A Visionary's Dream

Eldon Siehl was a visionary.

Narrator:
In the early 1950's a former livestock salesman from New Ulm, Minnesota named Eldon Siehl bought a company in St. Cloud that made lenses for eye glasses. Vision-Ease became one of the first in the country to implant bifocals directly in glass lenses. The innovation helped the company grow and prosper. In the late 1960's, Siehl sold the business to Buck-B Mears, a Minneapolis company that had made huge profits helping produce crucial components of colored televisions. Siehl in turn made a handsome sum in the sale of Vision-Ease. Suddenly, Eldon had the resources to pursue his first love. He bought a section and a half of property near Heron Lake. There, Eldon and his wife Cora constructed a beautiful home and showplace farm.

Dr. Wallace W. Nelson:
Well, he had sunrooms and he had many a greenhouse on there. Very, very nice home. He had a pond out there with fish in and he had a little dock out there so theoretically you could go out there and sit and fish sunfish.

Fred Weigland:
And he wanted to farm. Now that was something that was in him since day one. The hard business, then he wanted to be a rancher…

Narrator:
Born in Iowa in 1915, Eldon's interest in agriculture began when he spent summers farming with an uncle in Round Lake, Minnesota. After High School and a stint in college, Eldon Siehl wound up working as a veterinarian's assistant in New Ulm. Eventually he became a livestock salesman there.

Fred Weigland:
He'd been in the hog business in New Ulm and Cora was a nurse and of course she was working. And Eldon, he knew this guy and they partnered up, and Vision-Ease was just started in a garage if you will. It was just an All-American store.

Dave Phillips:
Eldon spent his career as a business leader in the optical business. But his love was agriculture. He grew up on a farm; his first job was a cattle operation in New Ulm. If you were around Eldon you know how much he loved the land. He would, on a number of occasions…I don't know how many times we drove around the farm. I could have said "Eldon I've seen it", but no we had to go out and see what the crops were doing.

Narrator:
Dave Phillips had recently signed on with the College of Agriculture as a development officer in 1978 when he first met Eldon Siehl.

Dave Phillips:
Well, I have clear impressions of Eldon he was a humble man, but underneath that humbleness was big vision. You know, he was understated in a lot of ways and yet he thought big.

Narrator:
The Siehls had no children and as they grew older Eldon began considering philanthropic avenues for in inheritance. As always, he thought big.

Dave Phillips:
So I went to see Eldon, I told him what we were about and what we were doing and he said well you know I've thought about helping the University. And you know I've got this farm down in Heron Lake and I might give the University the farm.

Narrator:
Along with the farm, Siehl had a great many interests. He loved hunting and fishing, particularly with his old friend and lawyer Sid Gislison. He loved to go to Gopher basketball games with Dave Phillips. It was over coffee at Jerry's one morning that Siehl and Phillips realized that another connection existed between Siehl and the College of Agriculture.

Bill Hueg:
And this one morning David came back and said, do you know Eldon Siehl? And I said no. And he said, well I mentioned who you were and that you had married Hella Mears. The light went on.

Narrator:
Hella Mears was the widow of Norman Mears, principle owner of Buck-B Mears. She was now married to Bill Hueg, the vice president of the College of Agriculture, Forestry, and Home Economics at the U. The two couples had actually traveled together in Europe.

Hella Mears:
So we went to Germany and we went to Prague also. Norman was a non-drinker and I don't think the Siehls were very much of alcohol consuming people. It was just pleasant being with them.

Narrator:
When Cora became ill with cancer and passed away in 1980, it was a deep and painful blow to Eldon.

Fred Weigland:
He worshiped the ground Cora walked on. And I think it was a way for him to leave a legacy in her name.

Narrator:
Eldon decided to honor her with a gift to the University of Minnesota's School of Nursing. He endowed a chair, in her name, with a grant of one million dollars. Eldon Siehl's gift-giving to the U of M was far from over.

Dave Phillips:
A very important thing happened just before he died. He died on July 12th. On July 5th, so it's Fourth of July weekend, Norman Borlaug is in the United States and we got him to come up and said we want you to spend time, a little bit of time, with Eldon because he's near death and you know, you're the pride of all the agriculture in Minnesota because you're a Nobel Peace Prize winner. And so he came up to Rochester and then flew up to the airport, Bill and I picked him up, went over to his home and this is the Saturday one week before he died, he's weak, but Norman, Dr. Borlaug comes in and talks to him about the significance of the Prize, that agriculture in the west is not appreciated, people think food just gets on the shelf. They don't realize that the farmer's producing it. And just went through this, and Eldon sat there with tears running down his face. It's just the power of someone like Dr. Borlaug in their affirming that what he was doing and telling him this is absolutely the right thing to do. There is no Peace Prize in agriculture, but there can be a Siehl Prize in agriculture.

Narrator:
A week later on July 12, 1982, Eldon Siehl died.

Fred Weigland:
He was a great man.

Narrator:
When the time finally came to sell Eldon Siehl's dream farm, the Siehl Prize in agriculture was born. Since it was first instituted 16 years ago, the prize has become the most prestigious agricultural awards in the nation. Recipients of the honor are among the most successful and innovative producers, scholars, and business people in the world of agriculture. To a person, they are grateful to the generosity, the legacy, and the big thinking of Eldon Siehl.

Bill Hueg:
In 2009 I can tell you exactly the day, February 14, Dean Levine called and was nice enough to chat and he said, "Well congratulations Siehl laureate" and so I laughed. And he says, "No, I'm serious." And I said well there's a lot of other people; "you're the one that's getting it". So to go through that with people who I've known for years, who had gotten it previously; to become a part of that group, it was a wonderful feeling. I look at that statue every day.