Onan Family Foundation


D. W. Onan - History

David Warren Onan was born in Moorhead MN in 1886 of parents, Ellen and Edward, who had recently moved from Allegany NY. His father worked for the Northern Pacific Railway and mother taught school. Edward died in 1900 and Ellen took the family of 4 boys to Niagara Falls, NY. She believed the newly constructed electric power generating facility would provide opportunity for work.
D.W. Onan about 1930
At age 19, Dave, or Warren as some called him, moved to South St. Paul MN and ran a roller skating rink. There he met and married Emily Roman in 1907. He moved to Minneapolis in 1908 and began work for P. J. Downes, a Rambler automobile dealer. The direction of Dave's business life was set right then. He ran a mail order automobile parts repair shop for Reinhard Brothers Co. until 1918 when he began to manufacture and sell auto repair shop tools and equipment. His experience in carburetors and electrical systems made him well known locally.
In 1922 he moved his small business out of the basement and into a garage. His entrepreneur spirit got him involved in automobile electrical systems, outboard motor starters, table saws, and finally, about 1930, the generator sets and electrical switch gear that brought him some prosperity and independence.
One Man Shop - 1922
One Man Shop - 1922
After 3 years in a local chapter, he was voted President of Optimist International in 1932. This was his opening into volunteer work which involved the boys camp project. He was often seen perspiring in his undershirt working at the camp. He liked getting his hands dirty. He remained an Optimist member all his life.

D.W. Onan, at far right, as President of Optimist International, with the vice-presidents, place a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington, DC in 1933.

President of Optimist International
D. W. Onan & Sons sponsor Queen of the Lakes float.
In 1936 he was elected President of the Minneapolis Civic and Commerce Association, a forerunner of the Chamber of Commerce. This led him and a group of men to found a summer celebration which is known as the Minneapolis Aquatennial in 1939. He was very proud indeed when the D.W. Onan & Sons company float carried the Queen of the Lakes in 1949.
The idea of doing things for kids was always close to his heart. In those days it was "under privileged kids". And that largely meant boys. In the mid 1940's there was an epidemic of Polio that affected adults and kids, but Dave saw the kids. There was no cure or effective treatment for the disease. An Australian nurse named Sister Elizabeth Kenny had a therapy that reduced the amount of crippling and restored many to walking. She was not part of the established medical community and was having difficulty getting any acceptance to try her therapy on a large scale. Dave and some others put together an organization to allow Sister Kenny to practice. It became the Sister Kenny Institute. Some of the first major contributions of this foundation were to the Kenny Institute.
D. W. Onan with Sister Kenny 1951


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