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Willmar attorney, WWII veteran Wally Gustafson dies

Tom Cherveny / Tribune file photo Wally Gustafson, shown in 2014, kept a photograph showing the Japanese surrender aboard the USS Missouri – which he witnessed – on the wall at his downtown Willmar law office. Gustafson died Monday at age 93.1 / 2
Carolyn Lange / Tribune file photo Pictured here in 2015, Wally Gustafson shared apples he grew on his rural New London hobby farm. A longtime Willmar attorney, former state legislator and World War II Navy veteran, Gustafson died Monday at age 93.2 / 2

SPICER — Longtime Willmar attorney, former state legislator and World War II Navy veteran Wallace "Wally" Gustafson died Monday in St. Cloud.

The 93-year-old had been the last known surviving officer from the personal staff of Admiral William Halsey, and Gustafson witnessed the Japanese surrender on the USS Missouri.

Gustafson's two daughters were with him when he died Monday in St. Cloud.

"He was just a remarkable guy," said Ann Gustafson, who practiced law with her father in Willmar and lived next door to him on Green Lake in Spicer. "He was an incredible dad."

She said her father was witty, engaged and compassionate until the very end and that she will miss the "extra light and sense of love and interest and emotional support" that her father gave their family. "That's gone now," she said.

Born in 1925 on a farm in Renville County, Wally Gustafson joined the Navy when he was 17 years old.

He was selected to serve on the staff of Halsey, who commanded the Third Fleet during World War II. While on the USS Missouri with Halsey, Gustafson was responsible for communications.

He was also on that ship on Sept. 2, 1945, in Tokyo Bay when a delegation representing the Japanese military and Emperor Hirohito arrived to sign the "instrument of surrender" that ended World War II.

In an interview with the West Central Tribune in 2014, Wally Gustafson said there was "no applause, no band playing, no shaking of hands, no saluting'' during the historic event.

Gustafson told the Tribune he was sitting on top of a five-inch gun about 30 feet from the desk where General Douglas MacArthur directed the Japanese delegation.

"It was strictly a very somber event,'' he recounted in the interview. The stone-faced delegates signed the paper, MacArthur turned and said "the proceedings are terminated" and they "turned around and left," he said.

In 2013 Gustafson was invited to witness a "change of command" ceremony for the U.S. Third Fleet. While aboard the USS Ronald Reagan in San Diego, California, Gustafson was recognized for being the last known surviving officer from Halsey's staff during his command of the Third Fleet in World War II.

The Navy and hard work on the farm "prepared him for the successes he had later in his life," said Ann Gustafson.

Using the GI Bill, he obtained degrees in business and law.

He began his legal practice in Olivia in 1951 and opened his Willmar practice in 1956.

Besides practicing law locally, Gustafson was instrumental in township government and was president of the National Association of Township Attorneys and gave seminars to township directors and township attorneys throughout the state.

A lifelong Republican, Gustafson was elected five times to the Minnesota House of Representatives, representing Kandiyohi County.

With a commitment to community service, Gustafson was a mover and shaker who helped bring sanitary sewer systems to Green Lake and Eagle Lake. Ann Gustafson said her father could "spot a problem and find a solution" by bringing people with common interests together.

"My dad was known as a guy who could get things done," she said.

A dapper dresser who always wore a suit, tie and hat, Wally Gustafson did business back in the day when a handshake meant something. "His word was his bond," Ann said.

Hard-working and "frugal, but generous in so many ways," her father always said he was the "luckiest guy around" and was thankful for everything he had, she said.

She said he never forgot forgot his farm roots.

He raised cattle for many years on his 320-acre hobby farm near New London, erected at least 150 bluebird houses and planted hundreds of apple trees over the years. The entire acreage is in a Minnesota land trust, which permanently protects the land from future development.

Every year Gustafson invited the New London Boy Scout Troop 228 to take home jugs of apple cider they made by pressing apples from Gustafson's orchard using an old-fashioned manual apple press.

"Wally has always been a gracious supporter of our troop by hosting us for apple pressing, attending spaghetti fundraisers, giving other financial support to the troop, allowing us to use his farm for mushroom hunting, and coming to speak to the scouts about his experience in the Navy," said Dr. Al Balay, former Scoutmaster with Troop 228.

During a 2015 interview with the Tribune at the orchard, Gustafson said he drank a glass of his apple juice every day. "They say apple a day keeps the doctor away," he said.

Given his longevity — it appears to be good advice.

Don Handahl, 94, of Willmar, said he will miss his good friend.

"I can do nothing but say nice things about Wally Gustafson," said Handahl. "He was a very generous man."

He said Wally would bring him bags of apples to eat and firewood for his fireplace.

"And when the wood and apples came, there would be some good conversation too," Handahl said. "We shared the same political views and our families were very close. We got to be almost like relatives."

Handahl said Gustafson loved his church, Vinje Lutheran Church in Willmar, and didn't let physical challenges get in the way of his attendance.

"He will be missed," Handahl said.

Ann Gustafson said her father leaves a strong community legacy behind and a family that learned well from his examples.

She said her father was a lifelong learner who was curious and imaginative. He took his children and grandchildren on trips around the world and told them there were "never any wrong turns" in life but that lessons could be learned through misadventure and provide "a fountain of future opportunities."

Funeral services for Wallace Gustafson will be Sept. 21 at Vinje Lutheran Church in Willmar.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

(320) 894-9750