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La Crosse industrialist and philanthropist Charles Gelatt has given millions of dollars to community causes over the years, but no building, floor or wall bears his name.

Gelatt, 83, former owner and chairman emeritus of Northern Engraving Corp., said having a building named after him doesn't do much for his ego.

"There's no purpose in a Gelatt building," he said. "Names don't last very long. I believe someone else should have the honor if I pay for it."

Besides, Gelatt said, a building should be named after someone who gives even more money than he does. When Dr. A. Erik Gundersen suggested at a recent press conference that a floor of Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center's new cancer center might be named after Gelatt because of his $2 million donation, Gelatt shook his head.

He does not want the honor.

Over the years, Gelatt has supported the Gundersen Lutheran Medical Foundation, Viterbo University, Chileda Institute, the YMCA, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, the Boys and Girls Club and libraries in the La Crosse area.

Four days ago, Gelatt, and his wife, Sue, announced the $2 million donation to Gundersen Lutheran's new cancer center. They also are honorary chairpersons of the cancer center's capital campaign.

Gelatt, one of the most influential La Crosse residents of the 20th century, said he became a philanthropist because he wanted his money to help a community he loves.

He said he admired what other business leaders such as La Crosse lumber barons Frank and Gideon Hixon and Wisconsin Gov. Cadwallader Washburn did for the community. The Hixons donated park land to the city, and Washburn left a $50,000 bequest to start the La Crosse Public Library.

"The Hixons and Gov. Washburn left a legacy, and I wanted to do things like that," Gelatt said. "They didn't even get tax considerations for their donations."

Tax-exempt donations are nice, but Gelatt said he doesn't think about it when making a gift. "I'm still money ahead if I don't give it away," he said.

Gelatt said he doesn't know how much money he has given to the community over the years. "I'm not going back to add it up," he said.

He said what's important in making a donation is the organization and its mission. "I have to believe in an organization or a project, and I have to have faith in them - that they're doing as well as they can," Gelatt said. "But I want to know where the money is going."

Gelatt admired his father, Philo, who bought Northern Engraving in 1920. His father was raised in poverty in Kansas City, Mo. He said his father was charitable, but not a great philanthropist.

Philo was kind to his needy employees and liked the Salvation Army. He got a list of needy people from the Salvation Army and sent Northern Engraving trucks filled with thousands of food baskets to the community at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Gelatt doesn't have a process or rules in making donations, but he follows the advice of his father.

"My father had a rule: first say no, because you can say yes anytime," Gelatt said.

Gelatt told Gundersen Lutheran Medical Foundation officials three years ago that he was not interested in making a donation to the cancer center. "I was not jumping up and down when I was first approached, but when I saw the presentation, I was sold."

He'll give $25 here and there to help an organization, and sometimes he said he'll give enough money to keep organizations asking for more donations.

Gelatt said he likes to support organizations with challenges and will help them keep going. "But they have to survive on their own," he said.

When one organization was at risk for closing, Gelatt said he asked what was needed for its survival. When he was told the figure was $100,000, he offered to give the last $25,000 and encouraged the agency to raise $75,000.

Gelatt said he gives modest donations to several organizations, but Viterbo, Gundersen Lutheran and the La Crosse Family YMCA are among his favorite charities.

His family has strong ties to the Gundersen medical family that go back to before he was born. Adolf Gundersen, the founder of Gundersen Clinic, introduced Gelatt's mother, Clara, a Norwegian nurse at Lutheran Hospital, to his father.

"My father and Dr. A. Gundersen became good friends, and Dr. A. saved my life," Gelatt said.

On election night in 1924, 6-year-old Gelatt had a belly ache and ended up with an emergency appendectomy performed by Gundersen. Gundersen performed one of the first appendectomies in Wisconsin in 1890s, and it was not unusual for people to die of deadly peritonitis after the appendix had ruptured.

"I remember asking who got elected president, and it was Calvin Coolidge," Gelatt said.

Gelatt became friends of the Gundersen family and has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Gundersen Lutheran Medical Foundation over the years.

He became involved in Lutheran Hospital building drives, but he thinks it was Dr. Adolf Gundersen who talked him into one of his first philanthropic efforts when he headed the Finnish War relief efforts in La Crosse in 1939. Three boxcars of clothing were donated to the Finns, who had been attacked by the Russians because the country refused to give in to Soviet demands concerning its southeastern border.

Gelatt was a board member for the Gundersen Medical Foundation for more than 20 years and served as its president from 1977 to 1985. He was instrumental in helping the foundation get tax-exempt status like the Mayo Foundation.

"We had to sue the IRS because it was questioning the educational practices," said Gelatt, who had been a member and president of the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents.

"I said the medical foundation had more control over the education curriculum than the Board of Regents does, and we won," he said.

Gelatt said Gundersen Lutheran has provided high quality medical care that rivals major medical institutions.

"Gundersen Lutheran is one of the best things about La Crosse," he said.

He said he and his wife gave $2 million to the cancer center because they believed that cancer patients would be better served and supported in one center.

The cancer center brings together all the services and support in one building. "Cancer impacts the whole family, and this center will make it easier on the patient, family members and physicians," Gelatt said.

"Patients will be in a home for hope, and they will spend less time unsupported," he said.

Gelatt donated money to buy the family statue outside of Gundersen Clinic that has become the logo for the medical institution. He paid for the statue, which was dedicated in honor of Dr. Sig Gundersen, Sr.

He has a small replica of the statue on the fireplace mantle in his home. "I like the statue because it's a family, and Gundersen Lutheran cares for the needs of families," Gelatt said.

Philip Schumacher, executive director of Gundersen Lutheran Medical Foundation, said Gelatt has wisdom and integrity.

"When I think of Charles, I think of wisdom, a gentleman and a scholar," Schumacher said. "He brings an historical sense to everything."

As a board member, Gelatt was a watchdog and made sure things were legal, ethical and right, he said. "Charles made sure the decisions reflect the best interests of the organization and fulfills that mission," Schumacher said.

The Gelatts also encouraged the D.B and Marjorie Reinhart Foundation to match their $2 million donation to Gundersen Lutheran's cancer center.

Gelatt said he and other La Crosse philanthropists such as the late John Mooney and the late D.B. Reinhart, discussed at times what they felt each should give to capital campaigns.

"I like to challenge other people," Gelatt said. "I don't want to be the only one giving. It must be wrong if I'm the only one giving."

Gelatt helped remodel the YMCA and build a new one. He said he has fond memories of playing baseball at the YMCA as a child.

He was always interested in higher education. A University of Wisconsin graduate, Gelatt was the youngest Regent appointed to the UW Board of Regents in 1947 at the age of 29, and he became the youngest board president in 1955. He was a Regent for 27 years.

Gelatt was a member of Viterbo University's board of directors from 1972 to 1986. He led Viterbo capital campaigns and has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the college.

"His presence and leadership instantly changed the strength and quality of the Viterbo board and the way it worked," said the Rev. J. Thomas Finucan, former Viterbo president.

Finucan said Gelatt's presence attracted other strong and capable people to Viterbo's board.

Dr. Adolf L. Gundersen, former chairman of Gundersen's foundation board of trustees, said Gelatt's time and wisdom were as important as his donations.

"He is a marvelous thinker about what needs to be done in the long-term, and how you can achieve your goals," Gundersen said.

A avid reader, Gelatt succeeded his father on the La Crosse Public Library board of trustees in 1941. He has given money to libraries in La Crosse, Galesville, Sparta and Waukon, Iowa.

Gelatt built Northern Engraving into one of the nation's leading fabricators of decorated metal parts for the automotive and appliance industries. His company gave birth to subsidiaries such as Gateway Products and Northern Micrographics. He also once was a 10 percent owner of the Milwaukee Brewers baseball team.

He also pioneered a number of manufacturing innovations and is credited with developing the microcard system used in libraries across the country. After World War II, he started Microcard Corp., and by the 1960s the company had become a manufacturer of microfilm products and machines.

Gelatt sold Microcard to National Cash Register in 1967, but returned to the microfilm business in the 1970s with Northern Micrographics, now headed by his son, Daniel.

His other son, Phillip, is chief operating officer of Northern Engraving. He also has a daughter, Sarah, who lives in Ann Arbor, Mich. His three children each have their own charitable foundations.

Gelatt wanted to follow in his father's footsteps. Like his father, Gelatt kept a low-profile in the community. He doesn't care much for publicity.

He said his father taught him persistence, focus and to be on time. Gelatt likes to quote his father.

"My father taught me business every day at lunch," Gelatt said.

His father did not like the word "eventually."

"Eventually? Why not now, do it now," Gelatt said.

Gelatt said his business philosophy was based on hard work and taking care of customers.

"You want to improve the organization as much as you can, and take care of customers - and of course, stay in business," Gelatt said. "You have to be a survivor."

Gelatt said his personal strengths are persistence and imagination. "I tried to be creative," he said.

He said he still goes to his office in the Lynne Tower Building in downtown La Crosse. He likes to play bridge and read books, especially history. His reading these days has focused on World War I.

Gelatt said he has been alive for half of La Crosse's history, one-third of the United States' history and 1 percent of the history of world if one believes the world is 8,000 years old.

He said he does not have a lot of unfinished business, and doesn't think much of epitaphs.

How does he want to be remembered?

"Kindly," Gelatt said.

Terry can be reached at trindfleisch@lacrossetribune.com or (608) 791-8227.

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