By Carol Stender
Les Alvstead of Barrett has met many interesting and great people in his life, but one meeting, when he was just seven-years-old, influenced his life: It was the day he met Jesus.
Now, in his 70s, Les said the experience is one he thinks of everyday, and it’s a story he readily shares.
His parents operated a dairy farm just eight miles east of Barrett. They didn’t have a lot of money, but there was plenty of love and care and it was a great concern his parents exhibited when the young Les fell ill.
It was July and Les had finished second grade and was looking forward to third. He had been ill for four days and had seen a doctor two times. The doctor said it was just the flu, but Les was not getting better.
His parents were milking cows that fateful day when his mother went to check on her young son.
“Mom, I just saw Jesus,” he told her. “I think I am going to die.”
Quickly, Les’ father was summoned to the house and they took him to the doctor. But this time, Les’ mom said they should see another doctor. And they went to Elbow Lake to see Lester and Lilliam Parsons. Both were doctors, but they weren’t home. The Alvsteads learned they were, however, at their lake cabin. Once they got there and Dr. Lillian answered the door, she took one look at Les and hollered, “Lester, you have to get out of bed!”
Les and his mother were put in the back of the Parsons’ Cadillac for a fast ride to Fergus Falls. It was his first ride in a Cadillac, Les said. And he remembers the doctor driving “very fast.” As they neared the Pebble Lake Golf Course on the south end of Fergus Falls, Les passed out. His appendix ruptured. At the hospital, Dr. Parson picked him up and carried him into a room full of flight green cabinets. A nurse told him to breathe deep as she placed something on his face. He was given ether. He says he still has flashes of that smell once in a while.
Over the next three days Les had three surgeries to clean out the infection. He ended up with parenthinitus which he was told is gangrene. He remained in critical condition for 16 days.
“I will never forget that day,” Les recalled. “I saw Jesus brighter than ever. There was a long tunnel. It was dark like a rolling cloud. At the end of the tunnel, I saw Jesus standing with his hands outstretched. I can only tell you that he was in a crimson white robe and he told me, ‘Be not afraid.’”
Les started towards Jesus and then got a feeling that he was being told to go back. This was repeated to him several times.
“It is just as fresh in my mind today as it was then,” he said.
And Jesus gave him a message.
“Go and do what you can to help others.”
Les was still very ill. Dr. Parson had a new experimental drug that an Air Force plane had just flown to Fergus Falls. The new drug was a combination of two medications - Tetromyacine and Terramyacin. He remembers it burning when they gave him the injection. Just four hours after receiving the dose, Les started to show improvement. The next morning he was removed from the critical list.
“I was walking a new path just as Jesus had directed me,” he said.
Les remained in the hospital for another eight days. Eating was a challenge. He was given toast with butter, but it didn’t work. Then the doctor told a nurse to get some gum drops. The gum drops were the first thing that stayed down after his surgery. The medical team learned this new drug made him allergic to some foods. He remains allergic to butter, margarine, gravies and other foods to this day, he said.
It took time to regain his strength but, on Oct. 1, he was able to return to school for the first time.
And, for the rest of his life, he has lived out the message he received from Jesus.
Les attended school in Evansville and was very involved in its agriculture program. As an
FFA member, he earned his State Farmer degree and was just two points shy of receiving the American Farmer degree.
When he wasn’t in school, Les was helping other farmers as well as working on his parents’ dairy farm. He started milking cows - by hand - at six-years-old. He sat on a three-legged stool and recalls spraying milk in the mouths of the farm’s cats and the family’s five pet raccoons.
“They would just sit up on their hind legs with their mouths open just waiting for the milk,” he said. At age 14, he helped a dairy farmer, Stanley Hanson, with fieldwork by cultivating his cornfields with a two-row cultivator. They always cultivated three times, Les said. It took awhile to finish the cultivating for the season.
When Stanley suffered a heart attack, Les stepped up to help with the chores. He milked 35 to 40 dairy cows using the farm’s milking machines. Stanley had three milkers to help with the job. It was quite a change from hand milking cows.
His two brothers also worked for area farmers. His middle brother, however, was killed in a farm accident when only 18.
Agriculture has always been an important part of his life and he wanted to make it a career.
His desire to become an ag teacher got its footing when he was a high school freshman, Les said. He was inspired by his own ag instructor. And he started on that path. Les started his post-high school classes at the Fergus Falls Junior College, now Minnesota State Community and Technical College-Fergus Falls.
He was entering his second year of classes when, during one break, he was traveling with his father to the Hoffman Co-op with a bad tire. While their tire was getting fixed, an older man came out of the co-op building and headed to Les. He asked if Les wanted a job.
“Yes,” he answered. Money was tight and continuing his college classes was in question.
This was a time before student loans and education grants.
The man asked if Les was attending college and if he was taking business courses.
“Yes,” he answered again.
What were his grades?
“A’s” Les answered.
That’s all the man needed to know. Les was hired as the bookkeeper and started his new position October 1, 1962. In addition to “keeping the books,” Les was also the “fertilizer man.”
He would take an 8-ton truck pulling a 4-ton spreader to Morris to get the fertilizer. When he got back to Hoffman, Les would spread the fertilizer on customer’s fields and, when the trailer was empty, he would shovel fertilizer from the truck to the trailer.
One of his first jobs involved changing the gas pump prices from 27.9 to 29.9. Until Les had been hired, the pump prices had never been changed.
Les never had to look for a job for more than 20 years. He served cooperatives in different towns and states including Ashby, Elbow Lake, Donnelly, Hoffman and as a marketing representative in South Dakota. Les moved to different positions and different cooperatives.
An accident in 1989, however, ended his co-op career, Les said. A propane tank tipped over and an ice chunk formed around his arm. He was taken to the hospital in Elbow Lake where he was stabilized over a three-day stay then he was transported to Fargo for 35 days. Several fingers turned black prompting doctors to amputate. He was in physical therapy for one year, 11 months and three days, he said. During that time he had a total of nine surgeries plus skin grafting.
He wasn’t without a job for long after his recovery. Five cooperative managers asked Les to conduct a survey of propane prices for grain drying. One of those managers said what they really needed was help with safety and compliance work.
Les began working for one of the cooperatives for three days a week. He started that position in Feb. 1992. His work ended in March after 29 years.
He has built a business around safety and compliance and, with his team, conducts drug tests throughout the area including Minnesota, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa and Oregon and Washington plus more.
No matter where he’s traveled for work or in his volunteer efforts, the words Jesus spoke to him are something he thinks of daily. And he’s put it in practice. In his cooperative positions, he was responsible for collecting past due accounts. He met with the families in person and extended help if it was needed.
In the community, Les has been involved and supportive. He served on the Barrett City Council for 12 years and as the town’s mayor for another 12. He was on the Our Saviors Church Council when it merged with Friedhem in Barrett to form Peace Lutheran Church. And he was also a member of the school board when the decision was made to consolidate Barrett, Hoffman, Elbow Lake-Wendell and Kensington districts to form West Central Area Schools.
He was a member of the Elbow Lake Jaycees and the American Legion Sandberg-Carlson Post 351 where he served as membership chair for 40 years and the post commander for 15. He has spearheaded a flagpole fundraiser for the post where individuals can purchase the flagpoles which Les and other legion members install.
Les and Karen have a large garden on his family farm with much of the produce given away, Karen said.
Whenever he can, Les tells his story of Jesus. He was surprised at the response the first time he gave his testimony as part of a Sunday sermon.
“People came up to me saying they’d had a similar experience,” he said. “Some came to me with tears in their eyes. And I was asked to talk about it at a men’s ministry meeting.”
That first public testimony came as the result of a pastor’s request. The pastor, at the time, was Neal Gladden. The pastor had to be out of town and asked Les to give the sermon. Les was nervous, but the pastor assured him he could use materials from the synod as a guide. The topic for that Sunday was, “Have you seen Jesus?”
“Oh, Pastor,” Les said. “Have you ever heard my story?”
And it’s a story he’s been sharing and living out ever since.