Donald Sears, who propelled a passion for cars, people and hard work into a highly successful Twin Cities auto dealership, died Oct. 2 at the Red Wing (Minn.) Health Center. The longtime resident of a farm near Bay City, Wis., was 85, and had been hale until a leukemia diagnosis just four weeks earlier.
Sears, an only child, was born in Red Wing and grew up on his parents' farm near Bay City. "When he was 16, he came home from school and his parents were gone," said his son Dale, of Ellsworth, Wis. "He did chores and waited. 'Round about 9 p.m. they get home with news -- they'd decided to sell the farm and move to Red Wing." Sears, who loved the farmstead, was dismayed, and begged them to let him stay and run things by himself.
He got his way.
He quit school, but remained an eager learner. "He'd work late into the evening, then come home and read for hours," his son said. "He did that all his life. He was just knowledge-happy."
A few years passed. Sears married and continued to live on the farm. One day he traded some farm machinery for a car and sold the car for a small profit, "and that was the start of everything," Dale said. "He always told me, 'Only 3 percent of people need farm machinery, but everyone needs a car -- some two or three.'"
Cars -- "especially flashy ones, convertibles, Corvettes and Cadillacs" -- became a passion, and by the early '60s, he was running a lot on E. Lake Street in Minneapolis, driving from the farm "six days a week," something he continued to do into his 80s, his son said. The showy cars attracted a lot of wistful teenage boys, including, Dale said, "the son of a Ford dealer down the street -- Denny Hecker."
A few years later, Sears sold the Lake Street lot and bought Walker Motors' Mercedes/BMW dealership in Wayzata. By the 1970s, a gleaming new facility, Sears Imported Autos, was a fixture on the Hwy. 12 (now Interstate 394) corridor, selling high-end vehicles.
Sears' favorite part of the job was buying cars. "He'd go to four auctions a week," his son said.
Still, he loved the farm, even after its duties were taken over by his sons, "and loved clearing brush or chopping wood," Dale said.
Sears donated a lot of money to charity, his son said. Both his gains and his generosity sprung from his being "such a people person -- you could talk to him for five minutes and it would be like he knew you his entire life," Dale said.
Tom Wernet was 16 when he met Sears in 1968. He was one of the teens ogling the cars: "Don said, 'Come back when you're older.'" So when he was nearly 18, he went back to buy the car of his heart, a silver 1969 Buick Wildcat. "Don said, 'Are you sure? That's usually an old man's car.' It was so sporty -- I wanted it. 'I tell you what,' Don said. 'I'll sell it to you and you can bring it back any time.'" Wernet still has that car.
Wernet, who went on to run his own dealership in Inver Grove Heights, crossed paths with Sears again at a Chicago auction in the 1980s. "I said to my son, 'See that guy over there?'" Wernet said. "'Go watch him. He'll teach you every- thing.'"
Besides his son Dale, Sears is survived by his wife, Eldora; a daughter, Joanne Davidson of Minnetonka; two other sons, Gary of Ellsworth, and Kevin of Bay City; six grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. Services have been held.
Pamela Miller • 612-673-4290