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Moments in Time: Walt Rufener
Walt Rufener. To order this photo, click here. (Times photo: Marissa Weiher)

Moments in Time

Moments in Time is a weekly series featuring recollections of area residents. To suggest someone to feature in Moments in Time, please contact Mary Jane Grenzow, editor, at

MONROE - Walt Rufener is finally taking time to enjoy life after running a booming business in Monroe for nearly 50 years. He's also enjoyed time being involved in his community.

Rufener was born the youngest of 10 siblings on a farm just northeast of Monroe. He recalls attending a one-room country schoolhouse during the Depression. His family had no electricity, no phone and not much of anything else, he said. His older siblings didn't speak English because his parents spoke mostly Swiss in the house, but they would learn at school and come back to teach the younger children.

"We didn't know any different," he said of his lifestyle then.

He recalls the walk to school, even on the coldest of days. There were times the weather was so bad the teacher couldn't make it, but they had no way of knowing until they got to school. Rufener was left-handed but was taught to only use his right hand. He also recalls milking seven cows before and after school each day.

At age 10, the family moved to a newer farm south of Monroe where Rufener recalls walking the cattle with Swiss bells around their necks to move them. There, they had electricity, a wooden phone, a bathroom, a milk machine and two tractors. It was quite the update, he recalls with a smile, and he said it was like going from rags to riches.

As the youngest of so many children, Rufener remembers having a little more opportunity than his siblings. He said he was the only child to have a bike and the only boy to attend high school. The other boys in the family were needed on the farm, but by the time Rufener had reached high-school age, the rules had changed. He graduated from Monroe High School in 1952.

The family moved to town after Rufener's father became ill. His father eventually passed away, and Rufener got jobs working at a gas station in town and setting up pins at the local bowling alley. In high school, he took an agriculture course from Ken Allen, a teacher who planted the idea that he should look into a career other than farming.

"That really got me thinking," Rufener said.

He decided to take an electronics course in Louisville, Kentucky, and in January of 1954, Rufener landed a job working for Buob and Kessler Radio Shop in Monroe. Television stations were just coming on the air, and Rufener saw a future in the business. Much of his job was radio repair and eventually, he began selling black and white television sets. He worked six days a week from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. - his first paycheck was $35.

In 1963, Rufener decided to purchase the business, then Monroe TV, located north of Turner Hall. He said the previous owner had been like a father to him, and he was happy to be taking over the business, eventually expanding and moving to the Square.

Rufener grew up speaking Swiss to his mother, beneficial training for the many who only spoke Swiss who came in to purchase items in his store.

In January of 1981, Rufener faced one of his hardest days as his business burned to the ground.

"When the store burned, it was humbling," he said. "I had nothing."

He considered not re-opening, but decided he had too many loyal customers who were faithful to him over the years, and he didn't want to let them down. He held a grand opening for Monroe TV & Appliance in January of 1982 on the coldest day of the year - he made a pot of coffee and wondered if anyone would come.

"Soon, there were mobs of people there," he said with a smile. He was proud he had so much support, and he was gaining more brand-name appliances to sell along with TVs. Television sets were still his biggest seller, and they were much less affordable than they are today. He remembers clearly when color TVs came out, their availability was limited. People had their names on a waiting list for them, and for Rufener, business was good.

Rufener took continued education courses for the new technology over the years, and he often did most of the repair work himself.

"I was fortunate to have a lot of good employees," he said. "I never asked them to do anything I wouldn't do myself."

They closed the store June 22, 2012. The changes coming were mind boggling and after almost 50 years, Rufener said he was ready for retirement. Monroe Furniture bought his appliance business and the televisions were sold off. He said he was glad to be done.

But he wasn't just a business owner over those years. Rufener spent 20 years on the Monroe Fire Department. He recalls being asked to join while the department was looking for people who were near the station and could get there quickly for calls. He rode on the outside of the truck in the winters and got paid about $1.50 per hour.

"You had to really want to be a fireman then," he said with a laugh.

He has never forgotten his first fire call - a woman died, and after that, he said he considered quitting. But Rufener wanted to help people and be involved in such a strong organization, so he stayed, and he's glad he did.

Other memories from the department include the Swiss Colony fire on the west side of the Square and several farm fires - along with the fire at his own business. He retired from the fire department in 1982 because his own business was demanding too much of his time.

In 1978, Rufener served as the president of the Chamber of Commerce and was an active member. He recalls being a big part of the customer appreciation days on the Square and many events that were retail-oriented at that time.

He was the co-chairman of Cheese Days from 1980 to 1990 and remembers coming to the event as a youngster. He is proud that his idea of the prince and princess contest is still going, and he enjoyed being a part of the family-oriented entertainment. He had fun going around to towns for donations in the event's earlier days.

When the Swiss Air Band came to Cheese Days in the 1980s, it was a memorable year, and last year when they welcomed the Swiss Band on the Square, Rufener hosted a couple at his home. Although his business didn't directly benefit from Cheese Days, he said it was a great event to be a part of because of the people it brought to town. He even won the milking contest one year.

Rufener was a Moose Club member for several years and served on the Turner Hall board at one time as well. He served as the Cheese Days parade marshal a couple of times and spent 30 years volunteering at the Dairy Breakfasts in the area. He is a member at St. John's and has served on the church council and other committees there, and he still ushers. He is also a longtime blood donor.

Through the years, Rufener has done a lot of traveling and has been all over the United States. He went with his son to Switzerland in 1978 and when he sold Zenith televisions, he earned several free trips all over. Today, he and his wife, Sandy, enjoy traveling together as well.

The self-proclaimed retired workaholic said he never had time for hobbies but today enjoys stained glass with Sandy and making Swiss plaques. He also enjoys spending time with his family.

At age 81, Rufener mostly enjoys the simple things in life. He and Sandy purchased a cottage in Iron River, Wisconsin where they enjoy fishing on their pontoon and sight-seeing in the area. They enjoy a life there that's quiet, peaceful and laid back - a different pace from the hustle and bustle of working long hours and owning a booming business in Monroe.