A column that took 40 years to write

Present and past business associates, friends and family filed into the Foothills Bible Fellowship Church  last Tuesday morning. They were all there – a full house of them --- to pay their final respects to Wessington Springs business icon Lawrence Caffee. Before Pastor Don Grubb began the funeral service,  I had a few minutes  to reflect on the relationship Lawrence had with the True Dakotan, and with the community in general.

It’s amazing how many local businesses have been touched by the Caffee family over the years.

He and Ada were well on their way to a long business career in the community when Penny and I moved to Wessington Springs in 1975. They were already operating Caffee Farms and Caffee Trucking and were in the need for some printed materials. Lawrence had a shop-at-home mentality and used local businesses whenever possible. So it was understandable that he called on Duke, Karen, Penny and me – and our fledgling newspaper and printing business.

Along the way other businesses with the Caffee stamp on them appeared.  Springs Auto popped up and Ada’s Clothes Gallery soon followed.

Clothes Gallery went up in smoke along with the Springs Inn (which Deloris and Bill Jacomet, Jon and Carla Neimeyer operated), Connell/Krohmer Insurance and Thornton Drug. The Caffees replaced the burned Springs Inn building with a new one across the street which is now owned by Carla and Jon Niemeyer today. They replaced the Clothes Gallery as well, and that Main Street building is  now owned by Lance Witte as a residence, Spartan Suites rental and a home for his consulting business.

The Caffees bought and renovated Pla-Mor Lanes, now Starlight Bowling and ordered more printing and advertising. Lawrence still wasn’t done. He bought the Corner Pantry convenience store, operated it for a while, then built the Humm-Dinger in its place. Jason Zacher now owns that business on the busy corner of Main Street and Dakota Avenue.

Today a couple more family businesses add to the Caffee legacy in Wessington Springs. Their son Jerry operates L Double J Implement and the Seed Barn in the Springs industrial park. Their daughter Mary (Chic) and her husband Jeff Reider own and operate S&M body shop and the Pronto Parts store.

Springs Auto employed dozens of people and sold vehicles for many years at the downtown location… until on a cold, January 3, 2012 night a fire dropped it to the ground. It was only a matter of days when they cropped up at a building they owned on the southern end of Wessington Springs at the junction of Dakota Avenue and SD Highway 34. Life seemed to be good on the hilltop location with a great view, at least for slightly more than two years. On June 18, 2014, Springs Auto was the first building in Wessington Springs to suffer the attack of an EF-2 tornado. And once again their business lay in rubble.

One might think the tornado would have been the catalyst to drive the 76-year old into retirement. But it wasn’t. Days after the debris --- building parts, tangled cars and trucks—was scooped up and hauled away, LC pulled a camper to the lot, converted it to a makeshift office and began selling vehicles again. Eventually, the Caffees finished construction for the last time with a new facility on the hill. Chances are good that the converted camper office was among the first sales in the new Springs Auto home.

Lawrence’s weekly back page ad appeared in the True Dakotan for years, becoming the cornerstone of our business. Hopefully, we helped him sell some cars along the way, but we owe much to the Caffee family for their continued patronage through the years.  

About two months ago, I had the opportunity to visit one-on-one with Lawrence. Recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at the time, we both knew his days here were numbered. “The Wenzels really appreciate your business over the years,” I began. “If it wasn’t for your support, I’m not sure that we would have existed for the past forty years.” In typical LC style, he deflected the compliment back to me. “You know, there are a couple of businesses that the community cannot afford to lose,” he told me. “And one of them is definitely the newspaper. And by the way, are you going to eat that bowl of fruit?”  Impressed by the broad smile and the sense of humor he still had, I happily got up and returned to the salad bar for another bowl of fruit.

I never really knew LC socially; our relationship was one that always ended in a conversation about business. I found him to be tough, fair and a soft touch for those in need. I’m pretty certain his adversaries found him to be a strong opponent as well. Thankfully, I was never one of those. While Springs Auto was still located on East Main Street LC asked me to design a new business card for him. We had recently started doing business with a specialty printer that produced pretty good looking, full color cards. I put together a flashy new card, loaded with color.  Jerry was still working at Springs Auto at the time and took a look at the proof I took down to the dealership. “This looks good,” Jerry tactfully said. “But dad actually likes black and white.”  Of course, I should have known Lawrence was always a black and white kind of guy. I converted the business card to a simple, black and white design and it passed Lawrence’s scrutiny in the first attempt.

The family members followed the casket out of the church on that Tuesday morning, ready to say their final farewells at the Prospect Hill Cemetery. 

A few moments before, Jeff Caffee – Jerry’s son—had spoken eloquently about his grandfather. He regarded Lawrence as a pillar in the community. Everyone knew that. But it was something else he talked about that gave folks some insight into his private life. It seems young Jeff, who is now a veteran, who has served in the Middle-East, had gotten into a scrape in Aberdeen. “My grandpa came up to talk to me while I was in the Brown County jail,” he told us. “I wasn’t supposed to see visitors, but he talked a guard into letting him in,” Jeff continued. It was during that visit that Lawrence took the time to talk to the troubled kid, helping him find a new path in life. 

It was that story about Jeff and his grandpa that touched me the most. Gallantly fighting back tears, Jeff said he had visited his grandfather a few days before his death. 

As Jeff  walked to the door, the ailing grandfather had one last bit of advice for the grandson who loved him unconditionally: “Be good,” Lawrence said.

Editor’s note: This column is based on observations and experiences that span four decades. After many failed attempts over the years to convince Lawrence Caffee to sit down for an interview about his life, we had to wait until his passing to write it — as he told us many times, he didn’t care about that type of publicity. Although we have plenty of color pages available, it has been decided to run this piece on a black and white page. He would have liked it that way.