Honest, loyal, friendly and genuine.
These are just a few words that have been used to describe Reynold Gehlsen.
Reynold, one of 10 children in a Hayes Township, Crawford County family, who went on to serve in the U.S. Navy and build a successful clothing business in Denison, died Thursday at Crawford County Memorial Hospital in Denison at age 92.
Along with creating a successful clothing business, he was an example of caring and ethics that were absorbed by his three sons, Troy, Brett and Sean, and also by their families.
Troy and Brett followed in their father’s footsteps and took ownership of Reynold’s Clothing in 2000 and the former JC Penny building where the business was relocated to in 2001.
Sean is a chiropractor and lives in Urbandale.
Troy said that among the most important ways his father shaped his life was through example – how to treat people.
“He taught you how to take care of customers when they came through the door, and that’s important. He taught us all the stuff you can’t learn from a book, which is how to treat people, how to act around people, how to take care of people,” he added.
“He always treated people how he wanted to be treated by people.”
Brett said that among the qualities of his father he admires is that he wouldn’t sell something just for the sake of a sale.
“If it didn’t look good on you or didn’t fit you, he’d tell you and he’d walk you (leave without buying anything),” Brett said. “If he walked you without selling you something, it was because he couldn’t fit you or didn’t have what would fit you at that time.”
Sean said he acquired a lot of skills from both parents.
One of the things he received from his father was to just be yourself when you are around someone.
“Be genuine, comfortable and welcoming, and let that come across as part of the service,” said Sean, remembering what his father had said.
Troy was five, Brett was three and Sean was not yet born when their father opened up Reynold’s Clothing at the southwest corner of the Broadway and 14th Street intersection on October 2, 1972. That was the home of the clothing store for 22 years.
For the next nine years Reynold’s Clothing was at the corner of Broadway and Main where Crawford County Bank is located today.
Reynold’s Clothing opened up in the former Penny’s building on April 1, 2001.
“It didn’t even dawn on us that it was April Fool’s Day,” said Troy, “The only reason we set that as an opening date is because we had prom starting three weeks later and we wanted our ducks in a row by then.
“My brother (Brett) and I always thought this would be a great location and decided to bite the bullet and bought the building,” Troy added. “With all the things we hoped to accomplish, we knew sometime we would need more room and had to have a little bigger building. This building is big enough.”
Actually, Stage Department Store had been the most previous tenant in the building before Reynold’s Clothing. Before it was a JC Penny store, the building had housed a lumber company and then the Iowa Theater.
Troy said his father’s involvement in community organization and the promotion of German heritage, especially through the Five Mile House in Hayes Township, served as an example for the three Gehlsen boys.
“We watched him do this as we were growing up, and he enjoyed those kinds of activities, so when you watch your parents become involved, and they enjoy it, it makes you want to get involved, too,” he said. “Because he was part of the community, he wanted to give back to the community.”
Sean also commented on his father’s love of heritage.
“I think my brothers and I were really lucky. Most people don’t have the opportunity to have their heritage put in front of them, like our dad did with us, and to still have it go on to this very day. That was something my dad and his family were able to give to us.”
Troy and Brett learned the clothing business from the bottom up.
“We started working for dad when we were kids, probably 11 or 13 years old, doing odd jobs, sweeping, vacuuming, and then eventually he hired us to come in on the weekends during Christmas to wrap presents so he and his staff could be on the sales floor helping customers,” Troy said. “That’s how we really got started working for dad.”
He added that he and Brett always loved the clothing business.
“We did it because it was what our dad did, and we liked what our dad did.”
The clothing business stuck with Troy and Brett when they went off to college. Brett worked in a store that sold suits and Troy worked for a store that sold jeans and casual tops.
Similarly, Sean ended up selling clothes while attending chiropractic college in Minnesota, but it was a little different – it was for REI Co-op, an outdoor gear store.
“It was kind of ironic, but it was outdoor wear. I had a passion for the outdoor wear,” he said.
Sean also worked at his father’s business but to a lesser extent than his brothers.
“I would work on Cat ‘n’ Dog Day, a fun day of the year,” he said. “I’d go out (to the sidewalk sale) and help keep watch. There were so many people outside.
“Every once in a great, great while I’d maybe do some cleaning. That was the extent of what I did in the clothing store,” Sean said, then quickly added, “I’d model clothing for advertisements.”
Troy and Brett were also frequently called on as models for advertisements for Reynold’s Clothing.
Brett also remembers taking out the garbage and cleaning the toilets.
“I do the same thing today,” he joked.
Troy said his father had always hoped that one of the boys would come back to join him in the clothing business.
“And he got two,” he added.
Brett came back in 1992 and Troy came back in 1995.
Brett went to college for marketing and Troy for broadcast journalism. He had been the news director for KDSN Radio in Denison from 1990-1991 and was at a radio station in Hastings, Nebraska, from 1993-1995.
Reynold got into the clothing business while he was serving in the Navy decided to not come home on leave or for Christmas, Brett and Troy said.
Brett explained that as one of the younger members of a family of 10, his father knew there wouldn’t be anything for him to do on the farm if he did come back.
“He stayed out in California, and he and a couple buddies got a job in a department store over Christmas,” Troy said. “For about a week he sold shoes, and then after about a week they needed help in the menswear department, so they put him there. And he said, ‘By golly, I kind of found something I like to do. It was fun, and I was pretty good at it, too.’”
After being honorably discharged from the Navy, Reynold returned to Crawford County and worked for JC Penny in Denison for nine months beginning in the fall of 1954.
Then he worked for Hoffein’s Clothing for two years. At that point, Hoffein sold the business to Jim Anderson, and Reynold worked for Anderson’s Clothing until October 1972 when he opened Reynold’s Clothing.
Troy recalled his father saying it was not a difficult decision to open his own clothing store.
“He said he knew he would do a good job on his own.”
When Reynold opened his store on October 2, 1972, which coincided with his wife, Roseann’s, birthday, it became the fourth men’s clothing store in downtown Denison. Downtown Denison also boasted three department stores at that time.
“We asked him, ‘Dad, what were you thinking?’ And he said, ‘I wasn’t worried about it because I knew I could do a good job. I had a lot of customers at the time and I knew I could make it work.’”
Troy said Reynold’s Clothing struggled through the farm crisis in the 1980s, just like everyone else did, but his dad never brought that home with him.
“He never let on that he struggled, which was good, and he always made it.”
When Reynold’s Clothing opened, it was mostly dress clothes and some casual wear for men, as well as some big and tall work clothes and boys dress clothes.
“Over the years we’ve had to diversify. In a small community, survival for a small business has a lot to do with diversification,” said Troy. “When we lost our shoe store here in Denison, we were able to pick up some shoes and work a little more into the footwear business.”
October 2 this year will mark the 48th anniversary for Reynold’s Clothing, and Troy pointed out it took over 40 years for the store to carry women’s clothing.
“People would come in and ask, ‘What does your dad think about that?’
“We asked him what he thought about Reynold’s carrying women’s clothing, and he said, ‘Well, it’s about damn time,’” said Troy.
“He thought it was great anytime we could expand into another facet in the clothing industry, because he knew that if the family business was going to survive, you had to diversify what you did,” Troy added.
Dancing was always one of Reynold’s favorite activities – jitterbug, polka, waltz, fox trot – said Brett.
“It helped that he grew up near the Five Mile House,” Troy said. “He would say you could find a dance anywhere around here every night of the week. Thursday night it was at Columbia Hall in Denison. That was their social activity. That’s what he and his buddies did for fun.”
When Reynold got too old to dance, watching live sports became among his favorite things to do, along with watching Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune.
“Probably his favorite time was March Madness (the NCAA championship tournament),” said Troy.
And he saw his Kansas City Chiefs win the Super Bowl this year.
“He never had a big hobby because he dedicated his life to a craft. He took Wednesday afternoons off, and instead of going golfing he would go home and take care of the yard,” said Troy. “That was his private time.”
Brett said his father had a great way to look at things, especially when it came to a problem Brett was having.
“For the first couple of years after I came back from college, probably the hardest thing for me to do was wait on someone or a family that needed clothes for a funeral,” Brett explained. “For my standpoint, I felt the only reason they are here is because someone passed away. If they didn’t pass away, they wouldn’t be here.
“My dad said, ‘Brett, look at it this way. They come here because first of all, they can’t go to Sioux City, Omaha or Des Moines, get their clothes, get them altered and come back and have everything ready for the funeral. They don’t have time, and they don’t want to. They just want to come here because they know you’ll take care of them. Once they leave here, they can go on their way and get their other things done and get ready for the funeral. You are doing them a service. You have to look at it that way.’”
Brett said it was a great point that has always stuck in his mind.
Troy explained that what he learned from his father couldn’t be learned from a book.
“You can learn a lot about how to run a business from a book, but a book doesn’t teach you how to work with people,” he explained. “You have to learn that, and sometimes I think that comes naturally, and it’s something my dad had. He could just work with people.”
Sean sees in his father someone who kept looking forward and moving forward in the good times and the bad times in life.
“He said to do something in life, you have to have a dream,” Sean added. “He always talked about the things he did throughout his life, certain things he enjoyed doing.”
Sean said people will remember his father as someone who always had a smile on his face and someone willing to help them in a time of need, a person who stuck his neck out to be part of the community to offer something back to the community.
He added that his father will also be remembered for his great sense of humor and for his ability to put anyone at ease when engaging in a conversation.
“Dad left a good legacy for my brothers to keep that legacy going, and I’m proud that my brothers get to do that and still offer the business and the service hopefully for generations,” said Sean.
Troy turned to comments from others when considering how the community will remember his father.
“A lot of people always remember dad having a smile on his face – he always had a smile and he always seemed happy,” he said.
“A couple people told me, ‘It seemed like no matter when I came to the store, your dad treated me as the most important person in the store. I was important, no matter what I needed.’
“And he was like that,” Troy said. “That’s how he treated everybody when they came in here. His customer was the most important person in the store, and you got his undivided attention.
“Many people have also said that he cared,” Troy continued. “He genuinely cared about you. If you had a conversation with him, it was an honest, caring conversation.
“The stuff like that makes you feel really good,” he added, “It really does.”
Brett said his father will be remembered as a proponent for the community, of Denison and Crawford County.
“He was always very loyal. Every car he bought came from Denison. If he could do business with someone in Denison, he would,” he added.
“He was a great, vibrant person who loved life and lived it to the fullest, whether he was out at the King Shoot or in here working or celebrating my mom’s birthday,” said Brett. “That’s just what he did.”