Bill Wolston, treasured Dakota County historian, dies


Bill Wolston

For years, William “Bill” Wolston paid tribute to the people, places and artifacts that characterized Dakota County — through videos, articles and conversation. 

Although one of his favorite conversation starters, “Did I ever tell you this story about…,” often took a while to unfold, his “90 Seconds of Local History” segments for Town Square Television were succinct. 

He’s perhaps best known for these broadcast segments, in which he preserved more than 200 local people and places by bringing viewers to a railway, cemetery, park, bridge or some other notable site, and piquing their curiosity. They aired on the station’s monthly news program, “Insight 7.”

With his dry sense of humor, smooth baritone voice and trademark sweatshirt, Wolston maintained the same demeanor both on and off camera, said Jodie Miller, executive director of Town Square Television. People liked him because they could relate to him, she added. 

“It’s not easy to develop and tell a story in 90 seconds,” Miller explained. “He always had a nice little twist at the end to keep people interested.”

Wolston’s reporting techniques — melding research from the Dakota County Historical Society archives with first-hand accounts from primary sources, or their descendants — lent a heightened level of authenticity and detail to his reporting. With the county’s resources accessible to him and local residents able to offer rich memories of the area, he felt no need for Internet access inside his Mendota Heights home. 

Even when his memory began to fail, after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease a few years ago, he kept files and three-ring binders of old history articles on hand, to share with his caregivers.  

Wolston died peacefully Jan. 25. He was 88.

‘Trying to seek the truth’

Wolston’s children, Kim and Mark, said his obsession with local history developed later in life, around the same time he took an interest in genealogy. He invested in a trip to Germany and a trip to England to study his mother’s and father’s lineage, respectively. 

His ties to the Minnesota, Ramsey and Dakota historical societies, however, kept him enthralled as well. 

Wolston grew up on the West Side of St. Paul and graduated from Humboldt Hight School in 1944. From there, he joined V-5 Navy Air, later serving in the Naval Reserves for 20 years. He attended Dickinson State College in North Dakota, then Iowa State, before completing his degree at the University of Minnesota.

A long career in marketing and advertising with Conwed Corporation (formerly called Wood Conversion), served as a creative prelude to his storytelling in retirement. 

At his Mendota Heights home, where he and his wife lived for more than 50 years, Wolston built an extensive collection of books on Minnesota and Dakota County history. 

“He did have a diverse set of books,” Kim said. “He was trying to seek the truth about [local] history and such.”

In the 1980s, Wolston started producing two quarterly newsletters for the Dakota County Historical Society and its Mendota-West St. Paul chapter, along with articles for its magazine, “Over the Years.” He also volunteered at outreach events, offering residents a new way to connect with their communities. Wolston served as the president of the Dakota County Historical Society’s board of directors for more than 20 years.

Doubling up on history outlets, he joined the video club at Town Square Television in 1987, at the group’s inception. His first video for the club, “The NDC Video Club Presents: A Heritage Tour of West St. Paul,” jumpstarted his venture into the 90-minute segments he spent the following 15 years producing. His ties to the Historical Society provided an endless supply of story ideas. 

“I have a feeling these stories he was discovering in history really came to life for him,” Miller said, noting he insisted on tracking down some object to feature in each segment, whether it be a gravestone, old house or ruins.

Wolston captivated a wide-reaching audience. 

“His stories have been incredibly colorful, very poignant … thoughtful and sensitive,” Dakota County Commissioner Thomas Egan said. “There won’t be anyone to replace him. He had quite the institutional knowledge.”

History at hand

When asked for a childhood memory of their father, both Kim and Mark shared the same anecdote. They remember driving to downtown St. Paul with their dad to collect red street bricks from renovation sites, hauling them back to their home off Dodd Road, and helping him lay these historic relics in the driveway. 

Based on their accounts, Wolston’s projects around the house never seemed to end. 

He always had a check list on hand, crossing off his latest successes such as the limestone terraces in his backyard, his Essex wooden model ship that won third place at the state fair, and another batch of his signature egg foo yung.  

“The only thing he did not do was work on his car,” Mark said.

Mark said he and his dad, who were both Eagle Scouts, bonded over playing cribbage together for more than 50 years and playing tennis with a group of local guys who called themselves the “Baker Boys.”

Kim’s memories were of hand-made crafts. Wolston would make jewelry, she’d make pieces of pottery, and they’d sell them together at area craft shows. Kim also said she admired her father’s resourcefulness — he composted waste to fertilize his own garden and yard. 

Both fondly recall the neighborhood block party their parents hosted every Fourth of July. Wolston had constructed a nine-hole wiffle ball course in their back yard — the highlight of the event. 

Wolston’s granddaughter, Maran, had a special relationship with him. When she needed history lessons for her home-schooling, Wolston volunteered to do what he did best: bring history to life, through hands-on exploration and, of course, engaging stories.  

Wolston was preceded in death by his wife of 65 years, Letitia (“Tish”), who died in 2001. He’s survived by his son, Mark “Woody” Wolston, daughter, Kim Wolston, and granddaughter, Maran Wolston. 

A memorial service will be held Tuesday, Feb. 17, 6:30 p.m., at Unity Church-Unitarian, 733 Portland Ave., St. Paul, with a social hour to follow. In lieu of flowers, family members prefer memorials or charitable donations to the Dakota County Historical Society and Town Square Television.

Erin Hinrichs can be reached at 651-748-7814 and ehinrichs@lillienews.com. Follow her at twitter.com/EHinrichsNews.

 
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