By Amanda Dyslin
---- — NEW ULM — There has been no shortage of stories the past several days about Don Veigel, the longtime owner of Veigel's Kaiserhoff in New Ulm who died Dec. 21 at the age of 91.
A fixture in New Ulm for 75 years, his large family, his many friends, and his even bigger pool of loyal customers each have unique memories of the man they describe as generous and affable.
Family members remember the years that Veigel played golf with baseball greats Mickey Mantle and Ernie Banks. Former employees remember Veigel had a loyal customer in John Denver, who would order 20 plates of the restaurant's famous ribs to go when he was in the area visiting his wife's family. There are photos on Facebook of Veigel sitting with Al Franken and George Wendt (Norm from “Cheers”) at the Kaiserhoff.
But the more personal stories and memories are the ones Veigel's loved ones have been most eager to share.
Nicole Helget of North Mankato, Veigel's niece, started working for her uncle when she was 15 and worked at the Kaiserhoff for 10 years alongside her mom, aunts and several of her sisters.
“Donny taught me and all of us about hospitality, generosity and taking pride in your work, your service and your product,” Helget said. “And, as soon as you'd punch in, Donny would inspect you and tell you how beautiful you looked and tell you to make sure that you smiled at the customers and got to the tables fast.”
Veigel was born Sept. 7, 1922, in Minneapolis to Albert and Wilhelmina (Helget) Veigel. The couple bought a small tavern in New Ulm in 1938, where Veigel went to work at the age of 15.
The original Kaiserhoff was at 523 First North, and even though the business started small, Veigel's cousin and life-long friend, Bob Paulson, said the family served their famous ribs since day one.
“They made their own barbecue sauce and kept it a secret. It was a real family operation — his mom and dad and Don,” said Paulson of St. Paul. “We'd always come down and visit. New Ulm was like my second home.”
After returning from five years of service in World War II, Veigel was married to Patricia Yost in 1946, and the couple had three children. (He married his current wife, Jan (Addy) Veigel, in 1990. Jan still runs the Kaiserhoff.) That same year in 1946, Veigel convinced his parents to expand the Kaiserhoff.
The restaurant relocated to the 200 block of Minnesota Street and underwent a couple of large expansions over the years that would eventually increase seating to more than 250 patrons.
In 1966, Leona “Onie” Dittrich started working at the restaurant for what she thought would be several months. She stayed for 41 years, she said. A couple of her fellow waitresses also served at the Kaiserhoff for 37 and 42 years, respectively, and a cook, Sally Mielke, stayed for 50 years.
Dittrich said Veigel enjoyed traveling a great deal, but whenever he was home, he was always at the restaurant.
“He was down there every day, seating people and greeting people,” she said. “He had a lot of friends.”
Helget said Veigel created a family-like atmosphere at the restaurant and was there to listen to people's woes. He was big on giving people second, third and even fourth chances.
“He believed in people's inherent desire to be good. He tried to build people up. He never shamed people,” Helget said. “Even if he had to correct someone, he did it in a way that left the person with his dignity. That's a lesson I've never forgotten.”
The Kaiserhoff certainly is Veigel's legacy, Paulson said; people traveled from all over for the authentic German food and, of course, the ribs.
“He won awards for them,” Dittrich said, adding that through the Kaiserhoff Veigel was quite the ambassador for New Ulm. In 2001, the restaurant was named "Official Best Barbecued Ribs in Minnesota" in a special on The Discovery Channel and KARE 11.
But he was known for so many other things, too. Veigel was a sports nut and sponsored the Kaiserhoff Golf Classic for years. He was also a benefactor to local sports teams, including the Kaiserhoff baseball team.
He loved playing golf and got to know celebrities through the sport, including Bob Allison, Mantle and Banks.
“Bob Allison became a good friend of Don's. I remember us packing up ribs and sauce to ship to him in Arizona, where he lived in his retirement,” Helget said. “... When I asked him about Mickey Mantle this summer, (Don) told me some things that I can't tell you and laughed to himself and said, 'That Mantle was a hell of a drinker.'”
Paulson said Veigel's World War II service was an important part of his legacy, having enlisted just a year after graduating from New Ulm High School in 1940.
“Don was kind of my hero because he was 14 years older than I was,” Paulson said. “He would come home on leave (from the service) to the Cities, and my mother would make him a big dinner, and he really liked that.”
Decades ago, Veigel had given Paulson his WWII duffel bag, and five years ago Paulson gave it back to him with a copy of “The Greatest Generation” book and an inscription that thanked him for his service and said, “You were our hero.”
“I showed him the inscription, and he started to cry,” Paulson said. “… I just thought, nobody ever thanked Don Veigel for what he did during the second world war.”
Many others will remember Veigel for simply being a good person and have posted numerous comments on the Kaiserhoff Facebook page.
Jessica Kodada wrote, “My heart goes out to the Veigel family and the Veigel's Kaiserhoff for their loss of Donald Veigel. He was truly a great man (the best man I ever met) and will be missed.”
Veigel funeral Saturday Funeral services for Don Veigel are 10:30 a.m. Saturday at the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in New Ulm. Burial will follow in the New Ulm City Cemetery in New Ulm with full military honors being conducted by the New Ulm Area Comrades of Valor Honor Guard. Visitation is 4-8 p.m. today (Friday) and 7:30-10 a.m. Saturday at the Minnesota Valley Funeral Home North Chapel in New Ulm. Veigel's Kaiserhoff will be closed Saturday in Veigel's honor.