John Kuester knew how to keep calm.
Whether he was attending a big community meeting or sitting around a dining room table, Kuester would often be the last to speak, defusing any tension in the room with gentleness and humor.
“He spent a life organizing community groups, and his personal traits — the calm demeanor, civility, thoughtfulness, sense of humor — it would come through,” said longtime friend Bob Quist.
A tall, soft-faced man who would respond to “How are you doing?” with a cheeky “I’m perky!” Kuester is remembered for his ability to bring people together throughout decades of community organizing. He died Feb. 2 at his home in Elk River. He was 78.
Kuester grew up on a farm in Iowa, where he spent an entire summer playing hide-and-seek with a pig named Henrietta — an animal who was good at finding but not so good at hiding, Quist said.
In 1980 Kuester and his wife, Louise, moved from tiny Palmer, Minn., to Elk River, and Kuester got involved in a variety of community and statewide initiatives. He helped create the McKnight Foundation’s Minnesota Initiative Foundations, which in 1986 established foundations across the state to help diversify rural economies during the farm crisis.
Kuester brought a passion for preserving rural and historic places and creative ideas for bringing people together, said Kathy Gaalswyk, former president of the Initiative Foundation that serves central Minnesota.
“Back in the mid-80s when we started this work, community development was just virtually nonexistent in Minnesota,” Gaalswyk said. “He really made a difference in the state by bringing forward good, sound principles to engage people in improving their communities.”
In his own community, Kuester helped launch the Three Rivers Community Foundation, which raises funds to support nonprofits, students and businesses in the local school district. He also was part of a group called Elk River 2001, which worked on local issues such as parks and transportation and held an annual conference to get residents’ ideas for the city’s future.
Kuester was highly involved in the local school district. He drove a school bus during his retirement and was appointed to serve on the school board at a time when other board members were resigning.
“He was a calm head at a time when the district really needed a calm head,” said Charlie Blesener, the school district’s retired community engagement director.
In the early 2000s, Kuester got involved in an effort to save the historic Oliver Kelley Farm in Elk River after the Minnesota Historical Society, facing budget cuts, announced plans to close the farm and other historic sites.
After a public meeting where historical society leaders explained their plans to shutter the farm, Kuester and others stayed behind to figure out how to keep it open, said Quist, the retired site manager for Kelley farm. That ad hoc group became the Friends of the Kelley Farm, which raised money not just to keep the site open, but to eventually open new facilities and launch new programs there.
“We’re all mortal. But how mortal are our acts?” Quist said. “In some ways, John’s mortality is transcended by the community groups he helped found and those impacts.”
Kuester is survived by his wife, Louise, and daughters Erin of Red Wing and Gretchen of St. Paul. Services have been held.