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Donna Christen

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HURON | Our wife, mother and grandmother Donna (Muffy) Starr Christen, went to be with the Lord on January 6, 2019. She is survived by her husband of 67 years, Paul Christen, of Huron, S.D.; sister Carol Carr, Kalispell, MT; daughters Rebecca (Robert) Pohlad and Kathryn (Jim) Ramstad, both of Minneapolis, MN; grandchildren Thomas (Lindsay), Joseph (Sara) and Christopher (Kacey) Pohlad, and Christen (Bill) DeLaney, and 10 great-grandchildren.

A native South Dakotan, Muffy was born July 16, 1929, in Mitchell, S.D., the first of two daughters born to Gyda Estella Bates (Starr) and J. Herbert Starr. Following her graduation from Dakota Wesleyan University, Muffy married Paul, her high school sweetheart, on March 4, 1951 and from then on, their lives were intertwined as spouses and business partners. Their extraordinary partnership spanned more than six decades, creating a wonderful family, a vast business enterprise and a generous philanthropic legacy. Muffy lived a life exemplified by Luke 12:48: “To whom much is given, much is expected,” a quote she was fond of reciting, and her generous spirit shone throughout her life.

Muffy played many roles in her life: daughter, sister, wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, business partner, philanthropist, and civic and community leader. Thanks to a natural graciousness, a genuine interest in people and a keen intellect, she moved with ease between all of them.

She displayed many talents at a young age. While still in grade school, she took elocution lessons and performed dramatic readings for community and women’s groups. That early training later translated into an interest in theater, which she pursued throughout high school and college, playing the leading lady in many productions.

It was during this time that Muffy met Paul through a youth program at church. Their first date was sharing an orange soda pop at Corker’s Café in Mitchell. Even with Paul’s busy schedule helping out at his parents’ bakeshop, they were soon devoted to each other. He became a stagehand, taking on a supporting role to Muffy’s acting. It was a pattern the two of them balanced throughout their lives, one always supporting the other, regardless of who was on stage or who was working behind the scenes. 

After college, Muffy embarked on a radio career, broadcasting current events of the community. For the next two years, she hosted a TV show showcasing wedding planning for young brides. Later, she modeled for Eilers Furs at Huron Country Club live events. Each of these experiences displayed her theatrical background and social poise.

Following graduation from Dakota Wesleyan University with B.A. degrees, the couple married in 1951. They moved from their hometown of Mitchell to Huron, S.D., where they opened, owned and operated Ruby Ann Bakery. Working side by side, they built their first successful enterprise. They worked hard but still found time to give back to their local community. When Paul attended the National Boy Scout Jamboree as an adult leader, Muffy ran the bakery — even while expecting her first child. (She recalls making early morning roll deliveries to local businesses, the trays of fresh rolls balanced on her stomach.)

Paul and Muffy welcomed their first daughter, Rebecca, in 1954, and their second daughter, Kathryn, in 1957. A native of South Dakota, Muffy remained true to her small town roots, living in the same house since 1954, nurturing longtime friendships, and supporting local organizations with important causes.

In the early 1970s, Paul and Muffy began acquiring banks in western South Dakota, operating them under the name First Western Bank. Under their leadership, the organization grew from $10 million in assets in 1972 to $1 billion in 2007, with a total of 18 banking locations. The banks were known for being a community-oriented, friendly place to bank and to work. First Western’s advertising slogan, “We believe in you!” may have been simple, but Paul and Muffy led the charge to ensure that its customer service was extraordinary. Muffy characterized their way of operating as a “Midwest mentality,” adding, “If I give you my word, I’ll stand by it.”

Muffy was active in the business, serving as director for their three largest charter banks. She once stopped in during a Sturgis motorcycle rally to help one of the tellers run her taco stand and serve the bikers — a role she enjoyed. “We just loved the people and they loved us,” she recalled, tearing up when she described their decision to sell the banks in 2008 to First Interstate Bancsystem, Inc., a bank holding company located in Billings, Montana.

Most recently, Muffy served as director and chairman of the Christen Group, LLC; director, VP and assistant secretary/treasurer of CG Properties, LLC; and a member and manager of Christen Co., LLC, all of Huron.

Muffy was an active philanthropist throughout her life. In the early days, she gave her time and energy to organizations such as the YWCA and her local church. More recently, due to their business success, the Christens have been active donors, both locally and nationally. In 2011, Paul and Muffy were included in “The Philanthropy 50: America’s Most Generous Donors of 2011” in The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

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In 2009, Muffy was instrumental in helping raise $15 million for the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation; she pledged $5 million to help provide educational opportunities for local native youth. “I consider it an honor to play a role in continuing the progress that is being made on all fronts at Crazy Horse,” she said. “The best thing about our gift is that it will continue to grow and provide support for this unique school.”   

Together with the late Dr. Paul and Carol Hohm and the late Jeannette Lusk, Paul and Muffy contributed $1 million to found and establish the Christen Hohm Lusk Greater Huron Area Foundation in 1988. This foundation was established to respond to the financial needs of the greater Huron area; Muffy served as the foundation’s chair and director. The Christens were also instrumental in founding and establishing other foundations in the communities of Sturgis, Wall, Custer, Hot Springs and Belle Fourche, S.D., as Muffy had a strong belief in rural communities and wanted to help them address their needs.

Muffy served on the board of directors of the South Dakota Community Foundation. As a member of the foundation’s investment committee, she saw it grow from $10 million to more than $300 million in assets. Muffy also was director of the James and Zelda Ruddy Nursing Scholarship Foundation, as she believed deeply in the need for rural nursing.

Muffy was involved in and committed to civic activities at the community and state level. She was instrumental in the establishment of the Spirit of Dakota award and was a charter member of the South Dakota Judicial Qualifications Commission, appointed by Governor Kneip. She also was active in leadership roles in the following organizations: Huron Center, Inc. (The Crossroads Hotel and Convention Center); South Dakota State Fair Foundation; Huron University Foundation, Inc.; Huron Regional Medical Center Foundation of Huron; Huron Airport Board; Community Development Finance Fund; Huron College (later known as Huron University); Methodist Hospital; Methodist Church of Huron; Methodist Official Board; YWCA, Huron; Our Home, Inc.; and she was instrumental in establishing the Huron United Way.

The Christens have given generously to their alma mater, Dakota Wesleyan University, over the years. Most recently they provided significant support to construct the new Glenda K. Corrigan Health Sciences Center on campus, the home of the Donna Starr Christen College of Healthcare, Fitness and Sciences. In addition, their scholarships have enabled many to attend Dakota Wesleyan who otherwise may not have pursued a college degree.

Muffy received numerous awards for her work on behalf of South Dakota, including the Outstanding Leadership award from the YWCA in Huron; South Dakota Philanthropist of the Year in 1990; Distinguished Civic Service Award Recipient from the Huron Chamber of Commerce in 1991; an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Dakota Wesleyan University; and the first Distinguished Alumni Award–College of Leadership and Public Service from Dakota Wesleyan University. She was a proud 60-year member of P.E.O. International and held local chapter offices including president — some more than once. She also was a generous benefactor to P.E.O, which supports the education and advancement of women, and to Cottey College.

“Mom was truly a daughter of South Dakota in all respects. She actively served and gave generously to many organizations and causes important to the state. She leaves a lovely example of living, loving and serving her family, friends, community and state,” said her daughters.    

Memorials are preferred to South Dakota Community Foundation, Dakota Wesleyan University School of Nursing, First United Methodist Church of Huron, or P.E.O. International in support of the Cottey College Endowment.

Services are planned for 10:30 a.m., Jan. 17, 2019, at First United Methodist Church, 2660 Dakota Ave S, Huron, S.D. 57350, with a luncheon to follow.

Arrangements are with Welter Funeral Home, Huron, SD

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