NEW: âYOU ONLY HAVE IN LIFE WHAT YOU GIVE AWAYâ
If you don’t know Kenny Wintersteen, you assuredly know people like him.
And, by his own admission, flawed.
If you are fortunate enough to know the 67-year-old who still lives in his home community of Olivet, you know that his charm is outmatched only by his wit, that the 27 years he spent alongside his wife, Lynn, operating the Menno Livestock Auction is matched only by his strong relationships in life, and that the works done in his lifetime far outweigh any legacy to speak of.
“I don’t know if I’m really concerned about that,” says Kenny, who also goes by Ken. “I want to live this life to its fullest, and once I’m gone, people will need to move on. Very few people can say they enjoyed doing what they’ve done as much as I have, whether it be the sale barn or raising a family.”
No, he says without a doubt in his mind, “I don’t need a legacy.”
If you know Ken Wintersteen, you also know that he’s spent more than two years battling cancer. Bad cancer. The diagnosis came shortly after he turned 65, when a routine checkup revealed a low blood cell count.
Initial tests didn’t reveal anything alarming, but vitamins and pills didn’t reverse the trend of his blood cell deficiebct and prompted doctors to send him on to a specialist.
What kind of specialist? Ken asked.
“A cancer doctor,” he was told.
“Oh,” was his reply.
After the follow-up scan was completed at Avera St. Benedict Health Center in Parkston around 12:30 p.m., Ken and Lynn left for their home in Olivet. About 45 minutes later his phone rang. It was his doctor’s nurse.
“You will meet with your cancer doctor at 8 o’clock tomorrow morning,” Ken recalls her telling him. “And I said, ‘That doesn’t sound good.’ And she said, ‘Believe you me; it’s not.’
“And normally nurses don’t say anything,” he continued. “It was a long night.”
The next morning he got the news: Stage 4 cancer.
“It’s in your lungs, in your liver, and there’s a mass the size of a volleyball on your kidney,” the doctor told Ken and Lynn. “And I said, ‘So now what happens?’”
For Ken, a life that is still going strong more than two years after that startling diagnosis could have gone several different directions were it not for circumstances beyond his control.
Ken was one of two sons and three daughters born to Kent and Shirley Wintersteen and was raised in an Olivet home not far from the family farm. He attended Menno High School and graduated in 1973.
Intersection 1: Life could have gone a different direction had he not been a college dropout. That’s right; after enrolling at South Dakota State University following high school graduation, he discovered quickly that it wasn’t for him. He gave college two years, took some time off for work, returned for another go-round before ultimately pulling the plug on his secondary education.
“Didn’t like it at all,” said Ken, who noted that his high school years had been enjoyable in part because he was popular with the teachers. “Back in those days, if the teacher liked you, it went a long way. I didn’t have to study much, but that shows up when you get to college.”
Intersection 2: Life could have gone a different direction had his father not warned against him purchasing a filling station that was coming up for sale in Menno.
“He said, ‘That’s an old rat trap. I don’t know what you want that for,’” Ken was told.
And what did Ken do instead? He spent two weeks at auctioneer school in Billings, Mont., learning the chants and the way of the business.
“Then you come home and you find out how much you don’t know,” he says.
Intersection 3: And life could have gone a different direction had his wife’s first husband, Lyle Vogt, not been killed in a tractor accident in the mid-1980s. Ken and Lyle had been close friends — they were in a Bible study together — and he learned of the tragedy that night, and subsequently visited the farm.
Later, Lynn asked Ken to put his auctioneer training to use at a farm auction that followed Lyle’s passing, and a few weeks after that she invited him to accompany her to Sioux Falls to look for a computer.
“And this was a Sunday afternoon, and I took naps on Sunday afternoons,” Ken says. “But I thought, maybe this is a sign from God. Maybe I better go look at this computer. And so I did.
“God works in different ways in different people,” he continues, “and I suppose this was God’s direction to me, saying this is what you will do.”
About a year-and-a-half later, in 1988, Ken and Lynn were married.
Seven years later, the Menno Livestock Auction came up for sale, which was the perfect opportunity for a life that was finally beginning to take shape.
“That started a whole new journey for us,” Ken says.
Ken and Lynn had already decided they wanted to settle down and raise a family in the Menno/Olivet area, in part because of something Ken’s father had told him many, many years before.
“My dad was a rural mail carrier and he told me at a very young age that he had been offered a job to be an inspector — to move up a longways — but he would have had to move to Sioux Falls,” Ken recalls. “And he said, ‘Your mother and I decided that we wanted to raise our children out here; that we did not want to be in the city.’”
Not only was that decision foundational to Ken’s growing-up years and his appreciation for agriculture, but translated to his own adult years. He and Lynn ended up raising two children, Evan and Ellie, in the kind of environment in which both he and his wife had been nurtured; Ken grew up in the Menno/Olivet communities, of course, and Lynn was raised in Clayton. (Today, Evan is a major in the United States Air Force, lives in his grandparents’ home in Olivet with his wife and their two-month old daughter, and farms with Ken. Ellie lives with her parents and works at NorthWestern Vet Supply in Parkston.)
As for acquisition of the sale barn in Menno 27 years ago it couldn’t have come at a better time. Ken had done some farming, sheep-shearing, and auctioneering for others, but in the same way college never suited him, neither did working for others.
“It just wasn’t my niche in life to work for someone else,” Ken said. “I wanted to be my own boss.”
Ken and Lynn purchased and began operating the Menno Livestock Auction — which has roots going back to 1915 — in 1995 as a family venture that became their primary life’s work. Ken still farmed, but the operation played second fiddle to the sale barn.
“When we first started we were farming over 1,000 acres,” Ken said, “but I made a commitment — my wife and I both did — that once we took over at the sale barn, that had to come first, no matter what happened.”
And that gave way, not just to a vocation, but to a way of life. Ken says his children and his children’s friends all but lived at Menno Livestock Auction. It also allowed him to get other youth, with surnames like Sayler and Schaeffer, to get involved in the business …
“If they asked for a job, we gave them a job,” he says. “No questions asked.”
It provided an opportunity for him and his wife to work lovingly side-by-side; in fact, Ken can’t speak highly enough of Lynn.
“To this day, my wife and I have been blessed to work together,” he says. “She’s a pretty wonderful gal. People do not believe this, but we have never had an argument. We have been married all these years, and we will have a difference of opinion once in a while, but never a knock-down, drag-out, not-speak-for-even-three-hours argument.
“I would see no reason to argue with her,” Ken continues. “She’s right most of the time.”
And the other thing the Menno Livestock Auction did was nurture invaluable relationships with both customers and employees alike.
“I have always been fortunate to have been surrounded by very good people,” he said. “I can give you the names of guys who worked for me and committed their life to me. They were there in the morning and at night. Just people more than willing to help — always. And to this day I could call any one of them.”
And those relationships have given Ken an opportunity to do what he believes is paramount in life — give back. He has done so by performing a wedding for a customer in Nebraska, hosting a funeral for a customer at the sale barn — the man’s ashes remain on the ground floor — and participating in countless benefit auctions where Ken doesn’t take a dime for his work.
“You really only have in life what you give away; that’s all you really have,” says Ken. “And we’ve enjoyed helping people when we could.”
“He offered two services to the community — his auctioneer service and the sale barn,” said Menno Mayor Darrell Mehlhaf. “That brought a lot of people to town who came in on common ground. We as a community have been privileged to have that era take place in our lives, and that will live on.”
Mehlhaf also noted that Ken established the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) in Menno.
“He has been a great mentor to children who might not be exposed to good Christian views,” he said. “Those are valuable lessons that will last forever.”
Mike Huether, a former mayor in Sioux Falls who spent two seasons working with KELO-TV on a program called “On The Road,” visited the Menno Livestock Auction in December of 2019 for a spot on his show. Huether remembers it well and reflected on the Wintersteens and their contribution for this story.
“Here’s a man and here’s a family that’s so darn invested in their community in a really, really unique way,” Huether told The Courier just this week. “There are so few people who are willing to put that kind of time and effort and work and blood and sweat and tears into a small-town, family-owned livestock auction.
“It’s unheard of,” he continued. “It really was a phenomenal story for me and for the viewers.”
As for the man that is Ken, the quality of his character speaks for itself.
“It’s no secret that there are two things that drove him — his faith and his family,” Huether says. “It was just so pure. So genuine. So real, and it’s obvious how much he and his bride love each other, and how much their faith drove them on this journey. That’s darn powerful.”
It’s a journey that has been and a journey that continues.
Not always easy
As blessed as he feels, life hasn’t always been easy for Ken. He says there are times where he has to keep his temper in check and has worked through some damaged family relationships that came following the death of his father in 2013 and the way his estate was distributed.
And then there were those four words that came a little more than two years ago — Stage 4 kidney cancer — and Ken’s immediate question. “So what now?”
The answer to that — and more — next week.