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Active retiree helps form children’s museum

‘There’s always learning to be done’

By Natalie M. Rotunda

Greg and Janet Reigstad of St. Cloud have been active in their retirement years. Here they are in 2016, zip lining in St. Lucia. Besides fun adventure days in retirement, Greg has also given much time and energy toward the development of a children’s museum in St. Cloud. Contributed photo

“I wanted to be active and selective in my retirement.” That was Greg Reigstad’s vision for his retirement years. “You can volunteer wherever you like. I’ve worked with RSVP over the years. I was on their board at one time, and now my wife is on their board.”

Friend and fellow educator, Glen Palm, chair of Child Development at SCSU and later Dean of Education, had an idea that fit Greg’s definition of active and selective. “You’re gonna retire pretty soon and have nothing to do. Let’s start a children’s museum.”

Greg liked the idea so well, he said, “yes.”

“The museum was his idea,” Greg said. “He was the brains, and I refer to myself as the sidekick. I had done the paperwork for other non-profits, so, Great River Children’s Museum became a non-profit in 2012.“ Greg pointed out that the word “museum” is actually, in their situation, a misnomer. “Actually, we’re a part of education.”

A new direction

In early 2013, Greg retired. He likes staying busy, but his wife, Janet, wouldn’t retire for another three years. He stayed busy preparing meals and cleaning -- among other things. “Those first three years, I was getting caught up on things (including a little fishing),” he said. “I just enjoyed not working and doing mundane things.”

Greg entered the cooking arena with gusto. “I cook like a chemist. I follow recipes exactly. I developed 25 meals, simple ones.” Variety is the spice of life, so, sometimes, the couple let someone else do the cooking and ate out. “Janet is a much better cook than I,” Greg said. “If needed, I could eat my own cooking.”

With meal planning in place, “sidekick” Greg devoted time to the children’s museum. He and Glen talked about it to lots of people, after they’d become a non-profit. They also traveled, exploring and gathering ideas from other children’s museums. Greg visited 30, and Glen, 50.

Their first exhibit was a collaborative effort with the Stearns County Historical Society. They’d obtained a grant from CentraCare, and “something like 6,000 people viewed” Healthyville, for free. “The Historical Society did the heavy lifting for the exhibit,” Greg said. “They wondered if they could collaborate with us on future exhibits, using their space. It didn’t work out, though we all got along very well.”

Greg Reigstad stands in front of a banner for Great River Children’s Museum, a museum he helped take from concept to realty. Contributed photo

The big question? Where would they go? Some would call what then happened a miracle – coalescing the right people, time, and place when the old Liberty Bank building in downtown St. Cloud became available.

“President Mark Bragelman offered the building to us... for free, along with a couple of short-term incentives.” Greg said that the City of St. Cloud has been very cooperative and helpful. “And Mayor Kleis likes the museum.”

The museum’s new home had plenty of room to play and grow in – 25,000 square feet, in fact. Turning the former bank into a children’s museum will take a great deal of time and work, but museum Board chair, Glen, and treasurer, Greg, also a member of their talented grant-writing team, along with their enthusiastic and devoted executive director and Board are in it for the long haul. Previous to the arrival of COVID-19 in their first year, they had picked up a grant for staffing through the University of Minnesota. Greg said it will be renewed for another couple of years.

The museum is about children and learning. Greg explained, “We cater to children between the ages of 0 and 10 and their parents for interactive learning.” Thousands -- including early childhood development specialists -- viewed their first exhibit, Curious George. Greg enthused, “They loved it! Most of them had visited the Minnesota Children’s Museum, and that’s what we’re striving to be like.” The Board hopes to have permanent and traveling displays in the future.

The two things they need most? “Money and volunteers,” Greg said. “But we’re not ready yet for the 30 volunteers we’ll need.”

Less screen time

One of the reasons Greg had said “yes” to Glen Palm dates back 12 years. He was taking care of his one-year old grandson at the time, and vividly remembers watching him walk up to the TV and swipe the screen. “He had already learned that things with screens are swiped. It’s one of the reasons I got involved with our local children’s museum. Part of the reason for this museum is to get kids away from screens.”

Greg said, “I love children. One of my first professional jobs was for Head Start. Their motto is ‘teaching parents through children, helping them become better parents.’ It reflects a lot of what this museum does. This is where families come and interact with their children.”

Greg’s early days

Greg’s story starts in the small Norwegian community of Sunburg, Minnesota, a place he and brothers Randy, Gary, and Steve and their parents called home until Greg was 10. The family moved to Hoyt Lakes, and later Aurora, both Iron Range towns, when his dad accepted a job there.

“I loved to read,” Greg said. “Anything. My wife refers to me as the man who reads boring books. There’s always learning to be done.”

The Iron Range towns were the right towns for this young book-lover since both had public libraries. Greg eagerly anticipated the release of each new Hardy Boys mystery. His tastes eventually turned to nonfiction -- history, in particular.

Besides reading, Greg and his brothers did everything, “played all the sports that kids play.”

College loomed and to better prepare themselves, Greg and several buddies asked a reading instructor to teach them to read fast. So fast that, for a time, Greg read a book a day.

From life in a small Scandinavian farming town, to life in a small East European mining town, the family adapted well. The cultures were “very different – and a lot of fun!” he said. People from the Old Countries had settled on the Iron Range beginning in 1905, and ending in 1950. “I remember remarking how well they all got along.”

Off and on during the summers, Greg worked in the mines, his wages financing college tuition. “It was good pay, and they allowed you to come and go if you were a college student.”

He entered the Army in 1969 and served in Korea for two years as a medic.

Greg and Janet Reigstad of St. Cloud took camel rides during a trip to Jordan in 2010. They have enjoyed being active in their retirement years. Contributed photo

Greg believes in the law of thirds: a third of us know early in life what we want to do when we grow up; a third of us figure it out along the way; and the remaining third never quite figure it out. He puts himself in that last category. “I never had a desire to be something specific,” he said. “That’s why I had so many jobs. I liked them all!”

Greg’s studies led to a master’s degree in urban studies from the University of Minnesota at Mankato. He completed all course work for a second master’s, this one in political science, and put thesis-writing on hold for a time. He went to work in White Bear Lake city government for four months, then accepted a position a friend had offered him at Ramsey County’s Head Start. Two years later, a family illness called him home. His dad had fallen ill and, after his dad passed, Greg stayed on to help his mom till the end of the year.

Greg’s move to St. Cloud turned out to be a permanent one. His had a job with a non-profit. He and Janet married, and, in time, welcomed two beautiful baby girls into their family. Janet worked as a public health nurse. Greg traveled, and, at home, completed his thesis. This degree would be very useful for teaching posts he would soon hold at two St. Cloud institutions.

Another exciting direction

Janet’s retirement day arrived, and now the couple was free to roam the world! They toured Western Europe, India, Turkey, Spain, Croatia, Norway, and every state in the U.S. except one. “Somehow, we missed Maine,” Greg said. Next Spring, they’ll take off for Eastern Europe.

People travel for many reasons, so it was fair to ask why travel appealed to Greg. He answered, “Because I like seeing new people and being surprised by them. I find it exciting!”

One of Greg’s early jobs was dying underwear for Munsinger’s. Those wages financed a trip south. “When I was 23, I took a trip by bus all around South America with a friend. It lasted for 106 days.” He kept a journal of that special time and their experiences.

His friend and he had gotten along well, an important aspect of enjoying one’s travels. “It’s hard to find a good traveling companion,” Greg offered. “The last one, I married.”

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