Corporate Work: Holland Newsletter

Wearing Fond Memories

Mark Altepeter follows the same ritual before every big work event. He reaches into his closet and picks up a jacket embossed with an M-Bar-D logo. As he threads in each arm into the jacket, a deep sigh exits his mouth and memories wash over his mind. Unlike any other garment, this one is near and dear to his heart, for it once belonged to his late friend Deverne Briss.

Altepeter met Deverne more than seven years ago when he joined the M-Bar-D Holland crew in East Grand Forks, North Dakota. From his first day, the pair worked side-by-side as truck drivers and soon became friends. “He was always fun to be around and had a joke every morning,” Altepeter says. “He would help guys out and show them how to do things, but if you forgot, he would always ask, ‘How long have you been working here?’ That was his joke; he always lightened the mood.”

Personal life

Deverne’s wife, Lynda Briss, can attest to Deverne’s sense of humor. “Wow, did he have a laugh,” she says with a smile. “You could pick him out in a crowd if you heard that laugh. His sense of humor was terrific. He could make a joke out of anything.”

Lynda and Deverene’s history is one for the storybooks. The pair met in 1966 when they were in their early 20s. Lynda was teaching fourth grade in Carrington, North Dakota when a friend introduced her to a family friend—Deverne. The two went to a dance, but didn’t get together until later.

“He was the best man at the wedding of my friend’s brother; the first time we got together was at that wedding,” Lynda says. “I was taken by him because he was different them any man I’d ever known.”

The pair started dating, but Lynda did not want to marry until she completed school. “I wanted to finish my education and was insistent on getting my four-year degree first,” she says, adding that she went to Valley City State University in North Dakota. “So one week after graduating from college, we got married.”

The wedding was small—about 100 people, and Lynda’s dress made by a seamstress for just $40. “We were very poor,” she says. “We married in August and school started at the end of that month. We didn’t have any money until I got my first paycheck.”

While Lynda's parents helped in the interim, providing the newlyweds with chickens to eat, the couple would also scour ditches for pop bottles to sell for money to buy milk. Although times were tight, they forged through. Both had grown up on dairy and grain farms, so they knew the value of hard work. During their first year of marriage, Lynda worked as a schoolteacher while Deverne worked as a sales person at a furniture store.

Change came one year later when Lynda resigned and the couple moved to Wahpeton, North Dakota, so that Deverne could attend the North Dakota State College of Science for electronic technology. “By that time, we had a three month old son, Barren,” Lynda says. “Deverne bought a TV shop in Fertile, Minnesota, and owned and operated that for many years.”

It wasn’t until 1989 when his tenure at the shop came to an abrupt end. “He had a heart attack,” Lynda remembers. “I was right there with him in the shop. He was blue and clammy, but insisted that nothing was wrong with him. He ended up going to the doctor, but that heart attack was the end of his TV work. He could no longer life those monstrous televisions.”

From there, Deverne took a series of jobs, from owning a liquor store to working for a construction company to working at an excavating company. Meanwhile, the couple adopted a girl, Melinda.

In 2000, Deverne took a job with M-Bar-D (then not yet acquired by Holland) in East Grand Forks. Two years later, the couple’s dreams of living on a lake came true. “We moved into a home on Lake Sarah, about five miles south of Erskine, Minnesota,” says Lynda. “We had always wanted to live on a lake together. We designed it—all three bedrooms face the lake. Basically, you can see the lake from anywhere in the house.”

Dark times

Although things were going well for the Briss family, tough days lay ahead. In 2003, Lynda was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. “It was a stage four, which to me was a death sentence,” Lynda says. “I can’t believe I am still alive today.”

Deverne stayed lovingly by her side, taking time off work to attend doctor appointments. When he no longer had sick leave to spare, co-workers came through with a surprise. “When I was really sick, several of the guys at the company donated sick leave to him so he would be with me; that was really special,” Lynda says.

The treatments worked and before long, Lynda was feeling better. But in late 2008, the family was dealt another blow. “In October that year, we found out that Deverne had Colorectal cancer and by that time it was in his liver,” she says. “I had been bugging him to get a colonoscopy for a long time, but he always told me he didn’t have time. When he finally made an appointment, it had gone on too long. He was always very stubborn.”

Chemotherapy was immediately initiated and for two years, Deverne traveled in and out of doctor appointments. In September of last year, the doctors decided treatments were no longer effective.

“He was so weak,” Lynda remembers. “They had to give him a rest.”

Final days

On a balmy winter afternoon last December, Altepeter was in Arizona, about to board a plane back home when he picked up the phone to call his dear friend Deverne. Immediately upon hearing his sick friend’s voice, his heart sank. “His voice was so weak,” he says. “I remember him telling me, ‘We’ll see you when you get back.’ I could tell by his voice that it was the end. He had such a strong voice and a loud laugh, and this time, he didn’t sound that way at all. I think he only lived one more day after I spoke with him.”

Deverne died on December 23, 2010.

Clothing revisited

A few months passed before Lynda could go through Deverne’s things. One day while cleaning out his closet, she found two jackets embossed with the M-Bar-D logo. “They were brand new,” she says. “I thought, ‘I can’t give these to Goodwill, I don’t want just anyone off the street wearing an M-Bar-D logo.’”

Lynda promptly washed the jackets, put them on hangers and in plastic bags, and attached a letter to them. She then dropped them off at the East Grand Forks branch. “I didn’t hear a thing for a while, but later Mark (Altepeter) called me to tell me he got one of them,” she says.

Altepeter says he remembers Deverne wearing the jackets and is happy to wear one himself. “It is a nice remembrance of him,” he says. “When I wear it, I think of Deverne.”

James Hauck, a fleet mechanic in East Grand Forks, received the other jacket. “I’m proud to wear one of Deverne’s jackets, he was a great guy and it is really nice to have.”

Fond memories

Today, Lynda still lives at the lake house, and has been in remission for more than 18 months. “It’s the longest ever,” she says, beaming.

Over in East Grand Forks, workers still talk of Deverne, always fondly. “He always lightened the atmosphere,” says Hauck. “He really went out of his way to make people feel welcome, too. Every year, he would invite all of our families and us to his lake house for a company picnic. I always thought that was really nice. It was always a great time—more than 70 people would be up there and we would ride the boat and just have fun.”

Although Deverne is no longer at East Grand Forks, reminders aren’t too far away—just look over at Hauck or Altepeter—their jackets tell the story. 

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Katie Morell specializes in feature writing, breaking news and corporate communications.