A couple from Spring Grove is gaining national recognition for their philanthropy and criminal justice work.
Lee Sundet and his wife of 70 years, Louise, have received the Legacy of Hope Award from Prison Fellowship, a Christian nonprofit for prisoners and their families.
Lee, 93, and Louise, 90, have dedicated a portion of their lives to volunteering in prisons across the country, starting conversations with inmates and their families about religion. They’ve also been significant benefactors of the Prison Fellowship, as well as friends with the organization’s founder, Chuck Colson. Colson served as special counsel to President Nixon during the Watergate trial. After serving seven months in prison, he started the fellowship.
During a benefit celebrating them, graduates of the program thanked the Sundets and shared their experience with Prison Fellowship.
“You guys did the amazing thing of bringing hope and life,” said one speaker.
“The program taught me what love is,” said another graduate of the program. “It helped me forgive myself and move on.”
In an interview with the Post Bulletin, the Sundets — who now live in Bloomington, Minn. — reflected on their journey to this point, and the role of philanthropy in their lives.
You’ve been married 70 years. How did you two meet?
“The first date was: I just saw her, and I asked her to come to Jim’s!” Lee said.
“Jim’s was the local teenage hangout where everybody would order one Coke and spend an hour over that,” laughed Louise.
“So she drove her car downtown, I saw her, and I walked her home. I asked for three dates! And it was during homecoming, so there were events there,” Lee added.
A few dates — and years — later, you two have built a legacy around volunteering and philanthropy work. How did you get involved in this space?
“Well, my dad died when I was six months old. My mother didn't have much. And we had a hard time, but she always came to the church. I was lucky. I went to country school for six years and we had eight months of school and one month of just religious training. And that was all the whole Norwegian community around Spring Grove did the same thing,” said Lee.
“When (Louise and I) went together, we didn’t have much. But we said whatever we had was God’s, and we’re going to do the best we could with what God has given us.” said Lee.
“We lived in a Lutheran community. They even had a religious training building right outside the property of our public school. We were wartime children. I think we grew up in a serious time. Born in Depression and wartime,” said Louise.
Lee, as you grew older and gained success as a businessman in the state, eventually becoming owner of Twentieth Century Manufacturing, how did you meet Chuck Colson and start volunteering in prisons?
"Louise and I started to live in Florida in the winter. Chuck Colson asked me to go fishing with him. And after that, every Easter for 30-something years, I went to prison with him. I really loved that. What I loved to do was to go by myself from cell to cell. I learned that if I just asked where they grew up, for some reason, I never found an inmate who didn’t want to say where he or she grew up. Of course, I prayed that they'd ask me why I was there, because then I could tell them I love them and Jesus loved them," said Lee.
How would you start these conversations with inmates?
“First, you kind of walk up slowly. And once in a while, somebody won't even talk to you. Sometimes they'll sit and turn their back to you. Other times, people come over. And I'll just stand up close to the bars and say, 'Where are you from?' and if they don’t answer, I say 'I’m a farm kid from Minnesota.' I don't ever remember not being able to talk a little bit with someone. But sometimes, boy, they were really eager to talk and have their Bible out, show me what they were working on. It was really wonderful,” said Lee.
Do any interactions stand out in your memory?
“There was one in Birmingham (Ala). Well, we went first on Friday night to the prison Chuck had been in, and we spent time there. And then we were at different prisons on Saturday. On Easter Sunday, we went to this prison, and the death row there: Alabama has one big death row. This one had 22 to 25 people, I think.
I saw this one fellow look right at me with a big smile. I went over and I said 'may I sit by you?' And he said 'Oh I’d like that.' After the warden spoke, and Chuck spoke, and Chuck said 'anyone want to say something?'
And he just jumped up. He was so excited. He said: ‘I gotta tell you. I’ve been here 90 years. And I’m so lucky I can be here. I have a son -- 21 -- and I know if I hadn’t been here to tell him about Jesus, he would have gone the same way I went.’
That was real joy. He was so excited to tell it,” said Lee.
Asked & Answered is a weekly question-and-answer column featuring people of southeastern Minnesota. Is there somebody you'd like to see featured? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.