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Art Mandell worked on his wedding day.

In those days, 1951, if he didn’t work – on that day, he was picking up food waste – his pigs didn’t eat. And if pigs didn’t eat, the family farm in Faribault, Minn., didn’t pencil out.

“That day, a guy said, ‘Hey, aren’t you getting married today?’ ” Mandell recalled. “ ‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘but that’s not for another hour and a half.’ ”

Ten years later, Mandell and the high school sweetheart he married reached a momentous decision that allowed them to step away from farm life.

No more pigs, no more waking up at 5 a.m. to milk cows, no more being married to the farm.

Instead, they bought a Dairy Queen in faraway Missoula, Mont., a place seemingly as distant as the moon.

“When we came out here to look at the place, we’d barely ever set foot out of the state,” Mandell said. “It was a heck of a step for a couple of farm kids who’d never seen a mountain.”

On Sunday morning, Valentine’s Day, the Dairy Queen stores on South Higgins Avenue and Brooks Street will reopen for business after their winter’s nap.

And five decades after his first uncertain days as a business owner, Art Mandell, who turns 80 on Wednesday, will be there.

“He shows up like clockwork anyway, but there’s no chance he’d miss the opening,” said Jim Auger, who became Art’s partner in the business in 1997, when Art’s son Mike sold his half-interest. “People expect him to be here and it wouldn’t be opening day without him.”

And thus it has been for half a century.

Admittedly, it’s possible to overestimate the importance of an ice cream stand.

You could, for instance, get into a long-winded discussion of what might be called highbrow ice cream versus the everyman ice cream of Dairy Queen.

Doubtless you could argue for days the virtues of soft versus hard ice cream.

That said, you would be hard-pressed to overestimate the Dairy Queen’ s effect on those who worked behind its counters. And for that reason, it’s hardly possible to say enough about the effect Art Mandell has had on the young people of Missoula.

Not that he’d take any credit. But listen to his partner at the DQ on Higgins Avenue.

“Art is a father figure to me and hundreds of kids who’ve worked here,” said Auger. “He’s a mentor, someone who cares, someone who’ll pull your leg a little bit. He’s about the most good-hearted person I’ve ever known.”

Mandell is touched by the sentiment, but he’s always felt that right follows right.

“My sense has always been that if you treat people with respect and kindness and love, then that’s what you get back,” he said. “I think we’ve given kids a good place to work, but they’ve given us so much back by being such wonderful people. I don’t think you get one without the other.”

*****

Allison Kelley has worked for Mandell and Auger since 2000, when she was just going into high school.

“I had friends who worked here and I was a Sentinel kid, so I just sorta found my way here,” said Kelley, who just graduated from the University of Montana with a degree in forensic anthropology.

Kelley worked her way up from the bottom and now is a sort of manager’s manager.

“She manages me and makes up my schedule if that tells you anything,” Auger said.

Starting her 10th year, Kelley said the DQ has served as an extended family where no one is ever mad at you and your dad is always going out of his way to help you.

“If you need something, Jim and Art would do it for you,” she said. “If you need time off for tests or your family is going on vacation, you get it. If you need help with a problem, they help. I guess the way I’d put it is that Art and Jim are father figures to me.”

Multiply Allison Kelley’s experience by 1,000 and you begin to understand the meaning of Art Mandell.

*****

He grew up on a south Minnesota farm, the son of farmers who never expected or wanted anything more.

But Art Mandell wanted something more. He just wasn’t sure what.

One thing he was sure about was his girl, JoAnn.

“He was such a shy boy when it came to girls,” his wife of nearly 60 years said recently. “He just about couldn’t even talk to us.”

Which was fine, because once he talked to JoAnn a little bit, he knew all he needed to know.

“I never even went out with anyone else,” he said.

“But he could have,” JoAnn said, laughing. “He just didn’t know it.”

The Mandells went straight from high school to farming, living on the Mandell family spread.

“After that, Art pretty much didn’t take a day off for the next 10 years,” JoAnn said.

Delivering milk around Faribault, Art had occasion to stop by the town’s Dairy Queen, where he marveled at both the ice cream and the work schedule of the man who ran the place.

“He definitely seemed to have it figured out better than I did,” Art recalled.

Eventually Art’s cousin showed him an ad in the Minneapolis paper – a Dairy Queen in Missoula, Mont., was for sale for $16,000.

“Well, all I knew about Dairy Queen was that I liked the ice cream, and that was one thing more than I knew about Missoula,” Art said.

Still, the unworldly Mandells boarded the Milwaukee rail line and made their way to Missoula, getting their first magic glimpse of the Rocky Mountains.

*****

They bought the DQ on Higgins for the asking price, and moved their growing family to Missoula in April of 1961.

“Our families thought we’d lost our minds,” JoAnn said.

That first year, the DQ returned $17,000, barely enough to pay the bills. Art found himself working in the winters for extra cash, and when the Dairy Queen was open, he found himself as busy as he’d been as a farmer.

“I just didn’t have to get up as early,” he said.

“I tell you what, he was married to that Dairy Queen,” JoAnn said. “We lived just a few blocks away and sometimes he didn’t even have time to get home for dinner.”

Art may not have known much about business, but he worked hard, made friends, and started hiring neighborhood girls to help him run the stand.

“There were times when people would come in and ask for something and I’d say, ‘I don’t know how to make that, but if you’ll tell me what it looks like, I’ll give it a go,’ ” he remembered. “But you know, a couple of years went by and we started to get the hang of things. We didn’t make much money at the start, but it got better and better after that. Now, it’s almost hard to believe what it’s done for us.”

Over the course of the next half-century, Art became a partner in the Dairy Queen at Southgate Mall and renovated the old Gump’s drive-up on Brooks into yet another DQ. He also opened the DQ in Lolo.

When he made a mistake, he ate it himself. Still does.

He served bad hamburgers and scrumptious hot dogs.

“For a while there, we had the worst hamburger in town and the best hot dog,” he said.

He never ran a help wanted ad, and stood watch as a stream of neighborhood kids performed a working ballet in the cramped confines of the shop.

 He employed more than a thousand teenagers, watched as they grew into adults, watched as some met their future husbands across the counters.

He presided over water fights, ketchup battles and ice cream wars.

And he partook in his share of the mischief.

“He’s a prankster and always has been,” his wife said.

As a young man, Art learned to fly by taking lessons for $6.

Eight hours of lessons and they turned him loose to solo. After Art buzzed the ground so close that people were running for cover, his flying career was grounded.

*****

But there’s more than one way to make mischief.

“Well, he’s got his little tricks,” said Jim Auger. “He likes to put a straw in there with your hot dog, and he’s been known to put a plastic lid underneath more than a few hamburgers.”

Mandell listened to his partner reveal his secrets, grinning in such a way that you just know that Auger is a soon-to-be victim of a Mandellian “gotcha.”

“If he’s here, you’ve gotta be on your guard,” Auger said.

A Mandell favorite: How about a straw full of mustard with that chocolate shake?

Over the decades, Art and JoAnn raised five children – Kathy, John, Mike, Maggie and Christopher.

Missoula was good to the Mandells, and they, in turn, were good to Missoula, taking part in both the city’s business and civic life.

“I was in the Sentinel Kiwanis for 45 years and if you don’t put that in your story they get after me,” Art said.

Nowhere is Art’s impact on Missoula more visible than on the face of Jim Auger, who will never forget the day Mandell called him with an offer he’d never imagined.

“I could hardly talk when I told my wife that Art Mandell had called and asked me to be his partner,” said Auger, a one-time corporate executive for the Claire’s chain of stores. “I said, ‘We’re not even going to ask about the price and we’re not going to ask about the terms.’ ”

The deal was sealed with a word and a handshake, all anybody ever needed from Art.

“We haven’t had a cross word and we’re starting our 14th year,” Auger said. “He’s never even asked to look at the books.”

“You want to know how honest Art is?” JoAnn asked. “Well, when he had to have a second job to get by, he’d tell his prospective employers that he’d love a job but that he’d have to quit in two months to go back to the ice cream shop. How many jobs do you figure that got him?”

Not many, but that streak of honesty worked wonders with his partners, employees and friends.

“I don’t think you’ll find anybody who has an unkind thing to say about the man,” Auger said.

Everyone knows the answer, but sometimes somebody still asks why Dairy Queen is closed in the winter.

Well, duh.

Remember that whole thing about not working as much as a farmer?

“I’ll tell you, if it’s 50 in February, you’ll make a ton of money, but if it’s 50 in September, you won’t sell a thing,” Art said.

Those winter months off have been Art and JoAnn’s months. They’ve taken the chance to travel and visit, the chance to step away from the marriage that was the DQ.

“We’ve really enjoyed ourselves, particularly since Art quit working on a daily basis,” JoAnn said. “Of course, he kept working the lunch shift until he was 75, so it hasn’t been that long.”

He laughs generously, recalling the youthful notion of not going to work early.

“I guess that’s all it was,” he said. “I just didn’t want to get up that early for cows.”

But ice cream, well, that was another story. A long one that gets longer each year.

“It’s been more than I could ever have imagined,” he said. “The people I’ve dealt with, my partners, all the kids who came to work for us. It’s nice that people are so appreciative, but it’s me who should be appreciating what all they did for us.”

The Dairy Queen opens on Sunday and Art Mandell will be there.

“We’ve got people who come down there as sort of a rite of spring thing for their family,” Mandell said.

He’s not so presumptuous as to imagine himself integral to that rite, but Auger knows better.

“It’s not Dairy Queen and it’s not spring without Art,” he said.

Reporter Michael Moore can be reached at 523-5252 or by e-mail at mmoore @missoulian.com.

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