I wanted to take the opportunity to post just a few words on the life on Vernon “Lefty” Norling. Around these parts, Norling was widely known as an auctioneer and veteran Norling Silo marketer. Lefty yielded his final goodbye on Aug. 8. He was 84.
Living in the Willmar area, this incredible and highly-respected veteran was admired for his auctioneering pizzazz throughout Minnesota. His long-time auctioneering cohort, LaDon Henslin of Henslin Auctions Inc. in Bird Island, Minn. shared this fitting closing homage: “We told Lefty … You’ve pulled the wagon; you’ve pushed the wagon; now it’s your turn to ride.”
I had a chance to reminisce with Henslin about his special auctioneering friend. “I was Lefty’s partner for 18 years,” he recalled. “We first met when I was in my 30s. And we were competitors. I was selling buildings for Menards’ Agri-Division. Lefty was selling silos and buildings for Norlings. We’d see each other quite often. He was just an interesting fellow. He found out I had gone to auction school. He wanted to do the same; so he too went to auction school at Mason City, Iowa.”
“I had a couple years auctioneering experience when Lefty was ready to make his start. Because of our competitive past experiences, I knew he could open some doors for us. He knew everybody. He was respected. Plus he was a good-sized young guy — like about 6’ 2” and a great high-school basketball player too I’m told. He played guard for Willmar. He started with Norling Silo Company; then moved to Hanson Silos. So together, we built our auction services using some of the good ideas used by both Lefty’s former employers.”
“’Lefty’ was always his working name,” Henslin chuckled. “If I told someone I had lunch last night with Vernon, they wouldn’t know who I was talking about. In the auction business, size makes a difference. Lefty, because of his height, was better at getting bids off the ground. He could spot ‘bidding hands’ quicker — so that basketball talent definitely was a plus.”
Henslin showed me a picture of the two of them — both wearing Western hats, classy looking head gear. Was cowboy headgear common with auctioneers back then? “Yes, I enjoyed wearing a western hat and don’t know why we quit that style,” he stated. “Lefty was the good dresser. And people respect appearance … that’s just a given in this professional world of auctioneering.”
So with this ‘dynamic duo’ of LaDon and Lefty, who did the calling? “I mostly started the auctions but that doesn’t mean the calling is most important,” commented Henslin. “Getting the bids and directing them to the auctioneer is really what makes the business. And Lefty was a natural.
“Lefty did some bid calling too … and he was good. But his strong point was his attention to the bidders! He could spot them quickly. He was a master at coaxing that second repeat bid, and another if needed, and then right back for a closing bid. Some call this ‘working the crowd’ and Lefty was a natural.
“And he had another skill — important in this competitive auction world. After a sale he’d often tell me, ‘I got two or three leads from folks telling me: Lefty, come out to see me. They’d say, I’m planning a sale pretty soon, or I’m about to retire.’ So when your partner is recruiting new prospects as we’re calling a sale, that’s the best of both worlds.”
How many auctions did this two-man team preside over the years? “I don’t really know,” Henslin shrugged. “It would be in the thousands since we did auctions in a three and four-state region. We mainly worked a 150-mile radius of Willmar, Olivia, Bird Island — plus some Wisconsin auctions. And we traveled to many national auctioneering conventions across the country.”
Both Lefty and LaDon were inducted into Minnesota’s Auctioneer Hall of Fame.
Lefty’s wife, Ruth Ann reflected, “Lefty and I enjoyed a long and adventure-filled life together. Lefty was often gone, but Lefty loved people. He loved being an auctioneer … this was his second career after his silo selling days.”
And Lefty’s demeanor never changed. According to Ruth Ann, “Lefty thought every day was good, every auction was good. He was a happy person — no matter what.”
Added LaDon, “Lefty was also good at getting us involved in the National Auctioneer’s Association. You meet people from all over the world and you pick up new ideas too. In this profession, you’re always learning from each other. Often there are special classes — such as how to combine on-line auctions with in-person, live bidding auctions.”
Yes, though auctioneering is sometimes referenced as a ‘clan gathering,’ Henslin prefers “an assembly of people with ambition and pride building a professional career.”
“It’s a very competitive business,” Henslin explained. “We advise younger people considering this work to first hire on with an established auction firm — simply to get a feel for the auction, the duties, the cooperative nature of working together.”
So how important is voice? “A strong voice simply grows through experience. Even in our 18 years of auctioneering together, we kept learning new things. With PA systems, we don’t work so hard at ‘talking strong.’ Today, my son Allen does three, four, even up to five-hour auctions.”
Henslin added selecting auction clients is important also — simply because it’s good sense to work with respected, solid-reputation people. “Calling a sale for a questionable scoundrel just isn’t good judgment,” he said. “Auctions have personalities. Estate auctions are the best. Years back, auctioneers would talk about their upcoming bankruptcy sales, or foreclosure sales, or tax-forfeiture sales — thinking that would motivate a crowd. But not today … that’s negative chatter. I used to do seminars at auctioneering conventions: ‘Trouble Going IN, Trouble Going OUT.’ If you’ve got trouble setting up a sale, chances are you’ll have trouble getting out also.”
Henslin recalls he and Lefty sometimes doing two auctions per day — especially if only farm and/or house sales. Estate sales typically involved equipment, buildings and land and are one-day events.
Speaking for his firm, Henslin says, “Right now we’re doing extremely well — both with real estate and farm equipment. Farmers are buying good used equipment. This corona pandemic hasn’t hurt our business. However, it definitely has spurred more internet auctions. Yes, we’re still doing live sales, but we advise social distancing. People are fair, people are cooperative. What’s ahead? I don’t know and it seems no one else does either.
“Farm people are wonderful — whether buying or selling, or just looking around. We’ve been blessed over the years. Yes, I sense a religious atmosphere in our rural folks and we’re grateful.”
Henslin admits to a bit more work in putting a farm auction together these days … more travel, more services, just more effort. “We never used to wash up machinery. Farmers would have their equipment readied up. Today we often do power washers with soap; and we provide a skid loader to help line up machinery. Years ago all the neighbors helped. Today, fewer neighbors and the kids have gone on to college or other jobs. And now we do cataloging ... a complete listing of all items plus some pedigree info. Now an on-line bidder in Kansas can view the equipment without even being present. That’s the world today and we’re proud to be a part of it.”
“Yes, fewer auctions these days because there’s fewer farms. But it’s still fun. I say auctioneers are like boxers; they never know when to get out of the ring. But I’m seeing some of my long-time friends called to their final resting — guys like Guste Blad, Bruce Loftness, Vic Rennecke, also Hall of Fame member Abner Jacobsen — all within the last year. And now my very special friend, Lefty. However, it’s been a good life and still is. Thank the good Lord and God bless America,” summed up Henslin.
A public celebration of Lefty’s life is planned for a later date.
Dick Hagen is the staff writer emeritus of The Land. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.