The woman who has played perhaps the biggest role in growing Nevada over the past 25 years had no formal education past high school.
LaVon Schiltz, who retired yesterday from her role as executive director of the Nevada Economic Development Council, got her degree — as she would tell you — from the school of hard work and common sense.
At age 74, when she looks back on all the big business deals she’s made, the opportunities to travel with trade missions to Mexico, France and London, and the national and state leaders she’s spent time with, LaVon can’t help but smile and laugh. “I’ve had a lot of opportunities for a farm kid from northern Iowa,” she said.
LaVon was raised on a Kossuth County farm, a mile out of Lone Rock, a town her grandma helped name. “I don’t think the population has ever been over 100,” she said. “But we had a school there; all my older siblings graduated from it.” LaVon didn’t get the chance before it closed. She ended up attending St. John’s Catholic School in Bancroft, graduating in 1962. Her husband, Gary, was about five years older than she and from the same community.
Right after high school, LaVon went to Minneapolis to a two-month program to learn to work for the airlines as a stewardess. But after she completed that, Gary had just gotten out of the service and they got married in 1963. (They actually just celebrated their 55th wedding anniversary on Feb. 23.)
The young married couple moved to the Twin Cities, and Gary got a job at Donaldson’s at Southdale Shopping Center. He worked in their big car place. “I worked at a bank doing customer service,” LaVon said.
Then came kids — a daughter in 1964, a second daughter in 1965 and a son in 1969. LaVon did what many young mothers do — she stayed home and raised the children.
Her re-entry into the work world came after she and Gary bought a home out by Lake Minnetonka. Her brother manufactured trailers/campers, and they decided to set up a sales lot for him on their property. “I ran the camper sales,” LaVon said. She liked it because it allowed her to be home with the kids, but yet to help make a living for the family, too.
The Schiltzes made a brief move to Phoenix, Ariz., but it wasn’t for them, so they headed back to Minnesota, buying a home in Fairmont. “All our kids started kindergarten there and graduated from there,” LaVon said. In fact, her two daughters still live there.
As the kids got older, LaVon went into business, opening a book store in the local mall, and also a jewelry store with a partner. Her book store took off, and she eventually opened a second location for Books, Etc., in another mall in Worthington. “I went into business because I was bored. I needed to do something. I’m not a sit-around person,” she said.
What the Fairmont mall really needed was a nice restaurant. So Gary and LaVon decided to do it. “We put a supper club in the mall and Gary ran that,” she said. It was called The Baron. The restaurant was successful, and one day the Schiltzes were approached with the offer to build a second one. “Someone built a mall in Spencer, Iowa, about 80 miles from us, and asked us to build one in that mall.” So they did. They built a second restaurant that was three times the size of the original one, and they hosted dinner shows with 1960s rock and roll stars, who LaVon still describes as “hot stuff.”
It was a great success; the Schiltzes were back and forth constantly between their home and business in Fairmont and the business in Spencer. “We enjoyed building something from the ground up; we loved the challenge.”
Then the farm crisis of the 1980s hit, business slowed down and the Schiltzes decided they needed to do something else.
“That’s when I decided to do something really different. Algona, Iowa, had an ad running for a chamber director, and since I had been involved in the chamber as a business owner, I thought I’d apply. And they actually hired me,” she said.
She was there for a couple years and then moved on to lead the chamber and economic development in Newton. A year or so after coming to Newton, something interesting came about. Back then, Iowa had a number of regional centers for economic development; the biggest was the Golden Circle of Iowa, located in Des Moines. “They were looking for a director, and I thought, ‘What the heck!’”
She got an interview, which took place at DMACC. She remembers that day, when she walked into a room full of some of the “biggest big shots” in business in the Des Moines area. They were all sitting around a table, asking her questions. “I was there about an hour-and-a-half, and when I walked out of that place,” she leans across the table as she tells the story and makes a victory fist and pulls it down toward her waist. “I said, ‘Yes!’ I just knew the interview went well.” It did. She got the job.
That job took her on trade missions all over the world; she even traveled with and got to know former Gov. Terry Branstad. “That’s when I was young and he had black hair,” she laughed. She loved the job. But eventually, when the state decided to close all of its regional economic development centers, she had to regroup again. Gary was working at the DOT in Ames, and she had to go where she could find work, which at the time was Charles City. She was employed as a chamber and economic development director until the mid-1990s, when the Nevada opening and her getting the job brought the two back together to live.
The great potential of Nevada for growth and business opportunities kept LaVon involved and facing challenges for the past 20-some years. “You don’t ever have to go to work a day in your life, if you love what you do,” she states.
And she’s loved it, every minute of it. And she said she’ll never complain about the life she’s had. “I’m so grateful. I don’t encourage people not to have a college education,” she said. “I was very blessed and very privileged to have the opportunities I’ve had without one.”
She’s not sure where she got the tenacity or drive to do all the things she’s done, but she has a good idea that it stems from her well-disciplined education in a parochial school. “I think it all goes back to the Catholic nuns!”