The Preston Area Community Foundation will hold its eighth annual membership dinner at the Branding Iron Supper Club on Monday, March 24. Cemetery director for the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs, David Swantek, will be the featured speaker. SUBMITTED PHOTO
The Preston Area Community Foundation will hold its eighth annual membership dinner at the Branding Iron Supper Club on Monday, March 24. Cemetery director for the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs, David Swantek, will be the featured speaker. SUBMITTED PHOTO
Scheduled to be completed in 2015, the State Veterans Cemetery in Preston will bring with it a history and a continuing obligation to honor area veterans. It could also bring promise to the economic future of Preston. These topics will be addressed by David Swantek when he is the featured speaker for the eighth annual Preston Area Community Foundation dinner on March 24.

Swantek, as the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs cemetery director, was invited by the board members of the Preston Area Community Foundation (PACF) because the implications of the cemetery are wide and varied.

"We think the new cemetery being built here will be very important to the city of Preston and area," said foundation board member Sheila Craig.

There is currently one state veterans cemetery in Minnesota, which is located 225 miles away by Camp Ripley, near Little Falls. Swantek has been based there since 1996.

He will share a comprehensive view of the purposes and impacts of veterans cemeteries with dinner attendees in a speech titled "A Sacred Trust: Minnesota's Veterans Cemeteries . . . Past, Present, and Future."

Swantek will speak about the history of veterans cemeteries in the state, their current growth, and where the state is headed in the future with them. His speech will also bring personal experiences and stories which veterans and their families have shared with him.

Swantek's own involvement with veterans' services began when he was attending Casper College in Wyoming. He found out the nearby Oregon Trail State Veterans Cemetery hired students during the summer to cut grass. He got a job working there for several summers and was then hired on full-time for four years.

In 1996, he learned that a veterans cemetery director was being sought in Minnesota. He was hired and moved to Minnesota "without knowing a single person."

According to Swantek, the cemetery near Little Falls took a while to develop into the renowned facility it is today.

"When I first came here, I was pretty much all by myself," he recalled, adding that the cemetery had been operated for a couple years prior, but under difficult circumstances and with very little development.

In 2001, the state received a grant from the National Cemetery Administration, which enabled the present-day infrastructure to finally be built.

In 2009, the state legislature authorized $1.5 million to be appropriated for the design of two additional cemeteries in northeastern and southwestern Minnesota. The southeastern project was authorized in 2011.

Swantek said the southeastern project had been the last to join the cemetery discussion, but is now well on its way to completion.

"It speaks volumes for the leadership of Fillmore County," he stated, adding that it was nice to immediately develop a cemetery in Preston while it took several years to do so near Little Falls. Swantek also commented that the progression of the Preston facility should give the other regions in the state renewed hope that such facilities are possible.

"You get one chance to do it right," he said.

Fillmore County got it right and Swantek plans on speaking about the strong partnership developed throughout the entire process.

Swantek hopes to help people understand exactly what the state is entrusting the community with in the veterans cemetery. "First and foremost, it's a benefit to the veterans, but there will be other things that will benefit because of the facility," he said.

According to the Little Falls Chamber of Commerce, the veterans' cemetery there has become a year-round tourist attraction. The city has seen an increase of traffic using their restaurants and hotels. Ceremonies held at the cemetery, such as during Memorial Day, draw hundreds of people.

"It will forever change the community," said Swantek.

Despite not being a veteran himself, Swantek hopes attendees will understand and walk away with a greater appreciation for what veterans have done and the importance of the state cemeteries.

"I look at this as more of a monument. It will be there forever," he explained. The pride that is cultivated there, Swantek feels, will also reach out to the entire community.

"For a community, as a whole, to be entrusted with this is a big deal. I'm confident the experience in Little Falls will be duplicated here in its operation," he said, commenting on how the environmental setting near the Root River is incredible. "I hope that everyone can leave with a sense of ownership in what we are doing there."

"It's a relevant topic for the community," reiterated Craig.

In addition to having Swantek share his information with the community, the PACF is hoping the event will increase public awareness of their organization.

The PACF seeks to help community organizations, schools, and non-profit programs and projects which strengthen the greater Preston area. They do this through granting funds earned from the interest of an endowment fund managed by the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation.

Grant recipients this year were Fillmore Central Schools Community Education for some staff training, Fillmore County Advocates, Preston Historical Society for their caboose restoration project, the Commonweal Theatre for their Preston Free Night promotion, the National Trout Center and Preston Tourism.

Several grants that were approved, but have not yet been paid, were awarded to the Preston Park Board for playground equipment, Preston Historical Society, and Fillmore Central Schools for the completion of a baseball field fence.

In its second year of a capital campaign started on July 1, 2012, the PACF is well on its way to meet a goal of $25,000 in each of two consecutive fiscal years.

The goal for the first year was exceeded, with over $30,000 raised from community generosity and matching funds from Dan Christianson, Ron Gehling, and Phil McElroy.

The PACF dinner is the organization's biggest fund-raising event with over $17,000 being raised last year. Funds from Give to the Max Day were over $10,000 both years.

"It was a very good year and the past two years have been very strong," said Craig, while reporting increased support from the community.

During the dinner, two grant recipients will be recognized and have the opportunity to speak on how the PACF's funding helped them. Ann Detlefsen from Fillmore County Advocates and Dick Petsch from the Preston Historical Society will speak.

A social hour will precede the dinner and speaker, beginning at 5:30 p.m. Attendees will be able to bid on silent auction items and, after the speaker, a live auction will be held. All items will be matched 50 cents to the dollar by Dan Christianson from F&M Community Bank.

The dinner tickets are $35 each and can be purchased at F&M Community Bank or Weber and Judd Pharmacy in Preston.