By Robert Lucke
Sitting with Dwayne Kretchmer in his gracious Havre home, it is very difficult to get him to open up about himself. The Elks, the Valley Furniture and Havre and Havre people; piece of cake. But to talk about himself, the subject gets changed every two or three sentences.
But the fact remains that Dwayne Kretchmer has been a good neighbor to North Central Montana ever since he got here in 1946.
Kretchmer was fighting in Iwo Jima in 1945 when he got word that his father had died. He applied for emergency leave to return home to North Dakota and did return, only to get there six days before his mother died as well. The family home was in Oriska, N.D.
After the war, he became the guardian of his younger brother and moved to the Great Falls area where the brother was living with his aunt.
"I was working around Great Falls for awhile, but it was too damn big," said Kretchmer, "so I answered an ad for a carpet layer's helper at Buttreys in Havre. I got the job at $200 a month. Gordon Suk was the store manager. Later, he went into the furniture business with me."
In 1945, Danny O'Neil, L. E. Freeman, Suk and Kretchmer purchased Bellands Furniture in downtown Havre. At that time, the name of the store was changed to Valley Furniture.
Meanwhile, Kretchmer and Lilly Gilbert were married in Kalispell. They have six children: Deanna, Sandra and Matt of Havre, Jody of North Chinook, Linda May of Minnesota and Jo Ann in Great Falls. These days, Kretchmers have 17 grandchildren and 11 great grandchildren.
By 1959, Kretchmer had built a new store at the present Valley Furniture location and taken on a new partner, Dave Evans.
By that time, some of the Evans family had come out to Havre and Dave had followed his brothers, spending the summer of 1957 doing farm work in the area.
"When Dave came out, he was only 18 years old," said Kretchmer, smiling. "He came into the old store and I hired him right then. He had no knowledge of furniture then, but before long he became a junior partner."
To this day, Kretchmer cannot stress enough how much Evans meant to Valley Furniture.
The years rolled on; the business flourished, and the store kept expanding until 1991, when Kretchmer and wife Lilly sold the store to their son Matt and Dave and Dixie Evans' son and daughter Cathy and Mike. That left the store to a second generation of "family" and the Kretchmers now had the ability to spend more time at their Canyon Ferry home while not neglecting their Havre home and causes.
Kretchmer has long been interested in the Havre Elks Lodge. He went through the Elks chairs himself and became Exalted Ruler in 1964-1965. It was then he met artist Clarence Cut the Rope. Kretchmer bought several paintings from him, all featuring elk.
One of Kretchmer's pleasures these days is that on April 1, 2000, son Matt started through the Elks chairs, following in Dad's footsteps by becoming Esteemed Lecturing Knight.
A Valley Furniture sales technique in use up until the present was brought home by Kretchmer.
"I was in Salt Lake attending an advertising clinic sponsored by the National Furniture Association," said Kretchmer. "They talked about a 13th month sale. Well, our year happened to end at the end of January, so January became our 13th month. It has always been successful. Sometimes we run it for just two weeks and sometimes for the whole month."
In 1984, Kretchmer's partner Dave Evans was on the Hill County Fair Board. Plans were being made to fund the Bigger Better Barn. That is when Kretchmer stepped in.
"I walked from the Liberty County Line to the Blaine County Line, all the ways through Hill County in 1984," Kretchmer related. "People stopped along the way and gave contributions to the Bigger Better Barn."
That was a 65-mile walk that netted the Barn more than $12,000.
The idea of marathon walking was not new to Kretchmer. After all, he had been a member of the Oriska, N.D. track team while in high school and in the 1970s had raised nearly $5,000 for Optimist Club projects by walking in their walk-a-thons.
"I really did the Bigger Better Barn walk because of Dave (Evans)," Kretchmer admitted. "It was a three-day walk, so there was lots of publicity on the radio and in the newspaper."
During those years, walking was just not enough for Kretchmer, who rode wild cows regularly in area rodeos.
Asked why, Kretchmer thought for a moment before replying. "I think maybe time at the Montana Bar prompted that to happen," he said with a laugh.
To this day, Kretchmer remains geared to helping the Havre economy with his interest in the Ryan Building on Highway 2. He is a partner in Parkview apartments, as well.
Going to interview Kretchmer? Then you are going to tour Valley Furniture. It won't take long into the tour to see why Kretchmer is so proud of that huge and beautiful store.
And still Kretchmer keeps an office at the Valley Furniture store. It is there among his souvenirs that Kretchmer's love for the people in this part of the country really shows through.
Not only that, but no one will ever know the thousands of folks whom Kretchmer has touched and helped through the years.
Dwayne Kretchmer, real good neighbor.