Russell Lileks shows off his bookshelf whichholds his albums that detail the history of Thief River Falls. Note the Kittson County sign in the background!
By Linda Andersen
“Make yourself at home,” a pleasant, smiling Russell Lileks tells the newspaper interviewer. He is eager to share about his life as we sit down in the living room of a Prairie Community Services home in Thief River Falls where he resides. “I came here in ’72. I came here when I was 18 years old,” volunteers Russell.
“Russ has always been happy,” says his sister, Dawalla Sorenson who is visiting her brother this Sunday afternoon.
“I bet this man has the most complete history of Thief River Falls,” says Prairie Home Services employee Bev Pawloski, giving some indication of just one of Russell’s hobbies.
A resident of Lancaster for some of the first years of his life, he says he was born in Fargo, the son of Sam and Jean Lileks. He has good memories of his life in Lancaster. Two places he mentions are Sanner’s Store and Wilson’s, which he says was a restaurant where the kids hung out. He speaks of riding bike, going downtown for Crazy Daze, and going to swimming lessons at Lake Bronson.
He also enjoyed going to movies in Hallock and says the community “used to be a big, booming town.”
Russell enjoys life in Thief River Falls, too, where he has worked at jobs through the Occupational Development Center, volunteered at his church, and seriously pursued a couple of unique hobbies.
One highlight of his working life was employment at Lon’s Restaurant, where he began working in 1975 and continued for “twenty-one years and five months.” These days a job coach picks him up three days a week to do cleaning jobs in Thief River.
On Sundays he is the first rider on and last rider off the Trinity Lutheran Church bus. That way he can aid riders who need help boarding and getting off the bus. At church he helps in various ways, including ushering and helping to run the TV camera so services can be broadcast.
Bev Pawloski calls Russell a “walking encyclopedia,” especially concerning knowledge of Thief River Falls.
He has accumulated numerous photo albums documenting the history of the town. Exactly how many albums does he have? “Many, many,” he replies.
According to Dawalla, the albums include a lot of old menus from such historic Thief River eateries as Lon’s Restaurant, Woolworths, and the Rex Café. They also include newspaper articles.
The staff regularly read newspapers to Russell and “keep an eye out for things he might be interested in,” reports Bev.
Russell is also a good photographer and his photos are scattered throughout his albums. He recently documented the closing of Penneys in photos and even more recently is documenting the closing of K-Mart. “I hate to see them going out,” he says of the termination of long-time Thief River Falls businesses.
He’s interested in new businesses, too, and is currently taking pictures at Tractor Supply.
“He’s got a picture of my dad standing by his truck,” states Bev, who explains that her dad once worked for Hartz Warehouse.
“He’s my GPS in Thief River,” says Dawalla, adding that he notices “everything” as they drive and “knows all the streets.” She also notes that he regularly watches city council meetings on T.V.
Russell may know Thief River Falls, but they also know him. One year the city chose him to plug in the Christmas tree for the annual Christmas tree lighting.
“Everybody knows him,” states Dawalla, who notes that his popularity extends even beyond Thief River. Once she was with him at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester and heard the familiar, “Hi, Russell!”
“Sewing is man’s work, too,” he says as he shows the finished products of another hobby, collecting patches from old caps, work shirts, aprons, etc. which he sews, by hand, on backing to create wall hangings. (He also explains that he once sewed on a button for a roommate).
He shows six wall hangings, one of which features sports teams and another, a combination of animals and snowmobile companies. He points to two patches on one banner, saying that they were the first two patches put out by Arctic Cat.
What are Russell’s plans for the future? “I don’t want to retire,” he states. He tells of an acquaintance, a ninety-four year old woman who still works at Walmart. “If she can do it, I can do it!” he remarks.
Russell is happy, helpful, appreciated, busy, interested in people and hobbies – all components of a full life.
Russell Lileks pointed to these two patches on one of his six wall hangings in his room, stating these were the first two patches Arctic Cat made.