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Voyageur's Best Features of 2003

Ted Natus

He didn’t graduate
Business owner, Ted Natus, dropped out of school at age 14
by John Grones  |  August 12, 2003

He didn’t graduate, but according to Ted Natus, school was the only good thing that happened to him as a child. He doesn’t recall much from his childhood days, but he does recall school, playing baseball and the day that would turn his life upside down.

Ted, now 65-years-old and the owner of a successful paint and carpet store called Hammernick’s Decorating Center in St. Paul, shared the fateful day that devasted his life. As we walked down North Rice Street after a tour of the store and his warehouse, he said, “I was fourteen years old. I came home from confirmation school at the Beaver Church and my mother drank rat poison. She was laying in a pool of blood and gore, rat poison on the table... so as a 14-year-old boy, I got back (I was driving then in the country). I got back in the car, drove a half a mile down the road to the Halverson’s. They had a lot of kids, and I asked them if anyone wanted to play ball.”

“It was about two hours later that somebody had stopped and found her. To this day, I don’t remember her funeral... I don’t remember nothing...”

We finished our walk from the warehouse to the store and we sat in the conference room where Ted often meets with his managers and supervisors of the 90-plus people employed at the company. His next recollection was of Butte, Mont. where he set pins at a bowling alley. This would be the beginning of what Ted referred to as a strange path in life.

At the age of 14, finding work was difficult and Ted became resourceful. Many jobs had age requirements and he was forced to lie about his age in order to get the job at the bowling alley. He set pins for $.07 a game. “That was my pay,” he said.

Ted’s next experience would be in the mountains of Mont. fighting forest fires. Ted again lied about his age, but this time got caught. “We climbed a day and a half to get to this fire, up on top of Deer Lodge National Forest. We’re fighting a fire and a ranger comes by and looks at me and says, ‘Son, how old are you?’ I says, ‘Eighteen sir.’ He says, ‘Bull crap. You’re no 18. I’ll give you a choice. You can go down to camp and wash dishes or you can dishes or you can go down the mountain with the next load down’.”
“I said, ‘Show me the dishes’.”

Ted spent 13 days washing dishes and received his very first paycheck. He’ll never forget it. “It was the most money I had ever received in my life. It was $214.36. I thought that was all the money in the world.”

Ted eventually returned to Minnesota by train in the spring of 1954 and settled in Duluth. He went to work at the Flame nightclub. Ted explained that at that time, the Flame was the fanciest restaurant in the state of Minn. It was a point in Ted’s life he will never forget, because life was finally wonderful.

“A Jewish gentlemen by the name of Charlie Kasmier took me under his wing and treated me like his son. I worked at the Flame nightclub for basically three years. Life was pretty wonderful.”

At the age of 17, Ted went into the Air Force where he served for four years and decided to bum around the country with another gentlemen. His travels brought him to Calif. and yet another interesting line of work. “I believe the year was ‘61,” Ted recalled. “It was the year Marilyn Monroe died. The only job to be had... and we had no money or food... we were in Bakersfield, Calif. They were hiring on the farms.”

“We were the only white guys on the farm and they had us move irrigation pipe from six in the morning to six at night,” Ted continued. “They paid us $10 a day and took out $.40 Social Security. So we got $9.60 a day and desperately tried to save up money to get out of town.”

Ted eventually made it back to Butte, Mont. where he worked in the copper mines. He hated every day of it. At a depth of 3,800 feet, he realized that “there has got to be a better way.” There was, but it involved another white lie. Ted headed over to the state employment service with a new suit and filled out the forms. “Their forms say education. Now, I was looking for a better way of life, so I said that I have a Bachelor of Arts Degree. ‘Well, from where?’ they asked. And I’m thinking where’s the least unlikely place in the whole world that I could have graduated from where they probably won’t check. So I put down Bemidji State University.”

“The next day my phone is ringing off the hook. They are looking for college degreed people in Butte, Mont., the mining town. Sears called me, B.F. Goodridge called me, Goodyear called me, a number of big named companies, and this Pioneer Paint and Lumber called me... okay... now I’m in the soup... now what am I going to do?”

He headed over to Pioneer Paint and Lumber and got the job... maybe. There was just one more thing. The company required Ted to go back to the state employment agency and take a college equivalency math test. Fortunately for Ted, math was never any trouble. He took the test, passed with flying colors and that’s how he got his feet wet in the paint business.

This was Ted’s occupation until 1965, but his life would take another turn when the mines went on strike. According to Ted, the population of Butte went from about 48,000 people to 26,000 people and no customers came to town. Ted decided to get out of town. “I leave and I’m traveling through St. Paul, Minn. and I wreck my car. I say to myself, ‘Well, I would imagine I better get a job. I have no money, I have no car... so I picked up a newspaper and a paint store a mile-and-a-half down the street was looking for a paint person. I proceeded to get the job.”

Four years later, in 1972, Ted talked to a gentleman by the name of Ed Hammernick who had a decorating store. The store was not doing very well and Ted wanted one year to see if he could turn things around. “Ed says, ‘What would you need?’ ... and I says, ‘Give me two dollars an hour.’”

The first year the company made $3,800 and the next year considerably more, and the next even more. “Then we started building an addition,” Ted went on, “... and when Ed Hammernick retired, I was fortunate enough to purchase Hammernick Decorating. It has now grown to a multi-million dollar business.”

The store name remains the same, and now Ted, with the help of his wife, Lynn, runs the business. They average 90 employees with a wide range of skills. He employs painters, decorators, degreed designers, carpet installers, and project managers. One of those project manager/estimators also has a connection to McGregor. George Hemmetter lived south of McGregor and sent his boys to McGregor School. His boys, Scott and Todd, are painters and also Ted’s employees. “We actually have five Hemmetters,” said Ted. After further investigation, George has a brother, John, who is a painter, and his son, Troy, is also a painter. Ted commented that the Hemmetters have been a tremendous asset to the company.

Ted credits the success of his business to having a love of the business and a love for his customers. “You just have to care,” he said. “We’ve been just so fortunate in finding good people.” He also mentioned the fact that a man without a good wife doesn’t make it. Another key was hard work. Ted felt that the harder he worked the luckier he got. He is now 65 and works six days a week. “This is where I want to be, I love it,” he said. He doesn’t see retirement in the foreseeable future.

Ted married Lynn and they have five children, Christy, Brenda, Amy, Theresa and Troy. His life has since become a lot more normal. It has been 51 years since that fateful day his mother died, and it has taken a long time for Ted to get over the bitterness and hurt. By telling his story, it appears that Ted has gone through a lengthy healing process and the bitterness has been removed. The church where Ted went to confirmation class so many years ago, the Beaver church, is now building an addition, and Ted is footing the bill.

Ted has had plenty of blessings over the years, but the one that stands out in his mind was wrecking his car in St. Paul.

In Ted’s words, “It’s been a wonderful ride.”

This article first appeared in the August 12, 2003 issue of the Voyageur press.