A nearly $3 million gift from a Vietnam War veteran — the largest donation ever to a state veterans home in Minnesota — is helping to make a new veterans home in Montevideo, Minn., a reality.
Before he died in March at his home in Nevada, Steven Williams, 70, who grew up near Montevideo, told his family he wanted to donate almost his entire estate to charities.
After serving in Vietnam as an Army Ranger in the 9th Infantry Division, Williams never got much attention for his military service beyond a 2-inch notice in the local newspaper when he hitchhiked home to surprise his parents after the war.
But last week, he got praise posthumously as politicians, state officials, dozens of veterans and family and friends gathered Dec. 5 in a ceremony to honor his military service and celebrate the $2.8 million donation that will help build the proposed 72-bed Montevideo Veterans Home — one of three new veterans homes planned in Minnesota.
Gov. Mark Dayton also proclaimed the day “Sergeant Steve Williams Day.”
“This was a ‘welcome home’ for my brother,” said Jim Williams. “He’s not done. He’s giving back all the time. This is going to be a legacy he’s going to leave.”
The second of three boys, Steve Williams grew up on a farm in nearby Clarkfield. After Vietnam, where his military decorations included the Bronze Star Medal, he returned home, graduated from Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall and worked in sales for Hormel Foods for more than 30 years.
Jim Williams said his brother lived a frugal bachelor life, playing golf, traveling and investing in stocks. Before his death, Steve Williams vowed to give back, donating nearly all of his $14 million estate to charities — five of which are veterans organizations that are in turn contributing to the Montevideo veterans home.
“We were really blown away. The feeling is just overwhelming,” Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs Deputy Commissioner Douglas Hughes said. “We’re just very grateful to Steve Williams.”
The city bought a 13.5-acre site for the facility, which is expected to cost $48.5 million.
City leaders have lobbied legislators for more than a decade to support a veterans home. Last May, Dayton signed off on a bill that approved $9.4 million for the project — part of $32 million going to construction of three veterans homes across the state. The others are in Bemidji, which received $12.4 million, and Preston, which got $10.2 million. All are slated to open in 2021.
“It was such a relief after 11 years,” said Marvin Garbe, a Montevideo veteran who spearheaded the effort. “Finally, our veterans are getting the care they need.”
The city of Montevideo, Chippewa County and more than 200 individuals and organizations are contributing $7.4 million total, which includes Williams’ gift, to the project. If approved for construction through the federal VA, federal matching dollars could total $31.5 million.
“This has not been an easy task ... it’s almost a reality,” interim City Manager Angie Steinbach said. Of Williams’ donation, she added: “It was very bittersweet and unexpected, but the legacy that Steve is leaving ... will affect veterans for generations to come.”
The city estimates there are more than 12,000 veterans and 12 National Guard or Reserve Units within a 60-minute drive of Montevideo.
Minnesota has five state veterans homes — the last of which was built in 1994 — but many have aging physical plants. And more than 1,500 people are on the waiting list for one of the 860 beds, often waiting one to 12 months.
“It means so much for our area out here,” Jim Williams said of the new home. “It’s going to be state-of-the-art. It’s going to help in a lot of ways.”