Free furnace, AC provide relief for Onalaska veteran, daughter
La Crosse Tribune, Wis.
ONALASKA — Scraping by on a limited income of Social Security and disability checks, 89-year-old Gerry Haldorson had to choose between replacing his roof or his furnace.
The Onalaska resident opted for the roof, hoping to coax his 20-year-old gas furnace through another season, with a wood-burning furnace as a backup.
But winter can bring it on now, because he received not only a free Lennox furnace through Heat U.P. Wisconsin but also free central air conditioning, courtesy of Paul’s Heating and Air Conditioning in Onalaska.
“They really fixed me up, and I think it’s wonderful,” Haldorson said with a smile Tuesday as he sat in the small living room of the compact home he built himself about 60 years ago.
Showing off the new furnace in the basement, Haldorson motioned to the nearby wood-burning furnace.
“I’ll keep that in case, but I can’t carry wood down here anymore,” he said, because a genetic nerve disease makes walking difficult. “If something goes wrong, I could throw in a few sticks to burn.”
Heat U.P. Wisconsin is a 3-year-old program in which Lennox dealers across the state install free furnaces for the needy.
Unbeknownst to Haldorson and his daughter, Kathy Schmidt, who lives with him, Karl “Butch” Halverson of Holmen tossed Haldorson’s name into the mix of about 1,000 applications statewide.
The men became friends about 12 years ago when Halverson was building a house for his daughter, Kristin Halverson, across the street from Haldorson’s.
“Gerry’s a workaholic,” Halverson said, pointing out that Haldorson often pitched in to help with the house-building.
“I knew his story was a good one because he’s a veteran and because of his economic situation,” said Halverson, who was La Crosse County sheriff from 1986 to 1999.
“Gerry’s life has not been an easy one, but he never complains and always seems to find the positive of everything,” Halverson said.
Although Haldorson was reticent to talk about his World War II Army service, he eventually told Halverson of his experiences in the 127th Infantry Regiment of the 32nd Division in the Pacific Theater.
“He was an infantry scout,” Halverson said. “An infantry scout wasn’t a good job — the guy out front looking for the bad guys.”
Haldorson acknowledges the dangers and expresses gratitude for returning home safely.
“I had to go out and fight the Japanese. I was lucky — you couldn’t see anything in the jungle, especially in New Guinea,” he said.
“We only ran into the Japanese on one patrol. There was a whole platoon, so we skirted around them,” Haldorson said. “We didn’t dare fight them with our little squad.”
The luck turned on him when he returned home. “I came down with that darn malaria,” he said. “I couldn’t even work. I’d get up feeling fine and then get weak and have to go home.”
After a year of being nearly bedridden, he worked at Max’s Auto Wrecking for nine years and then at Low Motors, prepping used cars for sale, for 33 years.
Haldorson’s wife, Jodanna, died when Kathy was 2, leaving him to raise his daughter alone for several years until he remarried.
He built the house, with the help of his brother, Jack, from trees cut down on family property near the La Crosse River.
“I built it originally 20-by-20,” he said. “I didn’t have any plasterboard or insulation, but Kathy and I still moved in. After awhile, I finished the inside and added on 12 feet for two bedrooms.”
Schmidt, 65, who has lived with Haldorson since her husband died 20 years ago, and her dad receive modest Social Security checks, and he also has a small disability pension.
Schmidt has a respiratory disease that requires her to use an inhaler in the morning and often during the day. Their small window air conditioner didn’t provide relief.
“In that hot weather, we pretty near croaked in here,” Haldorson said.
They never could have afforded a new furnace — much less air conditioning — and the old furnace was accumulating repair bills.
“We were worried about it breaking down,” Schmidt said. “It was starting to nickel-and-dime him.”
Haldorson was shocked when Pete Schneider, owner of Paul’s Heating and Air Conditioning, tried to explain that they had been selected to receive a new furnace.
“First of all, he didn’t believe it. There are a lot of scams out there, and some selected think this is a scam, so they don’t even want to listen to you,” Schneider said.
Eventually, Haldorson bought into the idea of not having to buy the furnace, said Schneider, who is on the Lennox committee that helps select winners.
“We pick the best story that touches our heart,” he said. “Gerry’s story caught my attention. He’s a World War II vet, 89 years old, and the hardships he endured for our country. I knew this was one guy I wanted to help.
“Gerry mentioned to me about getting air conditioning sometime because they suffered through the hot summer,” Schneider said.
“I got to thinking — I’ve got air conditioning in my home. I’ve got air conditioning in my business. I’ve got air conditioning in my car,” he said. “I thought, ‘Here’s another way I can help.’”
So Schneider donated the central air on his own, which would have cost about $2,100 of the total of $4,500 to $4,700 for the full system, he said. Lennox donates the furnaces, Honeywell contributes the thermostats, and Lennox dealers provide the installation.
Halverson marvels at Schneider’s generosity, saying, “It was really going the extra mile. That was a big chunk of money out of his pocket.”
Haldorson concurs, saying, “He’s quite a fella to give me that air conditioner to go with the furnace.”
Schneider explained his soft spot for veterans: “We have what we have because of them.”