WINIFRED — A few years ago, Norman Asbjornson joined a group sharing coffee
and stories at his hometown's cafe. What he brought to the table was better than any
doughnut or cinnamon roll.
The self-made millionaire asked for ideas to improve Winifred. A newer ambulance
would be nice, and the volunteer fire department always could use help, he was told.
Before leaving, Asbjornson wrote a $20,000 check to build a new bathhouse for the
town swimming pool.
That was just the beginning.
"We never saw things as big as he did," said Jim Arthur, one of the men at the cafe
that day. Thanks to Asbjornson, the town of 150 people has a new city hall, library,
museum and community center. In addition, students receive scholarships to attend
Montana State University, and construction is under way on a new business, more
evidence of Asbjornson's generosity.
"It's truly amazing what he's done," said Twila Lunde, city clerk, who worked in the
same building as the fire department and town jail before Asbjornson had the new city
hall built. "He has the vision to look to the future and recognize what we need. He is
sure helping us stay alive and survive."
"I'm running a little social experiment with my old town," the 71-year-old Asbjornson
said. "I'm trying to see what it'll take to turn around some of these failing old towns."
By age 10, Asbjornson started his first business — hauling garbage for the majority of
Winifred. Like many high school seniors, he was ready to leave his small town behind
after graduation. College was put on hold while he was stationed with the Army in
Korea. He returned to Montana and, by 1960, Asbjornson graduated from MSU with a
mechanical engineering degree.
After decades working for a heating and air-conditioning manufacturer, he founded his
own company, AAON.
The company has become a leader in manufacturing heating and air-conditioning
products since 1988. Forbes magazine previously listed it as one of the fastest
growing companies in America, employing 1,200 people in Oklahoma and Texas and
grossing about $150 million in annual sales. The company made the magazine's 2007
of best small companies.
Surrounded by his successes, Asbjornson realized it wasn't enough.
"I had been so obsessed with being successful," he said. "I was getting older, and I
thought 'What am I going to do now?' It struck a chord in me."
He realized the town he was so eager to leave behind molded his character, and he
wanted to preserve that lifestyle for others.
Generations of his family have lived in Winifred and continue to make it their home.
His mother, Dorothy "Eric" Asbjornson, was a Winifred teacher for 27 years. The
certified library named in her honor has 5,000 books purchased through community
fundraisers, and 150 people have borrower cards.
His father, J.B. "Boots" Asbjornson, who ran a garage with his brother, was Winifred's
mayor off and on for decades. He also served in the Montana Legislature.
"He was a lot like Norman," Arthur said. "If he made up his mind to do something, he'd
do it." Boots Asbjornson's pet projects included bringing electricity to Winifred in the
1940s. He ran the power plant until Winifred Electric came to town a decade later.
His work earned him a Jefferson Award, given to 12 Americans whose community
service is worthy of national praise.
Boots Asbjornson was the first person from Montana chosen for the award.
He also was instrumental in getting the airport constructed, a project that his son
continued recently by rebuilding the airport hangar. The donation also helped the town
apply for matching federal funds to expand the runway from 2,200 feet to 4,600 feet,
making it possible for larger planes to land there.
Asbjornson's work in Winifred started with planting trees. The cemetery where his
parents are buried now has 90 of them. With the goal of making Winifred greener, he
planted another 700 trees in a park — mostly Colorado Blue Spruce, except for 80
The project grew to include building a fence around the cemetery to protect the trees
from deer and adding an automatic drip water system for about half of the trees. The
remaining ones are watered with a 2,200-gallon water tank, pump and trailer that
Asbjornson purchased for the town.
"I have a deep love of trees," he said. "When I lived there, I planted a lot of trees for my
parents. My parents were very interested in making the town more livable."
Constructing a new town hall in the summer of 2005 was a big part Asbjornson
continuing his parents' interest. The building houses the library, city offices, the post
office and a history museum. It has a garage for the new fire truck he purchased and
an ambulance. The basement is a community hall big enough for 400 people and has
a new kitchen, which is used for wedding receptions and funeral wakes.
"He has just made it his personal goal to give back to his hometown," Lunde said.
"Thank heavens it's Winifred."
Asbjornson decided it wasn't enough to make Winifred better for the people living
there, he also wanted to lure others to his hometown to help it transform from surviving
He created a scholarship at Montana State University for any student who spent three
years in Winifred schools and graduated — no matter what their grades or financial
Depending on the number of students taking advantage of the scholarship, it is
between $2,000 and $4,000 for each year of college.
Students studying agriculture or animal husbandry can receive an additional
The idea is that some parents might move their families to Winifred and commute to
work. Asbjornson hopes college graduates will return and be interested in investing in
He also funds a program allowing students and parents to take distance-learning
classes through MSU over the Internet. He purchased computers, buys the books and
pays application fees so students can take college-level English composition,
algebra, anthropology or introduction to psychology courses.
In 2005, he sent all the eighth-grade students in Winifred to Washington, D.C., for a
week-long educational trip. He's sending all of the seventh- and eighth-graders next
summer — at a cost of $1,000 a student.
School Superintendent Stephanie Wooderchak said Asbjornson doesn't
micromanage. Instead he pushes the school to not settle for less than the best.