Virgil Welna intended to be a teacher after serving in the Army and returning to Minneapolis in 1954. Instead, he partnered with his father, Al, to buy a hardware store in the working class Phillips neighborhood.
Welna Hardware went on to survive economic hard times on Bloomington Avenue. And Virgil Welna, who never quit the old neighborhood, worked almost until he died this month at age 89 in the expanded successor store his son and daughter-in-law built across the street.
Welna died April 8 at his home, after battling pancreatic cancer and Parkinson’s disease, said his son, Mark Welna.
Virgil and his wife, Patricia, lived for several years in her mother’s South Side house so they could invest in Welna Hardware before buying their own nearby home.
A number of neighboring small businesses closed or moved to fast-growing suburbs, following the middle-class flight of the 1960s. Virgil and Pat Welna decided to stay and serve Phillips, a neighborhood marked by rental housing, poverty and crime for many years.
Virgil Welna, patient and mild mannered, never regretted staying in the neighborhood, where they raised three children.
Virgil Welna worked six days a week with homeowners, contractors, renters, landlords and nonprofit housing organizations, such as Project for Pride in Living (PPL), which since the 1970s bought abandoned properties and renovated them for urban homesteaders and renters.
“Virgil partnered with founder Joe Selvaggio of PPL to provide low-cost materials for hundreds of affordable housing units,” said another son, Jim Welna. “He provided hardware supplies for over 7,000 housing units operated by the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority through a competitive-bid process. He used to let commercial-account customers write up their own charge slips when the store was busy.’’
Jim Welna said his dad was a teacher and friend to hundreds of neighbors. “His focus was to repair items … before he would sell a new item,” he said. “Since his death, many people have come forward to talk about how they learned to take care of their homes from Virgil.”
Mark Welna added that Virgil Welna would drop orders at customers’ houses on his way home.
“He did free delivery 60 years before Amazon,” he said. “Most importantly, Dad treated every customer with kindness and respect. Landlord or [low-income] renter or homeless person. He taught us that.”
Virgil and Patricia Welna sold their hardware store to Mark and Cathy Welna in 1994.
Several years later, Mark and Cathy Welna closed the old store to build a much larger store across Bloomington Avenue. Virgil Welna worked at the new store part time until a month before he died.
Jim Welna opened another Welna Hardware on E. Franklin Avenue in the Seward neighborhood, after he retired from a career in law enforcement.
The new Welna Hardware on Bloomington was the first of several new commercial and housing projects over the past 15 years in a neighborhood that now boasts more businesses and solid housing. Virgil Welna enjoyed the progress.
“He was so proud of what we did with the new store,” Mark Welna said. “We are just expanding on what Mom and Dad did; build a small business based on care, customer service and fixing things.”
In addition to his wife and two sons, Welna is survived by a daughter, Virginia, seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
A celebration of Virgil Welna’s life will take place on Thursday at 4 p.m. at St. Joan of Arc Church, followed by mass at 6 p.m.