Frank Steinmetz made good use of his aeronautical engineering degree, working on the U.S. space program and later national defense. But it was the decades of work that had nothing to do with that degree that brought him recognition Wednesday.

Steinmetz, who operated a dairy farm in the town of Wheaton for nearly 30 years, was chosen as the 2014 Kiwanis Agricultural Friend of the Year during a program at Wissota Health & Regional Vent Center in Chippewa Falls.

“I’m shocked. It was a real surprise,” he said after receiving the award from Steve Meinen of the Chippewa Falls Noon Kiwanis Club.

Steinmetz, who will turn 82 on Monday, gave up a successful career as an engineer to turn to farming. It wasn’t an easy decision, he said, but it was the right one.

Family came first

Defense cutbacks in the early 1970s would have taken him from his Honeywell offices in the Twin Cities to a job that was crafted for him at the Naval Air Weapons Station in California’s Mojave Desert. By then he and his wife Charlene already had six children, and they did not want to raise them in the desert and away from family.

“My family was back here, and with the kids...” he said. “My dad and her dad were very intelligent men, and we wanted our kids to get to know their grandfathers.”

So Steinmetz completely turned the page and returned to his roots.

He was raised by parents Wallace and Mary Steinmetz on a dairy farm in Tilden. His wife of 59 years was raised by Charles and Leona Zwiefelhofer on a dairy farm in Tilden. So perhaps a farm life was destined for both.

It seemed unlikely for some time. Steinmetz graduated from McDonell Central High School, went to school at UW-Eau Claire and graduated from the University of Minnesota.

“My dad was proud that I even graduated,” Steinmetz said, noting that his father didn’t make it past the eighth grade. “He believed in education, and he always said, ‘What you learn, nobody can ever take away from you.’”

While working in St. Louis for McDonnell Aircraft Corp. (later to become McDonnell Douglas), Steinmetz was one of only a half-dozen or so engineers who worked on the Mercury and Gemini space projects, the first two phases of missions that would eventually lead to the moon landings.

The timing was right to move back to Chippewa County. Steinmetz’s father was ready to step away from farming and wanted to keep it in the family, so he sold it to his son.

While Frank and Charlene were comfortable moving back on the farm, the move wasn’t universally popular with their children, since they had been raised in cities. Their oldest son, Tim, was a junior at Edina (Minnesota) High School, which was quite a contrast. But it all worked out for the best.

“I can’t think of a better place (than a farm) to get the children involved,” Steinmetz said. “They were so helpful to us. You get to know your kids this way, too. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

There were 33 milk cows and young stock at the beginning, and they were milking 72 cows by the time they sold the farm in 2002. By then bypass surgery had reduced Frank’s role on the farm.

Youngest son Steve farmed with his parents until he was 35 years old, the last four years going to school at UW-Eau Claire at the same time. He went to medical school in Madison and is back as a doctor at Family Health.

Steinmetz served as a delegate and a director on the AMPI board, as well as president of the Chippewa Falls Chamber of Commerce board, and the Friends of St. Joseph’s Hospital board.

He and Charlene have lived in the same house since 1973, and since retiring, he has kept busy with his love of music. It has been entirely a lifelong passion.

“Music is No. 1 in his life,” Charlene said, before correcting herself. “I guess family is No. 1, but music is second.”

Steinmetz has long been a member of a barbershop quartet, Dunn4. In fact they played at last year’s Farm/City program. He also has played the accordion most of his life — even before he had one to play.

“My first memory is before preschool. I used to go to weddings and I’d stand up on there on the bandstand, and I’d go like this,” he said, moving his arms back and forth as if he was playing an accordion.

All this time later, Steinmetz is still playing. Every Christmas Eve he plays his accordion and sings with his kids and 15 grandkids, and he’s booked at the Chippewa Manor on New Year’s Eve Day.

“I just say that we’re blessed,” said Charlene.

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