Hugh Ralston’s legacy lingers in town he loved
Philanthropist would now be 100 years old
Mortar and bricks reveal little of the human touch behind grand buildings like the Gothenburg Public Library.Or Gothenburg Memorial Hospital, that houses the sick and injured, and its Wellness Center that helps keep the community well.
Hugh Ralston, who died nearly 14 years ago, gave more than a million dollars to renovate and add to Gothenburg Public Library.
Ralston supported the construction of the Wellness Center with a $100,000 donation and contributed many dollars to the United Methodist Church. He bought the land for the American Legion Baseball field and supported a myriad of other projects.
What was best for the community was always at the top of Ralston’s list, according to Glenn Bartels, who worked with Ralston for 32 years.
Ralston was a vice president of First State Bank and Bartels, who is now retired, was president.
“He taught me a lot about being good to the community and contributing, monetarily and through his work,” Bartels said, noting that Ralston was involved with several boards and organizations and was city treasurer for 40 years.
Ralston also gave financially to people who needed help.
“You just don’t realize how much he gave to people he didn’t know,” Bartels said. “He always wanted to help the less fortunate.”
Former bank vice-president Marlene Anderson, who worked with Ralston for 40 years, remembers him giving to the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army and to folks passing through town who became stranded or had other problems.
Pam Slack, another former bank vice president, recalls how Ralston would loan money to people personally.
“He didn’t care who they were,” Slack said.
All three remember Ralston as humble, kind and even-tempered.
“He contributed much more than money,” Bartels said. “He was the kindest, gentlest person I ever met and he never spoke a bad word about anyone.”
Anderson said Gothenburg, where Ralston lived his life, was dear to his heart.
“When I think of Gothenburg, I think of Hugh because he is one of the people who made it what it is today,” she said.
Bartels said Ralston could have been president but didn’t want the position.
Money, in terms of power and prestige, meant nothing to Ralston, he said.
“You’d ask him about things and he’d tell you to do what you thought was right. He chose to let someone else make major decisions,” he said. “That’s the way our relationship was.”
Slack worked with Ralston for 31 years and remembers seeing him upset once—when she and others straightened up the top of his desk while he was away on vacation.
“He was unhappy when he returned because he knew just where his things were,” she said with a laugh. “After that, when he left, he’d put the things on his desk in a box.”
Both Slack and Anderson said Ralston was also generous to co-workers, bringing back gifts from places he traveled around the world.
Slack remembers the opal necklaces he brought back for the women in the bank. Anderson talked about gifts of Waterford crystal and delicate glass flower baskets.
Ralston also loved St. Patrick’s Day (his father was Irish)and brought shamrocks for all employees to wear, she said.
Although Bartels said Ralston didn’t talk about this three-year stint with the U.S. Army in the South Pacific during World War II, he was active in veteran’s organizations throughout his life.
During an interview with Ralston at age 85 (he died the next year), he said he made his money in Gothenburg and invested the dollars in the stock market.
Ralston viewed the town as an investment which was why improving the community was important to him.
What would Ralston say about Gothenburg today?
Bartels: “He’d be extremely happy with everything and proud of everything going on.”
Anderson: “He’d be happy to see how it’s grown and prospered and I think he’d be pleased with how they’ve remodeled the hospital.”
Slack: “I think he’d be proud of the community industry-wise and delighted with the hospital and its new addition and the library.”
She added that all of the community’s founding fathers should be remembered for the contributions they made.
“Hugh wanted the best for his community and put his money to real good use,” Slack said.