From Depression-era days as a 12-year-old shoveling coal and stoking the church furnace to, decades later, founding bus companies and banks, Donald Regan diligently earned a reputation for hard work, high standards and steadfast faith.
But it was Regan’s gentleness and devotion as a husband and father, forged long ago by his widowed mother raising seven children as a single parent, that emerges from the most cherished memories of his own seven children.
“With so many kids, there wasn’t a lot of one-on-one time with our parents. But Dad frequently came and knelt with me next to my bed to say prayers before I went to sleep,” said daughter Katie Nath, recalling her father singing “You Are My Sunshine” at bedtime. “I’d climb into bed, and he’d rub my back for a few minutes. Before long, I was sound asleep.”
Daughter Kelly Regan said her father was serenaded by his grandchildren singing that very song as he died Oct. 23 at his North St. Paul home. He was 91.
“Even when times are hard, or different, or changing, a clear vision of the task at hand and a faithful, grateful heart will get you where you have to go,” she said. “This is the legacy he left us.”
He was born July 19, 1929, in Le Roy, Minn., into what he later described as “genteel poverty.” In 1932, his father, Will, was killed in a hunting accident. His mother, Agnes, a devout Catholic, raised their seven children through the depths of the Great Depression. Don Regan began working at 12, shoveling coal from railroad boxcars, and didn’t stop working until contracting COVID-19 shortly before his death. Regan graduated from Le Roy High School and later attended St. Mary’s College at Winona and the University of Notre Dame, until homesickness and finances prompted his return to Le Roy. There, Regan succeeded his Uncle Leo at the helm of Regan Motor Sales. At 21, he was the nation’s youngest Ford dealer, his family said.
In 1950, he enlisted in the National Guard and was called to active duty, completing U.S. Army Rangers Airborne training before receiving a hardship discharge to help support his mother. In 1955, he married Jean Joyce. Regan started operating school buses while selling cars in Le Roy and later founded St. Paul and Suburban Bus Co. on the East Side of St. Paul. Don and Jean moved their growing family to North St. Paul in 1959.
Decades of financial and spiritual support for Hill Murray High School got its start with Regan’s first formal school bus contract — with Sister Claire Lynch, founding principal of the former Archbishop Murray High. Seven Regan children and 15 grandchildren would go on to graduate from Hill Murray. Don and Jean Regan became faithful followers of their sports exploits, cheering for Hill Murray at boys’ and girls’ state tournaments. Three weeks before he died, Regan saw a grandchild score a goal at Aldrich Arena. He submitted a detailed scouting report.
“Rarely did Don or Jean miss a great rivalry game,” son Sean Regan said. “Every White Bear-Hill Murray game came with serious pre- and post-game chirping with special cousins just up the road. They were never upset, win or lose; they were happy for the victors and for the game.”
Don Regan’s business focus would later shift from transportation to banking. In 1974, he started Maplewood State Bank, which would become Premier Bank. He led Premier, which now has 20 branches across the state, for the rest of his life. The onetime Minnesota Banker of the Year presided over a Premier Bank board meeting, via Zoom, just nine days before his death, his son Patrick Regan said.
“He was a community builder and entrepreneur his whole life. He wasn’t afraid to dream big dreams,” his son said. “And he had such a satisfaction in helping other people succeed with their dreams and visions.”
He was preceded in death by Jean in 2018. He is survived by several other children: sons Michael and Daniel and a daughter, Colleen Regan Espana; 26 grandchildren and 14 great grandchildren.
A public celebration is being planned for summer 2021.