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Belfair businessman’s success created legacy of giving
Les Krueger, who died at 88, and his wife built senior care facilities and were known for philanthropy

Les and Betty Krueger sit in front of the stone fireplace that he built at their longtime home near Belfair. (Photo courtesy Krueger family)When he was a youngster working in the fields of his family’s Wisconsin farm in the 1930s, Les Krueger would look up enthralled when men of means in that hardscrabble era occasionally drove past in their fine Cadillacs.

Much later in life, when the farm boy with an eighth-grade education had become a successful business owner and a man of means himself, Krueger bought a vintage Cadillac like the doozies he had admired long ago.

In 1986, he went with his son to a car auction in Kirkland and saw a 1939 Cadillac LaSalle.

“He said, ‘I’m buying that car,’” recalled Rick Krueger, even though the old classic was in sorry condition and needed extensive restoration.

His father had told him about daydreaming on the farm about one day sitting behind the wheel of such a magnificent automobile.

Les Krueger, who died May 16 at the age of 88, had the LaSalle restored, and it’s still parked in the garage of the longtime family home on Hood Canal near Belfair.

“He used to drive it to church,” Rick Krueger said.

Les Krueger and his wife of 63 years, Betty, were well known for their philanthropy in the communities where they lived and ran their businesses — nursing homes and retirement centers in Mason and Kitsap counties. The church they attended, North Bay Lutheran Community Church in Allyn, was one of the recipients of the couple’s generosity.

“About six months ago,” Rick Krueger said, “Les told me ‘if I die, make sure you pay off the mortgage at the church.’”

But no posthumous donation was needed; the Krueger family patriarch took care of things himself with a visit in December to Pastor Brian Pederson at the church where the couple were charter members when it was founded three years ago.

“Les and Betty have been extremely generous,” said Pederson, who met the Kruegers when he previously was pastor at Christ Lutheran Church in Belfair, where the couple were longtime members of the congregation. “They love their church and wanted to see it succeed and do as much as they could to help.”

The pastor said Les Krueger also loved to share the rhubarb, apples and corn he grew in his garden with other church members.

“The thing that resonates with me is Les was so unpretentious and humble,” Pederson said, borrowing a line from Scripture to describe him as “a man with no guile.”

The Kruegers also donated $100,000 a few years ago toward the purchase of land where Faith in Action, a Belfair-based interfaith group, plans to build a senior service center.

Krueger, who was the youngest of 10 children, completed his GED during a stint in the Army right after World War II, then came to the Kitsap Peninsula where some of his relatives had moved. He made a living using the stone mason skills his father had taught him and his brothers.

But a career change 50 years ago led to the legacy he and his wife eventually created. Their interest in the elderly care business was sparked by Les Krueger’s sister, who owned a nursing home called Why Not Lodge on Long Lake near Port Orchard. In 1963 they became entrepreneurs, buying a Shelton nursing home that was going bankrupt and that Betty said was in deplorable condition, and renovating it while they lived there with their three young children for a couple years.

They had sold their house that Les built and cashed out his GI insurance to come up with the $15,000 down payment on the nursing home they renamed Shelton Manor.

“They put basically everything they owned into that first place,” Rick Krueger said, but their investment worked out.

“After we cleaned it up, we had a waiting list,” Betty Krueger recalled. “So after a couple years Les said let’s build another one.”

They built and operated more facilities as the nursing home business grew rapidly in the U.S. after the passage of Medicare in 1965. By 1975, they owned five nursing homes between Bremerton, Port Orchard and Shelton. In 1982 the couple sold their businesses, two of which Rick Krueger operated for several years after buying them with his two sisters.

However, seeing a need in the community for senior living facilities for people who didn’t need nursing home care, the Kruegers got back in the business and built two retirement centers — Claremont East in Bremerton in 1985, and Alpine Way in Shelton in 1988.

They also were partners in a senior living complex their son and his wife, Leslie, developed in Silverdale in the 1990s that includes Clearbrook Inn, Northwoods Lodge and Country Meadows cottages. That campus, which was operated as Encore Communities, was sold last year to National Health Investors, Inc. for $25 million.

Betty Krueger said she and her husband, who was in care at Northwoods Lodge just before he died, passed up opportunities to be involved in projects outside their community.

‘We had many offers to go out of state, but I told Les the only partner I ever want is you,” she said.

The couple were major donors to development of a healing garden connected with Harrison Medical Center’s cancer unit in Bremerton, and the rooftop garden named in their honor opened last fall.

Over the years the Kruegers’ contributions also have supported the Admiral Theatre Foundation, the Pacific Northwest Salmon Center, the Boys and Girls Club of Mason County, the Theler Community Center in Belfair, and the Olympic College Nursing Program. A community memorial service for Les Krueger was held May 31 in Bremerton at the Admiral Theatre.

“We both started out from very humble beginnings,” Betty Krueger said, so they wanted their family to give back to the communities where they prospered.

“We have a lot to be thankful for,” she said.

“He felt like we were in business in this community, so we should support the things that make the community better,” Rick Krueger said of his father.

Described by his son as a savvy and aggressive businessman, Les Krueger was a silent partner over the years with his children and their spouses in other businesses and commercial real estate, including the property leased by Harrison Medical Center for a Belfair clinic.

“I think the thing I’m going to miss most about the guy is he was good counsel,” Rick Krueger said.

“Les is an example of the American dream,” said his son-in-law, Jack Johnson, one of a pair of brothers who married Krueger’s daughters and who own Peninsula Topsoil & Landscape Supplies in Belfair. “He never even graduated from high school, and there was one point where they employed over 500 people.”

“He was a good partner to have, for sure,” Johnson added.

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