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Wichita entrepreneur finds a way to help others, long after he’s gone

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, Dec. 29, 2012, at 8:08 p.m.

Hank Rasmussen turns 95 in February. He made a bunch of money over the years as a Wichita entrepreneur and businessman.

“I can’t use it,” he said. “I have all the money I need. I have my apartment. I don’t need any clothes.”

Rasmussen and his wife, Naomi, didn’t have any children. She died in 2004. He’s already set aside money for his surviving 39 nieces and nephews.

He grew up poor as one of seven children. His father worked 18-hour days, putting in a full shift for the railroad and then shoveling coal at night in Marshall, Minn.

Rasmussen understands the needs of those who work hard but still don’t have much.

So, as he did throughout his business career, he developed a creative plan. This time it was to help others for years to come.

In the fall of 2010, he teamed up with the Wichita Community Foundation and the Medical Service Bureau to form the Lions Vision Care Fund. He makes a $5,000 monthly contribution to buy eyeglasses for children and adults who meet income guidelines.

“The fund will essentially last forever,” Rasmussen said.

After Rasmussen’s death, Hank Blase will oversee the fund. Blase is a longtime friend and former Sedgwick County assistant district attorney. He serves as Rasmussen’s attorney – just as his late father, Bob, once did. When Blase, 68, passes away, one of his sons will take over.

The money goes into a fund set up with the community foundation. The service bureau – a 75-year-old nonprofit that provides prescribed diabetic supplies, medication and eye exams and glasses to low-income Sedgwick County residents – administers Rasmussen’s plan.

About 2,800 pairs of glasses have been purchased through the fund so far, said Jean Hogan, the bureau’s executive director.

The bureau and Rasmussen have spread the word about the plan by going to health fairs and schools. While adults can take part in the plan, concern for children and their education is what led him to set up the fund.

“Providing good vision is paramount to succeeding in our society,” he said, “especially for children who might be having trouble in school because they can’t read what’s on the blackboard or on the computer screen.”

The scope of Rasmussen’s plan picked up significantly this summer after he purchased a $9,000 hand-held prescreening vision device, known as Spot, which can determine whether a person needs glasses in a matter of seconds, Hogan said.

It’s particularly helpful in schools because a large number of children can be tested quickly, Hogan said. Those tests are for all children, regardless of incomes, she added.

The prescreening readout can be taken to an optometrist, who can conduct a complete exam to determine a prescription for eyeglasses.

If the family meets the income guidelines, Hogan said, her agency works with a number of optometrists who provide low-cost eye exams. Rasmussen’s fund then pays for the eyeglasses, which Blase said can be purchased at discount prices.

The idea came out of Rasmussen’s many years as a Lions Club member and helping with that organization’s vision programs.

He and Naomi also traveled to 129 countries over the years to promote the Lions Club’s donation of eyeglasses. But they did more than talk.

They once spent a week in Guatemala assisting doctors in fitting eyeglasses for adults and children. He calls it his most memorable experience.

“The joy in their eyes when they determined that the world was finally in focus was overwhelming,” Rasmussen said. “It felt so good to bring that much joy into the life of a complete stranger.”

This comes from a man who had very little growing up.

His father and mother struggled to provide for their family where they lived in Iowa.

In 1921, when he was 3, they hitched a wagon to a team of horses and moved to Minnesota to rent a farm with hopes of doing better. It didn’t work out. Two years later his father switched to working for the railroad and shoveling coal.

As the Great Depression gripped the nation, Rasmussen went to trade school to learn riveting skills. He moved to California in 1938 to take a job at an aircraft plant working on an experimental jet for what is now Lockheed Corp.

“There weren’t any jobs back home,” he said.

Meanwhile, Naomi had left her Iowa home and also went to work at the same Lockheed plant. It wasn’t long before Rasmussen asked her out.

On their second date, he asked her to marry him. He remembers that 1941 moment well.

They were on a road at the base of the hill with the famous Hollywood sign.

“Everything Hank did, he gave it his all,” Blase said. “He’s ambitious and motivated.”

Years later, in Wichita in 1970, Rasmussen learned to paint from a 94-year-old woman. Over the next decade, he completed 45 oil paintings.

After being drafted by the Army in 1944, he spent the remaining World War II years stateside before finishing up in Puerto Rico where he served as a general’s driver and Naomi was hired as a teacher for the general’s 11-year-old daughter.

Jobs were still hard to find after he was discharged in 1947. He and Naomi were living with her mother in Iowa when Rasmussen hooked up with Ace Vacuum’s Omaha store. He became so good at his work that he would later increase the sales volume five times over at one of the company’s stores in Minneapolis.

In 1951, the company told him he could pick between Detroit and Wichita for his next stop. Rasmussen chose Wichita, but he stayed with the company for only another year before his entrepreneur spirit took over.

He started his own company selling sewing machines and vacuums, putting stores in Wichita, Kansas City and St. Louis. About 1953, he created a business that retrofitted cars with air conditioners – a plan that worked well until auto manufactures began mass installing them.

The 1950s also saw him create Infrared Sandwich Co., which sold hot sandwiches to employees at area businesses.

Rasmussen sold his vacuum and sewing machine business around 1960, shortly before he began converting washers and dryers into coin-operated machines. He connected with another entrepreneur, Jack DeBoer, and started putting the machines in DeBoer’s apartment buildings in Wichita and south-central Kansas.

“That’s when we went from rags to riches,” Rasmussen said.

He sold that business in 1978, retired and started investing in stocks and bonds.

When he turned 90, Rasmussen decided it was time to develop a long-range plan to use his money to help others. The vision care fund was soon born.

He’s quite sure Naomi, who worked as a social worker in Wichita, would approve.

Except for hearing problems, his health is good. His eyesight isn’t what it used to be, but he quickly told a visitor, “I still drive my car. Drive to the doctor and to anything I want to do.”

He’s still very motivated.

But his plans are really very simple. He wants what he’s done on this earth to count for something beyond his lifetime. So he gives to others.

“And, yes,” he added, “that does provide a warm glow in my heart.”

Reach Rick Plumlee at 316-268-6660 or at rplumlee@wichitaeagle.com.

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