‘Leo the Beer Man’ is celebrating life at 90

Janice Gette Weiss, Guest Contributor
While visiting Hawaii Leo couldn’t resist posing with this beer truck with its message, “Hey, Beer Man!”

If you had walked into any small town bar in the Devils Lake area between 1951 and 1991, you would have been likely to hear calls of “Hey, Leo the Beer Man is here!” Leo Gette sold and delivered Schmidt, Schlitz, Coors, and a few other beers for 40 years to all of the bars in towns north, south, east, and west of Devils Lake.

This Friday, June 30, he will be celebrating his 90th birthday with an open house/party at the Saint Joseph's Parish Hall from 2 to 4 p.m. With 36 of his family members in town from Alaska, Texas, Maryland, Arizona, and Montana, it promises to be quite the event, including storytelling featuring the “Best of Leo's Adventures.”

Leo did not start out to be a beer salesman. He was born in 1927 at the family farm in Alsen, ND.  His parents, Elizabeth and Ignatz Gette, were Germans from Russia. They had left Seminovka, Russia, in 1913, traveled through Ellis Island, then Manhattan, New York, and then took the train into Devils Lake. Ignatz and his brother Andrew came a a few months earlier than Elizabeth and were set up with farming in the area.  Elizabeth arrived with a two-year old, Leo's oldest brother, and spoke no English.

Leo is the 8th of 10 children, and one of three still living.  His younger brother Bill Gette (the only one born in a hospital) lives in Langdon and sister Elizabeth Berg, at 94, is in Fargo.

Like many others of his generation, Leo went to a country school, Noonan, in his case, for several years, but then dropped out to farm. It's hard for his grandchildren and great-grandchildren to imagine, but for years as a teenager, he drove the school “bus.”  It consisted of horses and a wagon. On the cold North Dakota mornings, he would heat up rocks to the put at the feet of the little kids to help keep them warm on the way to school. Then after they arrived, and he saw to the horses, he would join his schoolmates for lessons. He completed the eighth grade before staying home to help with farm chores.

In fact it was the farm that caused him one of his greatest disappointments in life.  At 18, in 1945, he was drafted into the Army/Air Force. His older brothers had fought in World War II, Joe in the Pacific and Henry in Europe. Henry served as a translator since he read, wrote, and spoke German with no American accent. Leo did his basic training in Wichita Falls, Texas, and then opted to be trained in the Military Police force and was sent to San Antonio and then Biloxi, Mississippi, all very exciting for an 18-year old farm boy who had never been out of North Dakota.

At Kesler Field in Mississippi, he was assigned to front gate duty as an MP. He thoroughly enjoyed telling the officers they needed to follow protocol and wear their ties both off and on the base. One officer gave him a hard time, so Leo told him, “Listen, Sir, when I'm standing at this gate, I'm higher up than you. Pull over to the side or I'll have to make a phone call.”  The officer complied, and, no doubt, Leo had to hide his triumphant smile.

Just as Leo was scheduled to be sent to Panama for duty, he was given a “dependency discharge” to go back to North Dakota and work on the family farm. As he describes that situation, “Oh, boy, I was mad.”  

He spent two years working on that farm, then married Rose Schiele in January 1948 and moved to their own farm. They had two sons, Roger in 1948 and Ron in 1949. Leo was not happy trying to make a living for his family of four and Rose, who had moved from her farm near Crary to live in Devils Lake and graduate from Central High School and then gone to Minneapolis and spent a few years in the big city, did not appreciate the hardships of farm life with two small boys and no electricity or running water. They made the decision to move into Devils Lake and Leo, a lean, strong farm boy, got a job hauling freight.

To read more about Leo, "The Beer Man" see the Devils Lake Journal print edition for Thursday, June 29, 2017 pages 1 and 3.