When someone does something nice for Les Heggernes, he doesn’t forget. Which is why, at 94, he’s repaying a favor he received 80 years ago.
“I had a disrupted childhood,” he said, a polite way of noting that things were horrible at home. When he was 14, he found a safe haven in a St. Paul boys club that was part of what is now called the Union Gospel Mission Twin Cities.
“We could play basketball there,” he recalled. “They’d give us soda and a cookie, and there were counselors who would listen to our problems. So I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for the mission.”
That soft spot has manifested itself as a one-man charity drive. Heggernes collects towels and toiletry items — including shampoo, soap, toothpaste, razors and hair spray — for the 400 homeless people for whom the mission provides shelter every night.
“There are a lot of organizations — a lot of good organizations — that are collecting food and clothing, and I didn’t want to compete with them,” he said. “Sure, if someone drops clothing or canned food into the [donation] baskets, we’ll take it. But I wanted to focus on a specific area of need.”
The donations are sorely needed, said LaNea Williamson, the Union Gospel Mission’s development manager.
“We have a standard at the mission that everyone who stays here has to shower every day,” she said. “When you have 400 beds, that’s a lot of shampoo and soap and towels.”
Heggernes calls his project the Boutwells Bountiful Bath Baskets, a nod to the Boutwells Landing senior community in Oak Park Heights where he has lived for 13 years. Most of the donations come from his fellow residents although, as word of mouth about his campaign has spread, outsiders have started to make contributions, too.
Once a month, he and his son, Mike — whom he calls “both my right- and left-hand man” — pack up the donations and deliver them to the mission’s donation center in St. Paul.
“Dad has always tried to find somebody or some place to help,” the younger Heggernes said. “And that’s how he raised his five boys.”
Self-employed, Mike was able to make the midweek delivery; his brothers don’t have that flexibility during their work hours, he said.
In fact, the donation drive started as family effort. The first load came entirely from the Heggerneses, which, in addition to five sons, count 15 grandchildren and 22 great-grandchildren.
“He said to us, ‘Can we get some towels and soap to give to these folks?’ ” Mike Heggernes said.
The idea came from a presentation Les Heggernes saw Williamson make.
“He came up to me and said he wanted to do something but didn’t know what,” she said. “Then he figured out on his own what was most needed.”
That’s not surprising, Mike Heggernes said. Although long-retired, his father still thinks like a civil engineer, always cutting to the crux of a problem.
While Les Heggernes is glad to repay the Gospel Mission for its help all those decades ago, he doesn’t hold any bitterness about his home life, which was made difficult because of his father’s problems.
“I understand what he was going through,” he said. “He was in terrible pain the last 10 years of his life. He had cancer and he lost, first, two fingers and then his entire hand to gangrene.
“He was a carpenter, which meant that when he lost his hand, he also lost his livelihood. I can’t remember any pleasant times between him and my mother.”
So the teen found a place he could go to escape the tension at home, and for that he felt indebted.
“I said then that if an opportunity ever came up, I’d try to help,” he said.
Heggernes, who gets a playful twinkle in his eye when asked if he can explain his longevity — “I hate to admit it, but I think it’s the gin and tonics” — isn’t content to rest on his laurels. He’s working on several ways to beef up donations.
“There are ideas I want to promote,” he said. “Boutwells has 641 residents and 411 staff; what if everyone gave just one bar of soap a month? Think of the difference that would make.”
He also would like to have the residents try to set “the Guinness world record for most bars of soap donated in one day by a senior community.” Mike pointed out that there is no such Guinness category, but that just nudged him into his next idea: a silent auction in which all the bidding is done in bars of soap.
A crazy notion? Perhaps. But that’s what intrigues him.
“I wouldn’t be doing this,” he said, “if I weren’t having fun.”