John K.’s Childhood and Education
John K. Hanson was born on a farm near Thor, Iowa, on June 22, 1913, and soon after, he and his family moved to Forest City. He graduated from Waldorf College in 1932, and in 1934, received a Bachelor of Science degree in mortuary science from the University of Minnesota. At the time, he was the youngest person to receive a mortician’s license in Iowa. Following graduation, Hanson became the funeral director in his father’s Forest City funeral home and began assuming responsibility for his father’s furniture and appliance store.
Marriage and Early Career
Hanson married Luise Voss on November 14, 1935, and in 1937, they purchased Hanson’s Furniture and Funeral Home. Hanson drew his first national exposure in 1947 with a Time magazine article that featured a unique sales promotion for his store. It allowed customers to exchange farm produce for furniture and appliances. In 1948, Hanson also became a partner in an International Harvester Implement and Oldsmobile dealership, becoming sole owner in 1951. Both were sold in 1953.
Birth of Winnebago
An avid outdoor camping enthusiast, Hanson became convinced that travel trailer manufacturing was an attractive opportunity for the community, He convinced local investors to lure Modernistic Industries, a California travel trailer manufacturing firm, to open a branch facility in Forest City. In 1959, Hanson became president of the new firm, Modernistic Industries of Iowa. Immediately, Hanson began to explore methods for improving the company’s trailers. He identified the potential for new products and implemented effective cost-cutting measures. Hanson ultimately brought mass production to motor home assembly and led the company, renamed Winnebago Industries, Inc. in 1961, to dominance in the motor home field.
Growth of Winnebago Industries
In 1962, John K. sold the Hanson Furniture and Funeral Home to devote his time exclusively to Winnebago Industries, Inc., and his commitment to bring a better quality of life to Forest City together with jobs, which the community needed.
Winnebago Industries Inc. was devastated by fire in 1964. Undeterred, John K. rebuilt Winnebago Industries, Inc., and re-opened it in 1965. The result was a revolution in the recreational vehicle industry. Today, Winnebago Industries Inc. is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of motor homes and a major industrial operation for the state of Iowa. Hanson was an innovative leader in the recreational vehicle (RV) industry and instrumental in the formation of RV industry manufacturing standards.
Manufacturers Bank & Trust Company (MBT Bank)
In 1967, John K. Hanson and Elliott Cooper purchased the Farmers Bank and Trust in Crystal Lake, Iowa, changing the name to Manufacturers Bank & Trust Company. In 1970, Manufacturers Bank & Trust built and moved their main office to Forest City. In 1973, John K. became sole owner of the bank.
John K’s Awards and Recognition
John K. won numerous awards for professional, civic, and fraternal activities including selection as Iowa Small Businessman of the Year in 1965. In 1983, he was inducted into the RV Hall of Fame and the Iowa Business Hall of Fame. The following year, 1984, he was named to the Babson College Academy of Distinguished Entrepreneurs and received the People of Vision Award from the Iowa Society to Prevent Blindness. Hanson was also honored as a native son of Norway by the King of Norway on June 23, 1984, at the opening of the “Promise of America” exhibit which was held at the Sonja Henie Museum and Nels Onstad Art Center in Oslo, Norway.
In recognition of his contributions to the long-term growth and prosperity of the RV industry, Hanson received the Distinguished Achievement Award from the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association in 1988. In 1990, he was inducted into the Scandinavian-American Hall of Fame in Minot, North Dakota. In 1995, Hanson was honored by the Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association (RVDA) as an industry pioneer during their annual convention in Las Vegas, Nevada.
In 1995, Hanson also received an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Waldorf College, Forest City, for a lifetime of achievement in business and for service to the college, the church, the community, the nation and the world. Also that year, the city of Mason City honored him with the 1st Annual Meredith Wilson Humanitarian Award.
Some of the awards he was most proud of include earning the Eagle Scout Award from Boys Scouts of America (1929) and receiving the Boy Scouts top honor in business: the Distinguished Eagle Scout Award (1975). The award honors those who exemplify the ideas and principles of scouting through a business career. John K. remained involved and supportive of the Boy Scouts, participating in many Eagle Scout presentations throughout the north Iowa area.
John K.’s Hobbies
John K. basically had three hobbies: reading, marketing, and people. He turned these hobbies into his career. His love of people was obvious in many ways. His goal was to provide jobs to young people so communities could grow and prosper. He believed improving the quality of life within a community began with jobs, better wages, benefits, and opportunities for family recreation.
Luise’s Childhood and Education
Luise was born Luise Adelheid Voss on June 7, 1913, in Grundy County to Rev. C.E.G. and Marie (Knospe) Voss. She attended country school and graduated from Sheffield High School in 1930. After graduation, she moved to Forest City where she met her future husband, John K. Hanson. The couple married on November 14, 1935.
Early Career and Winnebago Years
From 1935 to 1962, Luise worked with her husband as an active partner in their Hanson Furniture Store and Funeral Home. She was integral in the founding of Winnebago Industries in 1959 and Stitchcraft, which soon followed. She worked as an interior designer before being elected director and treasurer in 1965, then director and vice president in 1967. She was named director emeritus in 1981. Luise also served on the board of directors of Manufacturers Bank and Trust in Forest City.
Luise’s Personal Interests
Luise V. Hanson had a heart for children. She was a Cub Scout Leader, a Luther League advisor, and a mentor to many Waldorf College students, particularly international students attending the college through the Lutheran Leaders Program. She often invited students into her home for weekend meals or holiday celebrations. Luise also remained interested in mission work throughout her life, especially New Guinea where her sisters served as missionaries. She had two additional soft spots in her heart: one for orphans, as her mother was an orphan, and one for pastors, since her father was a pastor.
Luise also actively donated her time and giving to persons with disabilities and children’s causes including service on numerous boards: the Handicap Village Board (once Opportunity Village and now known as One Vision), the Children’s Home Board, and the Riverside Bible Camp Board. She was a deaconess at Immanuel Lutheran Church and a church circle chairwoman.
Luise’s Awards and Recognition
Luise was the first woman elected to the Forest City School Board, serving from 1963 to 1966, and was named to the Forest City Education Hall of Fame in 1987. She served as a Waldorf College Board of Regent from 1981 to 1999, where she chaired the Advancement Committee and was a member of the Executive Committee. In recognition of her service, Waldorf College conferred on her the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters in 1995.
John K. and Luise hoped to be remembered for benevolence, a trait they possessed throughout their lives. They convened a small group that committed funds to build Immanuel Lutheran Church and led philanthropically through contributions to the Forest City Hospital, the Forest City Family YMCA, local churches, and Boy Scout organizations. They also helped fund the local park board and neighborhood parks throughout the area.
John K. and Luise demonstrated commitment to education through their belief in and support of Waldorf College, now known as Waldorf University. They strongly encouraged use of emerging technology in the college, public schools, and Winnebago Industries, Inc. In the mid-90s, they provided laptops to all Waldorf College students and made laptops available to Winnebago employees who could check them out to take home and learn alongside their children. In addition, John K. joined with Control Data to gift computers to Forest City Schools–elementary through high school–earning Forest City the Rural Model Community of America Award.
Hundreds of John K. and Luise V. Hanson’s gifts have been publicly recognized but more are known only to the recipients. For them, it wasn’t about receiving accolades but about giving back to citizens of the communities, particularly the employees of Winnebago Industries within those communities, who had given so much to them. Through contributions of millions of dollars, John K. and Luise strengthened and enhanced the quality of life for countless families, and through the foundation they founded, they will continue to do so for years to come.