This coming February, Bill’s Food Mart will celebrate 45 years of serving the 630 or so residents here, as well as those from the surrounding area.
The 1902 building that houses Bill’s Food Mart began life as a grocery and sundries store. Through the years it has remained open, even though it is located only seven miles from competing grocery stores in Clarkson and Dodge. Bill’s continues to serve its original purpose, providing a convenient place for folks to shop for food and everyday necessities.
For many years, Bill and Pat Wisnieski operated the store after they opened it in 1973. In 2010, their daughter, Billie Wisnieski, returned to her hometown after working in retail management in Kansas City and Des Moines. She and her sister, Pam Barta of Norfolk, became part owners with their parents, who were in their 70s at the time but still worked in the store until 6 p.m., six days a week.
There wasn’t much going on in Howells that Bill and Pat were not a part of. Bill was on the village board and the Knights of Columbus. Pat, a part-time postal clerk for several years, was on St. John’s Catholic Church Alter Society. They both volunteered for the Community Club and spent significant time serving up food for various annual community-wide celebrations.
Joan Mastny, a committee member of the Howells Community Fund, said the couple was known throughout the community for their generosity and volunteerism.
“They opened their doors for every community fundraiser or event,” Mastny said.
Mastny remembers going to the grocery store several years ago and hearing an admonition from Bill. “You need to step up! We’re getting old and we can’t do it anymore. You need to keep this town alive.”
In 2015, family and friends were shocked when Pat died suddenly. Bill died shortly after from what Billie Wisnieski truly believes was a broken heart.
Wisnieski and her five siblings are gratified that gifts from their parents’ estate, totaling $10,000, delivered a significant boost to the Howells Community Fund’s unrestricted endowment-building efforts. The children agree that their mother and father would have wanted to give back to the community that had afforded their family a career and a caring culture throughout their lives.
Like Mastny, Billie Wisnieski has been on the Howells Community Fund advisory committee since its formation in March 2013, and now serves as the treasurer. Early on, the small group of volunteers spent a lot of time interviewing and investigating other community foundations and affiliated funds before determining that affiliation with Nebraska Community Foundation was the right way to go.
Today, volunteers of the Howells Community Fund are “stepping up” to ensure that their hometown not only survives, but really thrives as a place where families can live work, and enjoy the good life together with friends and neighbors.
“To me stepping up means that we continue to work together. Community survival in a small town depends on this. If there’s bickering between groups and they’re not willing to work together, we won’t survive,” Billie Wisnieski said.
The community’s beloved Howells Ballroom is an example of working together to enrich community life. Several years ago, the facility was renovated and can now accommodate about 800 people. A new sound system, paid for by the Howells Community Fund, was a big improvement for the lively gathering spot drawing residents of Howells and beyond.
“Working toward a goal has to be fun,” said Wisnieski. “If there is no fun in the process, what’s the point?”
Last summer the Howells Community Fund partnered with the Community Club and other local donors to raise money for the installation of a new basketball court with an interlocking rubberized hard surface and new backboards. The new facility, located near the ballroom, is a point of community pride.
“That turned out really well,” Wisnieski said. “With the help of some donations from out-of-state alumni that heard about the project at the yearly banquet, we surpassed our fundraising goal. So, now we’ll have a little extra to help with upkeep.”
That’s just the Howells way.
“When we need to meet a goal, we make it happen. I’m very excited about building our permanent endowment. Giving to an unrestricted endowment is one of the most worthwhile gifts you can make. Once that money is raised, you can count on it year after year,” she said. “I believe in our small town. I feel so lucky to live where people work together for a common goal.”
Wisnieski admits that running the Food Mart is no easy task, even though she and her siblings all grew up working in the store, starting off as “box kids” who carried out groceries for customers. Today her brothers and sisters live in Imperial, David City, Omaha and Norfolk.
This year, Bill’s Food Mart continued its tradition of giving away free turkeys to customers who accumulated enough punch card credits for grocery purchases one month prior to Thanksgiving.
Some things never change in a small town. Some things never should.