than 60 years.

He got her address and sent her a letter, with events moving fast from there. He offered to send a plane ticket for her to fly into Sioux Falls, but Marilyn balked at that idea.

“He wanted me to come and see him,” she says. “But I said, ‘No, if you want to see me you’re going to have to come to Nevada.’ So he bought this lovely little Cadillac and came to court me in that.”

Even after Schreurs showed up and they recalled old times, Marilyn made calls to Brown and other South Dakota folks to learn more about her determined suitor.

“You don’t see someone or hear anything from them for 60 years and then they come into your house and tell you they’re a millionaire?” says Marilyn. “What do you think my kids thought? It was not a normal situation.”

But Schreurs is a seasoned negotiator accustomed to getting what he wants, and this deal was no different.

“I saw her and I said, ‘I’m not coming home without you,” he recalls. “And I did bring her home and we got married.”

The wedding was held at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Garretson, with the reception at the steak house in Renner. Brown acted as best man after continuing to assure Marilyn that she was marrying a man of integrity.

“Whatever Duane tells you is true,” he informed her.

Schreurs sold the house in Faith and hired a contractor to build an exact replica on the plot of land in rural Baltic that represents the last of his land holdings.

When he informed Marilyn of his intention to give away a quarter of a million dollars to area churches, she was intrigued. Despite being Catholic, he didn’t see the wisdom in giving it all to one entity, and she agreed. They wanted to spread it around.

“It sounded good to me,” she says. “If he has the money, why not help somebody with it?”

Schreurs allowed his kids and friends such as Brown to choose the beneficiaries, and Mary helped with the invitations. It was important to Duane that the churches reveal how they planned to use the money so he could envision his philanthropy at work.

“Asking for churches to move that fast is a miracle, but it was a gift from the heart,” says Pastor Bacon of Messiah Lutheran. “Declining church attendance has affected budgets for a lot of churches, and this gives us a chance to do projects we couldn’t otherwise do.”

When the night of the banquet arrived, guests enjoyed a good meal and mingled among the cross-section of denominations brought together. Duane’s sons said a few words and Brown served as master of ceremonies, allowing the hero of the night to stay in the background.

“I asked him if he wanted to say something and he said, ‘No, you take care of the whole works,’” recalls Brown. “The only time he said anything was when people came over to thank him and he said, ‘My pleasure.’”

For the Schreurs children, who lived through family tragedy and plenty of transitions, the night of giving allowed new light to shine on their father’s legacy.

“When I first heard about it, my reaction was, ‘I could sure use 25 grand,’ ” says Jeff, who owns a sanitation company in Garretson. “But then to hear what he wanted to do and see it firsthand at the banquet, with all these people telling what they’re going to do with the money, it was priceless. The look on his face said it all.”

As the speeches unfurled and the checks were disbursed, the farmer saw that the hard work that marked much of his life had not been in vain. His good fortune allowed him to make his small part of the world better, and he was going to see it happen.

“Some of them wanted to refurbish their churches and some wanted to give to poor people who couldn’t afford a good Christmas,” he says when asked of that night. “It was fun to hear all about it. I would say that it was probably the most fun that I’ve ever had.”

___

Information from: Argus Leader, http://www.argusleader.com

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide