Gratitude, a quick mind and quicker hands helped Norton Erickson use whatever he had — and use it well — as he built a successful life.
Erickson, 94, died May 1 in his Harris, Minn., home after a battle with cancer.
The oldest of five children, the World War II veteran quit eighth grade to help his family on their Albert Lea farm during the Depression.
"My dad was old school," said his son, Larry, of North Branch. "He learned everything by doing and he did everything good. He had a good life."
When the town of Harris needed help, the Army-trained engineer built picnic tables and benches for the park, then bolted the footings in concrete so pesky teens would stop dumping them in the creek. Erickson got the idea from a picture in an ad.
He'd see something and think, "Oh, I can build this at half the cost," his son said. And he did just that. "He loved to buy something old, fix it and fix it forever," Larry said.
Until cancer, little held him back. At 94 he lived on his own, made his bed every day and fussed in his machine shop that held his every tool and invention. Last summer, he was still driving a tractor so neighbor Donnie Cardinal could harvest hay bales.
Erickson would show up every day. " 'You cutting today? … We baling today?' He loved to drive that tractor," Cardinal said.
Drafted by the Army in 1942, Erickson survived the Japanese attack on the Alaskan Aleutian Islands, but was wounded and lived with shrapnel in his back for the rest of his life. He rarely complained or talked of war, his long recovery or the subsequent three years loading train cars onto Army barges in Alaska.
He came from hardy stock. His father, Harry, nearly lost his life in a farm accident when Norton was 5. A saw blade flew off, hitting the elder Erickson's ear, eye, neck and teeth. He was taken by horse and wagon to the hospital and although he was severely disfigured, he slowly recovered and went on to farm, milk cows and work construction into his 80s.
"His father was his example," said sister-in-law Diane Erickson of Norton. "He learned whatever life throws at you, you overcome it."
Norton returned to Minnesota after the war, moved to New Brighton and raised two sons, Larry and Wayne, with first wife Lucille. They later divorced. He started a basement waterproofing company in one end of New Brighton and a car sandblasting firm in the other. He married Thelma Lundeen in 1955, hired his sons and taught them how to fix and invent.
He analyzed store chemicals that removed thick tar off his truck and then made his own solution. Tired of the costly sandblasting beads needed to get rust off customers' antique cars, Erickson took a feed grinder, screens and ground-up liquor pourers to make new beads for his handmade sandblaster. They worked better than the sand.
"He had a really good inventive mind," said baby brother Glenn, 76. "If it was broke, he'd fix it."
But Erickson couldn't fix heartache. His son, Wayne, died at age 20 in a motorcycle accident. Thelma died in 1990 in a house fire.
Norton and Thelma had promised that if one of them died, the other would wait a year before remarrying. He wed Ruby Balfanz in 1991 and the two spent years happily "vacationing" around the country.
Driving eventually became difficult. Ruby died in July, too soon to see Erickson realize a dream. In October, HonorFlight Network flew him and 77 other WWII vets to Washington, D.C., to visit war memorials. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., shook his hand.
"That meant the world to him," Larry said.
Erickson is survived by Larry, six stepchildren, brothers Dale and Glenn and many grand- and great-grandchildren. Services have been held.