Paul Aasen of Willmar He’s a top notch salesman at the age of 73. and Paul Aasen of Wilmar has no plans of retiring. “Why quit when you’re having fun,” he scrawled with a pen across one of the many pieces of note paper that were beginning to stack up on the dining room table. Paul has used a lot of pens and note paper in the past nine years. He’s still a salesman, but cancer robbed him of his voice.
The gift of gab, which helps to make a productive salesman, is now done by writing to converse with the customer plus a smile and a handshake to seal the deal. His wife, Carol, of over 47 years, serves as his voice frequently especially in answering all phone calls. “It’s been a big adjustment for our family but it’s going well,” she said. It was in November 2001 when Paul was diagnosed with oral cancer which can include the mouth, lips, tongue or throat. In the fall of 2001 Paul was experiencing what he thought was a cold. But then there was a loss of appetite and his speech became slurred. “We knew then that it was time to get it checked,” Carol recalled, “and the doctor found a tumor on the floor of his mouth.” The tumor was under his tongue in the back of his mouth, which Paul noted he never felt. What were his first thoughts when told he had cancer? “Fix it!” Paul wrote quickly. His four children, Brett, Bryan, Blair, and Beth, urged their dad to go straight to Mayo Clinic in Rochester. There they met with Dr. Kerry Olsen who told Paul that surgery was the only cure and there would be no chemotherapy or radiation. “He told me this would be the first type of surgery ever done at Mayo,” Paul wrote, “and everything would be done in one operation.” Dr. Olsen was the head surgeon who, with several other doctors performed the 17-hour surgery. “They cut me from ear to ear and then down my chest,” Paul wrote. “They rolled the skin back (over his face).” Also removed were his tongue and teeth. The bottom of his mouth and jaw were rebuilt with metal and a skin graft from his chest. Both Paul and Carol chuckled regarding the skin graft and Carol shared that Paul has a hairy chest. That skin is now on the floor of his mouth and the hair continues to grow. “I’ve tried to cut the hair, but it isn’t the easiest thing to do,” admitted Carol, “so now he goes to the doctor to have it cut.” Paul quickly joked on paper, “I’m the only one that goes to the Mayo Clinic for a haircut.” He doesn’t recall what the last words were that he spoke, but the last people Paul spoke to were the doctors and nurses. According to the American Cancer Society, oral cancer can be caused by smoking, a habit that both Paul and Carol had. “We both quit smoking cold turkey while seeing the doctor at the Mayo Clinic,” remembered Carol. “I had three packs of cigarettes in my purse at the time and I threw them out before we left the clinic. We have never smoked again.” Since his surgery, Paul is now fed with a feeding tube. Carol uses a large syringe to inject eight ounces (375 calories) of a liquid nutrient directly into Paul’s stomach four to five times a day. He cannot swallow fully but does drink small amounts of water or soda from a medicine cup and also has small amounts of ice cream. Paul describes it as “gravity drinking and eating” as he demonstrated by throwing he head back and pretending to drink. Due to not being able to fully swallow, there is a buildup of mucus or phlegm in Paul’s throat and mouth which at times affects his breathing. He attempts to clear his throat with small coughs. However, there are times when Carol uses a Q-tip to help remove the mucus. The well known film critic, Roger Ebert, also had oral cancer, and he now communicates with a computer that has been programmed to speak in a voice that sounds like Ebert. However, Paul shook his head when asked if he ever thought of using this means in order to communicate, and wrote, “None of those toys work for me.” So today, he continues to work as a salesman by writing in order to converse with his customers. Looking back, Paul was the first baby boy born at the new Rice Hospital in August, 1937. His sales career started at the age of 11 working at his Uncle Leonard Nelson’s Mobil gas station at the corner of Litchfield and 7th Street. He had to stand on a pop case in order to wash the car windshields. Paul worked for his uncle 10 years including full time for two years after he graduated from Willmar High School in 1955. He moved on to Willmar Bottling where he delivered soda, Hamms beer, and snacks to customers. While making deliveries to Champlin Truck Haven that was located on East Highway 12, Paul met Carol Ferguson, who worked as a waitress. They dated despite the disapproval of her grandfather who thought Paul, seven years older than Carol, was too old for his granddaughter. But cupid didn’t give up and they were the first couple to be married in the new Calvary Lutheran Church on Oleana Avenue in June 1963 right after Carol’s high school graduation. The couple moved to Iowa City, Iowa, where Paul had accepted a job as a salesman for the International Silver Company. He had a prosperous career with the company for 25 years and was recognized for his $2 million dollars in sales with Dayton’s and J.B. Hudson Jewelers in Minneapolis, two of his major accounts. They had lived in Iowa City and Minneapolis before returning to the Willmar area in 1976 and built a home on Lake Florida. Paul decided to leave International Silver in 1985 as the company was sold. He began working in sales for Bankers’ Advertising and also started his own company, Lake Region Buying Group, which sells promotional advertising, and the two careers continue today. He maintains a strong customer base within a 100-mile radius. Paul said that the cancer never made him think about quitting his work. His family has been very helpful with son, Blair, taking one year off from his job at Haug Implement, to help his father with the business right after the surgery. Paul also continues his love for collecting and rebuilding classic cars, which have to be Chevrolets. He claims he has had over 100 cars through the years including his collectibles and the Chevys he uses for daily use. His oldest classic is a 1955 Chevrolet Belair and the newest is a gold 1982 Corvette. Paul is a member of the Willmar Car Club and he and Carol continue to host their own car show with the 5th annual Classic Cruise In set for July 31 at their home on Lake Florida. Last year close to 80 cars cruised in for the event that includes food and entertainment. Since his cancer, Paul has developed a new interest of writing stories of his life. He hand writes the many memories and son, Brett, and good friend, Forrest Honnebrink, type them on the computer. He now has note books filled with stories including one on Dr. Ripple, who delivered him when he was born, and also a story about a silver dollar that was given to him at age 11 from a famous man he met on the Great Empire Builder train that headed west from Willmar. In that story, Never Be Broke, Paul wrote, “I don’t remember what we talked about but he said that he noticed that I asked my father for some money. He asked me if I had my own money. I answered that I did but my dad is carrying it so that I wouldn’t lose it. He told me to hold out my hand and to my surprise, he dropped a large coin in it and said, ‘Put that in your pocket and if you never spend it, you will never be broke.’ That coin was a silver dollar and the man was Jack Dempsey, the famed boxer, who was on his way to Montana. I am not broke as I still carry that silver dollar over 60 years later.” The lettering on the shiny 1922 silver coin has worn away with age. Paul’s salesmanship started at an early age and he shares one of his first successful sales attempts in a story he wrote about winning a new Schwinn bike by selling the most Nola Soap Flakes door to door for the Palace Grocery in Willmar. And nothing has stopped Paul from continuing with his successful sales career, not even the cancer that took away his voice. He goes to Mayo once a year for a checkup. He admits he gets frustrated at times but he feels good and has no plans to retire. “I can’t speak,” he wrote, “but my pen likes paper!”