The seasoned Spam on a paper plate, the talk of 8-inch augers and the cans of sardines in the top drawer of Commissioner Scott Schulte’s desk tell you that this isn’t an Anoka County board meeting that Schulte is overseeing.
Schulte, the former Coon Rapids City Council member who was elected to the county board 14 months ago, is heating up a seventh pot of coffee this morning. He arrived at 3:30 at the Hi-Ten Service Center in Coon Rapids that his family has owned and run since 1958 — getting there long before the station’s 6 a.m. opening, but just minutes before the coffee-klatch regulars. They’ve been showing up to trade barbs and philosophies for more than a half century, almost since the place opened.
“In the middle ’60s, some of our older customers would come in and they’d hang around and we always had a coffee pot on,” says Melvin Schulte, who sold the business to son Scott in 1998. “They’d talk about what their cars needed, but mostly about the usual B.S., what was going on in the world.
“By the middle ’70s, we had more retired people with nothing to do, people who had been our customers,” Melvin adds.
“They’re still here.”
As is Melvin. He’s 80, but is here every day until noon. On Fridays, Melvin will fry up whatever he and Jeff LePage, 69, another regular, catch at the lake the afternoon before.
“It would be nice to have heat here,” says Jerry Wright, 78, who ignores a thermostat set at 70 degrees.
Wright, a retired banker and former Coon Rapids City Council member, is reminded every few minutes or so that he played college football so long ago at St. Thomas that the players wore leather helmets. He often brings double-stuffed Oreo cookies to these gatherings. But on this day, Scott Schulte brings holiday cookies — even if his wife, Jan, told him to throw out this batch.
“We have liberals, conservatives and misinformed voters here,” says Dave Norland, 71. “We’ve covered all the bases.”
It may be Scott Schulte’s place and he may be the one who holds political office, but with this group, he’s rarely the focus of attention. He has provided the stage — a comfortable waiting room, where he pours warm Folgers and listens to experts solve crisis after crisis — from the Vikings’ coaching vacancy to the virtues of 7-inch augers over 8-inch augers when fishing in January.
It’s not as if Schulte doesn’t have enough to do already. He awakens at 3 a.m. each day and splits his time between his station and the Anoka County Government Center, a seven-minute drive away. He also serves on task forces in Coon Rapids and is involved in numerous charities.
Most weeks, he puts in 90-plus hours, he says. On weekdays, he’s in bed by 8:30 p.m.
“I understand all the work Scott does,” says Jan Schulte, who retired four years ago after a 32-year career at Honeywell. “Most days, he sets his alarm for 4:30, but he’s awake at 3. His mind races, thinking about his day, and the next thing you know he’s already begun doing whatever he has to do.”
He could have been doing a lot of things. Schulte says he was on the high honor roll throughout high school and that counselors always tried to convince him to go to “one of the good colleges.” He preferred to study engines.
“I was fascinated by cars and the way they were evolving,” he says. “Cars were evolving into a higher tech area and it intrigued me.”
A changing station
The service center has evolved as well. When Scott took it over, he found $628 in pennies — spare change that his father had thrown into a bin over the years.
“We found a few rare pennies — a 1909 VDB,” Scott says, referring to a coin with Lincoln’s likeness, designed by Victor David Brenner. “But getting those pennies to a bank was quite a project. Nobody wanted to count them.”
On this day, Schulte is the man in black — a black and white tie, black suit and black work shirt, with his service-station name tag covered by his sports jacket.
“It’s a convertible uniform for days I have to be at the government center and then back here,” he explains. “My Superman outfit.”
He says he couldn’t be happier as a county commissioner and loves public service. He attends every county committee meeting, even for those on which he doesn’t serve, “to at least have the same understanding as my fellow commissioners.”
Sardines and hot sauce
But it is at these casual meetings of old friends at the service center that Schulte appears to be in his element — even if the conversation is merely about crossword puzzles.
“My wife has succumbed to it,” he says of his early-morning lifestyle.
Where else could he find old buddies who understand the virtues of sardines with Louisiana hot sauce?
Roger Hendricks, 64, retired on Dec. 31 after working at the station for 45 years. But days later, he has made the 30-mile pre-dawn drive there, to hold court and trade barbs.
“If Melvin isn’t here, it’s up to me to keep everyone in line,” says Hendricks, who often arrives to the coffee klatch at 4:30 a.m. “Often, I’ve thought I should wear a black-and-white striped shirt and a whistle.”
Before earning his living as a carpenter, Roger Haugen, 66, worked at the station in the mid-’60s — seven different times.
“I don’t know if I was fired four of the seven or if I quit,” Haugen says. “But I get up in the morning and get here when I can. It’s the camaraderie. And I like to watch and listen to Mel and Jeff fight like an old married couple.”
Melvin opens a box of fresh doughnuts, offering treats to the regulars and to customers who mingle long enough to catch the conversation and a good laugh. The customers offer high praise for the service center and seem amused by the coffee-klatch group.
LePage gestures toward a newcomer.
“You have to try some of this spicy Spam and crackers,” he says.