Retired auto dealer was a civic leader

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 6, 2007

By Ed Shannon, staff writer

Howard J. Christensen, president of the Motor Inn Company from 1962 to 1995, left a legacy in both local business life as an auto dealer and with his involvement in various aspects of civic activities, died Thursday. He was 83.

He was born in Albert Lea during 1923, graduated from Albert Lea High School in 1941 and attended Albert Lea Junior College. He served in the U.S. Navy from 1942 to 1945 as an aviator.

Email newsletter signup

After World War II he returned to Albert Lea and became a salesman for the Motor Inn firm. He was named sales manger in 1955

Information in the Tribune&8217;s files and from the Freeborn County Historical Museum says the Motor Inn Company was founded by dentist Albert O. Watland in 1907. He operated the company on South Broadway Avenue with many franchises through the years, handling at various times Buick, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Cadillac, Ford and GMC trucks.

Watland sold the

business to Elmer Matthies in 1939 and he was the dealer until 1962. Matthies had a newer building constructed in at 131 W. College St. in late 1945. Christensen purchased the company from Matthies, his father-in-law,

and his father in-law&8217;s

associate, Clarence Myhre, in September 1962. In 1972 the firm was relocated to its present site, the former Kruger Motor Co. building on East Main Street.

Christensen was very active in many community organizations. He took personal pride in raising over a half-million dollars for the building of the present Family Y building on West Main Street. He served as vice president and director of the Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce, vice president of the YMCA-YWCA Building Corp., and past president of the Kiwanis Club, Y&8217;s Men&8217;s Club, First Lutheran Church Council, Albert Lea Country Club, and board member of Peoples Savings and Loan Association from 1966 to 1986.

He was a director and past president of the Minnesota Automobile Dealers

Association. In 1978 this organization nominated Christensen for the Time Magazine Quality Dealer Award. Thus, he and Motor Inn were just one of 65 dealerships in the nation to be given this honor. Christensen also served as the president of the Albert Lea Auto Dealers Association and was a member of the National Automobile Dealers Association. During his years as president of Motor Inn he served on the dealers councils for both Buick and Cadillac.

Howard Christensen&8217;s son, David, became the general manager of the dealership and then president on the retirement of his father in December 1995. He is a member of the third generation to be associated with the Motor Inn Co.

One of the associates at the Motor Inn Co., Dave Hutchins, started washing cars in 1967, later spent four years in Austin, then came back to Albert Lea and is now the firm&8217;s service manager.

His comment regarding Howard Christensen was, &8220;He was like my dad.&8221;

A former employee of Motor Inn, Howard&8217;s first cousin, Barbara Christensen, said, &8220;I had my doubts about working for a relative, but it all worked out wonderfully. He was easy to work with and it lasted for 40 years until I retired in 1994.&8221;

Another former employee and neighbor of Christensen, Lemour Ferley, worked at Motor Inn for 48 years and also retired in 1995. He was in the office for eight years and spent the rest of his career at this dealership in sales.

&8220;It was a good place to work. Howard was a good boss. We were neighbors and the best of friends. He was a wonderful, generous guy,&8221; Ferley said.

He added they enjoyed waterfowl hunting and fishing together.

The Christensen home in Shoreland Heights is next to the Fountain Lake channel near the Brookside Boat Landing. For many years he enjoyed feeding the waterfowl that gathered daily near his home for a free meal.