'Mr. Happy' loses his battle to cancer
A man known for his gift to gab and inherited the name, “Mr. Happy,” from his colleagues while keeping the Steele County Free Fair at the top of Minnesota’s county fairs has lost his battle with cancer.
On April 3, Jim Gleason of Owatonna died surrounded by his family after an 18-month battle with an aggressive form of brain cancer. He was 65.
Gleason served as the manager of the Steele County Free Fair since 2012 before being forced to step down because of his medical condition in January 2018.
“This was his dream job,” said Todd Hale, former publicity director for the fair who worked under Gleason. “He seemed to be a natural for it. I called him Mr. Happy because he was always happy.”
Hale first became acquainted with Gleason about 30 years ago when Hale and his radio partner hired Gleason as sales manager at KRFO-Radio in Owatonna. “He always came with a smile on his face,” Hale recalls. “You never knew he had a bad day because he was always happy and smiling,” he added.
During his tenure at the fair, Hale called Gleason “a good guy to work for.” The two spent about five years together as part of the fair’s administrative team. “He had such appositive outlook on everything he did,” Hale said. “I admired him for that.”
As fair manager, Gleason solved problems before they became bigger problems, Hale said.
“He did his dream job well,” Hale said. “Unfortunately, it came to an end before he wanted it to.”
Fair president Dan Deml is well aware that Gleason’s end came much too soon. “He was going to stay with us for many years,” Deml said. “He had a strong feeling to be a manager until he was 70,” he added. Gleason stepped down when he was only 64.
“He was just a friend to everyone,” Deml said of Gleason. “He was an incredible ambassador to the fair. He brought a lot of good will and drew a lot of people to the fair because of his personality,” he said.
Deml was a part of the executive committee that hired Gleason in 2011 when Elmer Reseland was still manager. Deml said what drew him to wanting Gleason was the fact that he spent his entire career in Owatonna. “He knew the people of Owatonna very well,” Deml said. “We realized that’s a quality we wanted in a manager. You can’t teach someone to be a people pleaser and go out and sell the fair.”
Calling Gleason a picture of perfect health, Deml was shocked in 2017 when Gleason came down with brain cancer. If anything, Gleason’s fate shows that “cancer doesn’t discriminate,” Deml said.
Deml said the fair is “terribly sad” to see that Gleason has passed away. But, he is quick to add, the fair is in a better position this year to deal with Gleason’s absence than it was a year ago when it went five months without a manager.
Hale will always remember Gleason’s positive attitude in no matter what he tackled. “I can’t remember him ever to have anything negative to say about anyone,” Hale said, adding it didn’t take fair board members long to realize Gleason was the kind of person they wanted representing the fair.
“He always had a positive and smiling attitude,” Hale said.
Funeral services were held Monday at St. Joseph’s Church in Owatonna. A complete obituary may be found on page B7.