Take me away to Gainey

Peaceful conference center celebrates 25 years of education

Most people dislike meetings that go longer than 30 minutes. After all, how long does it take to tell employees to do their jobs well and respect fellow workers, even those who wear scary perfume, nap under their desks or hog the microwave?

But offer them all-day meetings on mission at the Daniel C. Gainey Conference Center in Owatonna - and, yes, they'll be there with bells on ... and walking shoes.

When Gainey donated his estate to St. Thomas for educational purposes, he must have known there was more to education than classrooms. He must have felt that natural beauty restores the spirit, strengthens the soul, and encourages the mind to think about the unseen powers of the natural world.

Rural state of the art

It's an idyllic pastoral scene complete with rolling hills and beautiful horses, the Straight River and 180 acres of greenery.

It's an elegant French Norman country house attached to modern guest rooms, conference rooms and classrooms.

It's a great place for corporate and spiritual retreats.

It's a site for graduate students to work on M.B.A. degrees.

It's popular for external clients such as General Mills, Mayo Health Systems and law firms to take continuing education classes.

It's a home for the arts, particularly music and the biannual Music in Owatonna festival.

It's a place where St. Thomas undergraduates go on weekend retreats to reflect on personal growth.

It's got canoeing on the river, nature trails and - as anyone knows who has been there - marvelous food.

And it's becoming a popular place for getaways, weddings and reunions.

Often it is described as a rural B&B attached to a state-of-the art conference center.

The original Gainey

The Daniel C. Gainey estate, about 70 miles away from the urban location of St. Thomas, was given by Gainey to a university he never attended. A graduate of Hamline University, Gainey was hired in 1922 as the first salesman and later became president and CEO of Jostens, a leading producer of class rings, yearbooks, graduation announcements and diplomas.

Beginning in 1939, Gainey purchased 180 acres on the southern outskirts of Owatonna and began to raise Arabian horses, developing the famous Gainey Fountainhead Arabians. As Gainey once wrote, "A horse is meant for a man to ride. Sunset and sunrise, the glistening snow of winter with fences half inundated with white, the flowers that grow in the spring, the people passing by - all are more beautiful and wonderful if you're mounted on a good horse."

In 1957, Gainey completed a French Norman country house in the center of the property, filled with oak-paneled rooms, silk wall coverings, marble floors, Waterford chandeliers and Louis XV and Louis XVI period furniture.

Gainey's son, Daniel J. Gainey, owns and operates the Gainey Vineyards in Santa Ynez, Calif., with his son, Daniel H. Gainey. The Gainey wine is served as the premier choice of the Gainey center's guests.

Human potential

One of Gainey's friends in the 1960s and 1970s was the late Monsignor Terrence J. Murphy, former president of St. Thomas, who also regarded Gainey as a mentor. Recognizing Gainey's accomplishments as an entrepreneur, business executive, horseman and civic leader, St. Thomas conferred its highest honor, a Doctor of Letters degree, upon Gainey in 1974. The citation read: "If the purpose of education is the fullest development of human potential, the degree we award today gives public testimony of Daniel C. Gainey's fulfillment of that hope."

When the Gainey Foundation left the estate to St. Thomas after Gainey's death in 1979, and the conference center was completed in 1981, the purpose was clear: The property would be used for educational purposes, both as a campus for St. Thomas and as a resource for Owatonna. It provides affordable and practical educational opportunities for people in southern Minnesota, a conducive learning environment for corporations, hospitality for charitable events and hosts many St. Thomas programs.

While the Gainey horse operations later were moved to California, horses are still a part of the center, from those who board horses to retreats such as "Horse Wisdom for Busy Women." The biannual Music in Owatonna has been a tradition since 1990, and has featured everything from string quartets to this month's "Country 2006."

"The pastoral setting and the rich historical atmosphere make Gainey unique among conference settings," said Marlene Levine, who has directed the center for 10 years. Holder of a 1989 M.B.A. from St. Thomas, Levine directed the center from 1995 to 1999 but then went to Italy to set up and direct Rome's Bernardi Campus from 1999 to 2001 before returning to Owatonna. "My daughter has gone to school in Rome and now is in high school in Owatonna," Levine said. "She's had great experiences. And I'm proud that I've worked on all four St. Thomas campuses."

Undergraduates, faculty and staff enjoy Gainey

Faculty and staff often use Gainey for conferences and retreats. What Levine particularly likes, however, is that undergraduates use the center for faith-based and values-based retreats, such as global leadership, peace and justice, and annual events such as the Liturgical Choir retreats. "Students pay $15 each and the rest is subsidized by their departments," she explained, "and they love coming here - especially the food - and use all the recreational equipment."

With 19 full-time (which includes executive chef Jason Hudock) and 10 part-time staffers, the center is happy to be just outside Owatonna, which is built on the Straight River and home to the Louis Sullivan-designed Wells Fargo Bank, an architectural masterpiece, and the Cabela's sporting goods superstore. Levine calls Owatonna a "growing, vibrant community. Gainey fits in well here because it's an inn rather than a corporate hotel and is inspirational for more creative thinking."

Over the years, more than 2,500 students have taken classes at Gainey, including 100 MBA students each semester. External clients account for about 70 percent of the bookings, St. Thomas student groups for 22 percent, faculty and staff groups for 4 percent and special events the remainder.

The center also hosts monthly business luncheons, conferences on strategic planning and team building, company picnics and holiday parties.

And then there is that stone terrace to sit on ... and look at the split-rail fences behind which horses gallop, or stroll down to canoe on the small, tree-lined river that turns green in the twilight.

"Ideas are born, problems are solved and personal growth is achieved" is Gainey's motto. As one reflects about this on the bluestone terrace, they could add ... "and it's not bad at curing meeting phobias either."