Local entrepreneur, developer Kittleson to be remembered today
The man who helped bring Concordia Language Villages to Bemidji will be remembered for his active role in the community and his accompanying entrepreneurial spirit.
John Alden "Kit" Kittleson, 79, died Feb. 3 in Bemidji. A memorial service will be at 10 a.m. today at First Lutheran Church.
Kittleson was born May 24, 1932, in Mayville, N.D. When he was 4 years old, his father relocated his dental practice to Bemidji. Kittleson attended Central Elementary School, graduated from Bemidji High School in 1951 and graduated from Bemidji State University in 1955.
He married Janice Gordon of Shevlin in 1957 in California. When they returned to Bemidji, Kittleson got involved in the real estate business.
During his time in Bemidji, Kittleson became a licensed broker, sold insurance and real estate and made partner at a local real estate agency. He eventually became the sole owner of Kittleson Realty.
Kittleson also founded what is now First Realty GMAC in Bemidji. In 1982, he and a business partner had a new building constructed where First Realty is now located in front of the Paul Bunyan Mall.
Doug Fuller, current co-owner of First Realty GMAC in Bemidji, purchased the business in 2003. He said Kittleson continued to work as a real-estate agent for the business for several years.
"Alden was involved in a number of developments around Bemidji," Fuller said. "You aren't going to find a nicer guy. He had an entrepreneurial spirit and wanted that kind of business-orientated growth for the area. He provided a constant wealth of knowledge."
Kittleson started many businesses while living in Bemidji, including Northern Surplus Store and Bemidji 1-Hour Dry Cleaners. He franchised with The Gallery of Homes and later Realty World before selling his agency in 1980, which retained the name Kittleson many years.
Bob Montebello, a member of the Bemidji Lions Club, said he first met Kittleson when he joined the Lions Club in the early 1960s, but then later got to know him as a real-estate agent.
Montebello recalled that he and his wife, Sally, were interested in purchasing a piece of property north of Bemidji that was for sale. As a real-estate agent, Kittleson worked with them to purchase the property.
"(Kittleson) was such a down-to-earth guy and real honest," Montebello said. "You wouldn't detect any kind of devious behavior from him at all. He was real matter-of-fact. I got that feeling right from the beginning right when we met him."
Sally, who said she worked for Kittleson in the real-estate business for a few years, said she remembers Kittleson was interested in making sure people were treated with respect.
"He was easygoing, but wanted everyone to treat people nicely and to be fair and square with them," she said. "He was a hard worker and interested in seeing that things went well in Bemidji. He was a good person to work for."
Kittleson's son, John, said he will remember his father as a man of integrity and someone who held true to his word.
Kittleson was one of the early board members of the Bemidji Development Corporation, which bought the land on the south side of town to develop as the Bemidji Industrial Park.
In the early 1960s, he led Gerry Haukebo and others searching for a permanent site for Concordia Language Villages to the property along the lake.
Haukebo, who lives in Pelican Rapids, Minn., was inspired to start a camp teaching youth a foreign language through immersion from his time teaching in Germany.
He helped assemble a board of development advisers who searched for a large lakeshore property in Minnesota and mailed letters with their criteria to chambers of commerce in 14 Minnesota communities.
Kittleson, working as a real-estate agent in Bemidji, received one of the letters and showed the Turtle River Lake site near Bemidji to Haukebo.
Concordia College approved the purchase of the property, which was owned by Ira and Shirley Batchelder of Bemidji.
The gesture by the Batchelders to offer the property for sale and the impromptu investment by local founders has since yielded an annual return on investment of more than $10 million, said Martin Graefe, director for year-round programs at Concordia Language Villages.
Roughly one decade ago, Kittleson and others started the Bemidji Area Friends of the Concordia Language Villages organization, Graefe said. Through this organization, Kittleson helped start an annual essay contest, giving local fourth- and fifth-graders an opportunity to attend camp.
"He wanted to see if he could build more of a connection between the Villages and the community," said Graefe. "I give him credit in terms of vision for really taking the initiative to think of the essay contest and also his efforts in helping to start the Norwegian Village."
Janice Kittleson said one of her husband's greatest passions was helping bring Concordia Language Villages to Bemidji.
"He was very proud of that," she said.
Kittleson was also an active member in the Bemidji Jaycees, Bemidji Lions Club, First Lutheran Church and the Bemidji Lodge 500 chapter of the Sons of Norway.
Lois Egelhof, president of the local Sons of Norway, remembered Kittleson as playing an integral role in bringing Bemidji youth to the Concordia Language Villages.
"Every October we host a torsk and meatball dinner to raise funds to send kids from here to Concordia Language Villages," she said. "He was very active in that. Everyone pitches in, but he definitely did."
She added Kittleson went out of his way to make new Sons of Norway members feel welcome during meetings.
The family of Kittleson has requested memorials be given to First Lutheran Church.