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Community remembers selflessness, vision of late chamber director

‘He loved giving back’

The Albert Lea community is mourning the loss of a longtime business leader and community advocate.

Randy Kehr, 69, died Thursday at Mayo Clinic in Rochester after battling cancer since mid-July. 

Kehr had lived in Albert Lea since 1996 with his wife, Ellen, and served as the executive director of the Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce since 2007. He served in numerous additional capacities throughout the community, including in leadership of the Blue Zones Project in Albert Lea, the United Way of Freeborn County and on numerous community boards and committees.

“My heart’s broken,” said Albert Lea City Manager Chad Adams. “He’s been such a great friend and mentor, and in my opinion, he’s the definition of what a servant-leader is. He’s set a great example for the entire community.”

Adams said in addition to his involvement locally, Kehr has played a key role with the Minnesota Commission on Judicial Selection, where he helped make recommendations for new judges in the state.

“He tirelessly worked on behalf of doing what’s good for the community and the state of Minnesota,” Adams said.

Randy Kehr

He noted Randy and Ellen Kehr’s work and involvement with the Blue Zones Project has set Albert Lea apart worldwide and has helped improve the well-being of many residents in the city. 

Kehr also mentored what Adams estimated as “hundreds” of people through the Leadership Albert Lea-Freeborn County program, which helped participants learn about their area’s resources, strengths and weaknesses and encouraged participants to assume leadership roles within the community.

Ryan Nolander, executive director of the Albert Lea Economic Development Agency, said it was clear to all that Kehr loved the community.

“He loved giving back and doing things he could to improve the community,” Nolander said. “He is going to be deeply missed.”

Nolander said he and Kehr spent a lot of time together visiting local business owners and reaching out to them to see if they needed help. Kehr had many political connections, whether through the governor’s office, U.S. Rep. Tim Walz’s office or U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s office.

“He was always willing to go to bat for the businesses in the community,” Nolander said. 

Kathy Sabinish, co-owner of Frames R Us, said she remembers when the street renovations were taking place on Broadway in 2013, and Kehr stood outside several Saturdays that summer with a grill and hot dogs, reminding people that the downtown was still open for business. This was just one memory she shared of his aim in helping local businesses.

Jennifer Byers, vice president of local chamber relations with the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, said Kehr was also a great partner at the state chamber level and was part of a federation that represented about 40 local chambers in the state committed to business advocacy and economic development. 

Kehr hands Erbert & Gerbert’s owner Kurt Wallace the microphone to speak after being recognized as Medium Business of the Year at the 2014 chamber banquet. – Sarah Stultz/Albert Lea Tribune

Tom Newell, longtime leader of Minnesota Freezer Warehouse, who began as interim director at the chamber at the end of October, said he had not known Kehr well until the last few weeks when Kehr helped him learn his responsibilities for the chamber.

Newell said he discovered he and Kehr grew up two or three miles apart from each other as children, attended the same schools and went to the same churches.

“I’m very saddened by this,” Newell said. “He was a strong advocate for the community.”

Susie Petersen, executive director of the Albert Lea Convention and Visitors Bureau, said there wasn’t a project or event in the community that Kehr wasn’t a part of.

“He’s left a legacy for us,” Petersen said. “I’m just grateful that I’ve had the privilege and pleasure of working closely with him on a lot of projects.”

She described Kehr as a compassionate, kind and caring person and said he always made time to greet people in the CVB office when he stopped in.

Perry Vining, organizer of the Big Island Rendezvous & Festival, said Kehr had always been supportive of the projects he has led through the years.

He worked closely with Kehr, as he has rented an office from the chamber for several years.

“Randy always had a fresh and ongoing look at things,” Vining said. “He looked beyond just the immediate benefit of the project and would look at long-range goals because he had that vision. It was wonderful working with him.

“It was special to have that kind of vision.”

Vining said he always appreciated Kehr and his support of the Big Island Rendezvous, Education Days and the Big Island Barbecue.

“I learned a lot from him and his ideals and his methods of doing things.”

He said he will always remember Kehr’s positive vision, his patience and his ability to move forward to reach goals.

“Hopefully we’ll continue finding people who have the same dedication that Randy had,” Vining said.

A memorial mass is scheduled for 11 a.m. Wednesday at St. Theodore Catholic Church, with visitation from 5 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at Bonnerup Funeral Service and again one hour prior to the service at the church.