By Robb Murray
---- — MANKATO — Wally Haefner turned Mankato's iconic Wagon Wheel Restaurant into one of southern Minnesota's most storied diners.
Haefner died Nov. 12 at the age of 93.
And if you're like one of the many folks in the Mankato area who are in love with the Wagon Wheel's circa-1968 feel, among the legions who consider parking a fanny in one of its iconic orange booths part of a weekly ritual, you can thank Haefner.
Haefner's son Kevin Haefner, who has operated the restaurant on his own since buying it from his dad in 1982, said he remembers his dad embarking on a major renovation to the place in 1968.
"He'd come home and say, 'Gosh, I don't know if I'm doing the right thing, here,'" Kevin recalls.
But as history as shown us, he most certainly was.
The Wagon Wheel's orange booths, stainless steel counters and post seats — combined with a unique diversity of clientele that was the product of Wally generosity — give the place a feel like no other.
Kevin said he's worked at the place since he was 16. He watched his father — and his mother, Darlene — create a place that was welcoming to all. In the early days, when the big crowds came late at night, the Wagon Wheel would open at 7 p.m. and close sometime after 2 a.m. after all the people from the "bar rush" had cleared out.
Wally had a soft spot for charity. Kevin said that when his father went grocery shopping for the restaurant, he'd buy an extra box of groceries and drop it off at a convent that used to be near their home.
"He'd always give people money," Kevin said. "People who were down and out. He'd always help them."
Wally sold the restaurant to his son the same year his wife died. After selling, he continued to work at the Wagon Wheel. But his work at the restaurant was done in 1993.
In his later years, Wally was blind, on oxygen and needed a wheelchair to get around. His only trips to the Wagon Wheel in recent years came on Father's Day, an annual tradition for the family.
"I figured that last Father's Day would be his last," Kevin said. "And it was."
Wally made a lot of friends in this town. One of them was Blue Earth County District Court Judge Bradley Walker.
Walker, who was a morning regular for years until the new Blue Earth County Justice Center was built (which took him considerably farther from the Wagon Wheel) said he first met Wally 35-40 years ago.
"He was always hard-working, back by the grill," Walker said.
Walker said Wally created a warm, welcoming place, one that didn't matter who you were as long as you were friendly.
"It was always friendly, reasonable, and you could sit and talk and have your cup of coffee and he wouldn’t be trying to get you out of there to make room for someone else," he said. "And then Kevin, very frankly, kept the same traditions his father and mother instituted. ... From my standpoint, yes, (Wally) made it what it was."
Added Kevin, "He was a great man. He worked hard."