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A life well lived

Menahga man worked Vikings games, flew planes

By Vivian (Makela) Sazama

Ken Hillstrom of Menahga has had a life well lived. He has had unique experiences in and outside his career and looks back at his life as one big adventure.

Ken grew up the youngest of 11 children. Six of his older brothers all served during WWII, his next older brother served during the Korean War and Ken served during the Vietnam War. Two brothers were killed in WWII and perhaps that is why the two youngest brothers served stateside, not overseas.

Ken attended the District 45 country school through eighth grade, then went on to graduate from Menahga High School.

Ken Hillstrom at his home in Menahga. Contributed photo

Ken was part of the group who formed the Red Eye Country Boys baseball team. To raise money for uniforms and equipment, the team put on several plays at the country school. They advertised it in the paper as “An all male cast.” However, the play was about a family, including a husband and wife and two children. Ken got the part of the “wife” and his mother dressed him up in her clothes, makeup and handkerchief.

“All during the practices we couldn’t help cracking up at the spectacle we made, but when it came time for the performance we were sober as a judge!” The school was packed and the audience was hysterical. With those two plays and box lunch auctions, the team was able to raise enough money for all the new baseball team needs. Ken said he still has a picture that his mother took of him all dressed up and it still almost brings him to tears laughing so hard at the memories.

While in the Air Force Ken took a 10-month electronics school training which served him well after he left the service. He went to work as an engineer for his brother who was the chief engineer at a television station in Phoenix, Ariz. While working there he came across an advertisement for an engineer for the WCCO television station in Minneapolis. Not liking the Arizona heat, he sent in his application and went for an interview. He was hired the same day. Ken spent the next 15 years at WCCO as an engineer, which included driving the television cart along the sidelines of the Vikings games.

While working at WCCO, Ken also worked part time at a public television station, KTCA, Channel 2 and he also went to videotape engineering school. One evening while at KTCA the general manager offered him a full time job as a videotape engineer. Ken said, “I’m already working full time at WCCO, but what are you offering?” The GM said he’d pay the same salary and Ken could choose his hours. By this time Ken was also the top flight instructor at an airplane club consisting of 10 planes and 70 members. Ken decided to accept the offer, working four 10 hour days, with three days off for his flight instructor job. He worked at KTCA for 30 years before retiring, but also continued to drive the TV cart along the Vikings game sidelines for WCCO, a CBS affiliate. One year, Fox Sports approached him to offer the same job driving a TV cart for them, and sweetened the deal with added perks such as free meals before and after the games, so Ken accepted their offer. During those days on the sidelines, he said the player who impressed him the most all those years was Brett Favre, who always made a point to acknowledge Ken and say Hi.

While still at WCCO, Ken went to a party one night where he saw a beautiful, tall brunette across the room. He went over and introduced himself and asked her name. She said her name was Linda Yliniemi and that she was from the Wolf Lake area and she knew Ken’s brother. Right away they had a lot to talk about. When the evening was over he asked if he could take her on a date the next day. They were soon married and Ken and the love of his life spent 53 years together during which they had a son, James. Linda passed away in May of 2020 after a long illness, during which Ken cared for her in their home with the help of Hospice nurses at the end.

Ken said, “She was a lot of fun.” He went on to reminisce about how they would take airplane trips around the country. Because Ken was an instructor and had free use of the planes at the airplane club, he just had to pay for the fuel.

One time they were flying back from Phoenix to see his brother, when she looked over at him and asked, “What would happen to me if something happened to you now?” He replied, “Well, my dear, I hate to tell you this, but you would crash and burn.” Later, after they got back to Minneapolis and put the plane back into the hangar she said, “I want to learn how to fly. And I want you to be my instructor.” Ken replied, “Well, we’ll talk about that.”

Ken and Linda Hillstrom’s 45th anniversary picture. Contributed photo

After they got home and unpacked their bags, made a pot of coffee and sat down Ken said, “I’ve been thinking about you wanting to fly, and wanting me to be your instructor. We’re going to set up the rules. When you and I get into the car and drive to the airport, and when we get out of the car, you are not my wife, and I am not your husband. You are my student, and I am your instructor. If you can agree to that, I’ll teach you how to fly.” His wife said, “OK”. Ken said she never questioned it. She went through the training, the stalls, the touch and go landings and all the skills needed. One day Ken told her, “I’m going to recommend you to the FAA. You’re ready for a flight check.” She made the appointment. Ken took her to the airport and when she was done, she walked out of the airplane and Ken asked her, “How did it go?” She said, “Well, I didn’t make it.” Ken replied, “I know you’re lying, because you’re smiling!” She said, “Yes, I made it, but the FAA guy wants to see you.” Ken drove over to the FAA tester’s office, who leaned over his desk and said, “I want you to know, your wife did everything perfectly. She’s a very good pilot. My question to you is, because she’s your wife and you’re her husband, how did you do it?!” Ken told him, “Separate cars.” During the training Ken and his wife drove separately to and from the airport, leaving no room for talking until they got home. Ken says it worked out well. Linda was one of a few females to receive a pilot’s license in the 1970’s.

There was a glimmer of moisture in Ken’s eyes when he talked of his beloved wife. Surely, not every husband and wife would have that degree of compatibility, trust and respect for one another for something as challenging as flying an airplane.

One day Ken and Linda took Ken’s mother, a brother and several other family members on a six passenger Cessna airplane to Illinois to his brother’s gravesite. They drove around the huge military cemetery looking for his brother’s grave for 15 minutes and even with a map were unable to find it. Suddenly Ken’s brother said, “Stop the car a minute. I have a feeling we’re close.” Ken stopped the car, opened his door and there right beside him was his brother’s grave. They say that intuition was passed down from their mother. Later, they went out to eat at a restaurant, when his brother looked at Ken and said, “Of all the things, this is the best thing you have ever done for us.” Ken feels that his mother was able to find closure finally. Those words and that picture of the eight brothers are things Ken will always treasure near to his heart.

Since Linda’s passing, Ken has become part of Jerry’s Dance Band, playing a harmonica, something he’s played for 55 years. The band plays at venues around the area, and though Ken and Linda had loved to dance, Ken now enjoys watching others and remembering a beautiful, tall lady who stole his heart.

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