WILLMAR — Bob Dols, a longtime Willmar businessman and advocate for the community, died Feb. 2.
Dols, 73, died at CentraCare Care Center in Willmar. His funeral will be 11 a.m., Friday, Feb. 24, at Faith Lutheran Church in Spicer, with visitation starting at 9 at the church. Interment will be in the church columbarium. Funeral arrangements are with Harvey Anderson Funeral Home in Willmar.
Dols was a tireless promoter for Willmar and a cheerful one. At community meetings or in private conversations, he always seemed to have a smile on his face.
He worked for decades on the Highway 23 Coalition seeking to complete a four-lane Minnesota Highway 23 from Willmar to Interstate 94. Work on the Highway 23 North Gap (Paynesville to Richmond) is scheduled to be completed by November 2023, and the Highway 23 South Gap (Paynesville to New London) is scheduled for completion by fall 2024.
Dols was chief executive officer of Northern States Supply in Willmar until his retirement in 2017. He and his wife Patti, a retired educator, have been known for their philanthropy in the community.
Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce President Ken Warner called Dols a friend and mentor.
“He had the best chuckle when you talked to him, whether it was about his passion for Highway 23 or some other community happenings,” Warner said. “Bob was a silent great leader who did many things in the community and region because it was the right thing to do, not doing any of it for the credit or for the glory.”
Duininck Inc. Director of Business Development Jason Duininck said, "Bob was instrumental in founding the Highway 23 Coalition and a visionary for community improvements. He was an advocate at the state and federal level, hosting many small groups in Washington DC on behalf of the Coalition."
"Without (Dols) leadershipwe would not be completing the four-lane highway from Willmar to Interstate-94," he said.
Northern States Supply President Tina Erpenbach called Dols a good man and a “forward thinker” who was instrumental in maintaining the health of the company. He implemented an employee stock ownership plan in 1998.
“He really cared about the community, and it was important to him that Northern support the charitable organizations in the communities we do business in,” she said. The company has seven locations in Minnesota and the Dakotas.
“Bob and I were pretty close,” Erpenbach said. “I knew the day was going to come; it’s still very hard. He meant a lot to everybody at Northern.”
Former Willmar Mayor Marv Calvin said Dols’ advocacy for Highway 23 made a difference for the community.
“He was a true visionary,” Calvin said. “Bob understood all the advantages it could bring to the Willmar community. ... I don’t know that Highway 23, filling the gaps, would have happened without someone having that vision and bringing it to the table.”
Dols was a businessman, and his Highway 23 work was a business decision, too, Calvin said. “It was an economic engine for Willmar, and he knew it had to happen so Willmar could be the strong community that it is.”
"A quiet community giant that knew how to bring people together” is how I would describe my friend Bob Dols. He could hear an idea, ponder it, and calmly have an opinion that seemed spot on," said Minnesota House Representative Dave Baker, R-Willmar.
"Bob was a mentor to me, I could always ask his advice, especially with politics because I got a straight answer that made sense. I will miss him very much," he said.
The results of the highway can be seen in projects like the new FedEx Ground facility in the city’s industrial park and others in development, Calvin said.
Dols was known for his broader support of the community, too.
The Willmar Area Community Foundation presented the 2015 Award in Philanthropy to Bob and Patti Dols for their charitable support and volunteer leadership in the community.
“Our community is in debt for his effort, particularly on Highway 23 but also to make things better for our children, to advance the arts and to keep businesses local,” said Foundation Executive Director Sara Carlson.
“There are very few projects that Bob and Patti haven’t been behind in the community,” through their donor-advised fund with the foundation, she said. “He has left the kind of legacy that very few have but we should all aspire to.”
Calvin said he had last seen Dols at the groundbreaking for one of the final sections of Highway 23. Though his health had been getting worse, Calvin said, “he was so excited to have been there.”
Memorials to the couples' donor-advised funds are deeply appreciated. Donations can be mailed to:
- "Bob and Patti Dols Advised Endowment Fund" c/o Southwest Initiative Foundation, 15 3rd Ave NW, Hutchinson, MN 55350 or online at bit.ly/dolsendowfund
- Bob and Patti Dols Donor Advised Fund — Willmar Area Community Foundation www.communitygiving.org/donate/bob-and-patti-dols-advised-fund or mailed to c/o Willmar Area Community Foundation, 1601 E Hwy 12 Suite #9, Willmar, MN 56201.