COOK- Word of advice for those eagerly awaiting Sunday’s grand parade that closes the three-day Timber Days festival here. When the parade moves at the speed of its Grand Marshal Steve Kajala, get there early and don’t blink or you might just miss it.
One would think that running his thriving office of Prudential Financial Planning Services in Cook, herding about his five children, hunting and fishing, collecting cast-iron cookware and chainsaws, and teaching cooking classes would be more than enough to to piss everyone off, but not Kajala. He thrives on activities and giving back to the community, and in his four years at Cook he has become a prominent volunteer for many of the town’s philanthropic activities.
“When I got the call and they said, ‘We want you to be the Grand Marshal, I was like, wow, I know I’m doing a lot, but I haven’t been here that long. But they said they want to recognize people who are making a difference in the community, and they also want to encourage other people who may not have been active to start doing so, because it doesn’t take that long to make a difference. I said this works for me.”
Cook has been something of a second home to Kajala throughout his life. The son of George and Margaret Kajala of Virginia, the Kajalas had a home in Oak Narrows on Lake Vermilion where they spent much of their time over the years.
“We loved the area and used to come up to the lake to this cabin,” Kajala said. “And now it’s my house.”
After graduating from Virginia High School in 1998 and graduating from the University of Minnesota-Duluth, Kajala began a career as an independent financial advisor. While starting out in the Twin Cities, he stayed connected to the area here by opening offices in Virginia and Grand Rapids.
That all changed when Kajala’s career shifted to working at established financial firms Morgan Stanley and Merrill Lynch.
“I’ve lived in Duluth twice, Destin, Florida, Tampa, Florida, Albany, NY, and then again in the Twin Cities,” Kajala said. “I lived in the suburbs of the cities for five years and did not have time to come here. And I thought we have this place on Lake Vermilion that’s not even getting used to it and that’s where I wanted to be, so I made the decision to come back.”
Prudential was a company that was a good fit for Kajala’s desire to relocate.
“They were very positive about having people in small towns,” he said.
commitment to the community
Kajala’s first experience of volunteering came when he joined the Cook Lions Club.
“I didn’t join right away, but joined in the winter of 2019 and became quite active there.”
So active that he became club president and Lions would be hard pressed to find a better ambassador.
“The Lions Club is just fantastic,” he said. “I don’t know that anywhere in the world there is a per capita membership like ours. In a town of less than 600 people, we have 64 Lions in town. We draw some from out of the area, but it’s still phenomenal. It’s fun, fun and easy compared to nonprofits where literally two or three people do the lifting at every event.”
As with most organizations, the COVID pandemic impacted some of the club’s activities, but did not prevent Kajala from pursuing the goal of diversifying membership.
“When I joined the Lions club I was 38 or 39 years old and there was only one other person in his 30’s. Many of our active members are in their 80s and most of them are over 65,” he said. “Now we have an almost double-digit number of people under 50 and several under 40 at the club. It was fun getting them on board and for many of them it’s their first experience of volunteering and they’ve really embraced it.”
Kajala was also very active in the Cook Friends of the Parks organization. If you had driven by the new Veterans Riverfront Park on Monday, you would have seen him there with other volunteers planting trees donated by Cook Hospital staff.
He has also played an active role on the past Timber Days organizing committees and served as co-chair for putting together last year’s event. Chances are Kajala will be tempted to add a helping hand when volunteers are needed for a particular issue.
“I obviously enjoy volunteering and that’s why I do it,” he said.
But he encourages anyone interested in volunteering to get involved directly. There are many established groups that are active and welcoming newcomers.
“What I would say is just try it because it probably won’t be as hard as you think,” Kajala said. “A lot of people think that hosting multi-day events is a lot of hard work, but when you spread it out, it’s not that bad.”
And with a few extra hands in, maybe Kajala is spending a little more time with his kids and doing all the things they love together.
“There’s Parker who’s 17, Evan is 16, Vince is 14, Lila is 11 and Chloe is nine,” he said. “We love to travel, we love the outdoors, boating and swimming, some fishing although sometimes that seems to fall by the wayside. And there’s hunting and 4WD and snowmobiling and canoeing. We really like doing that.”
Not surprisingly, he’s also raising the next generation of volunteers. You might only see one, two or more by stopping by the Lions Club Brat Shack at Zup’s Market, or take a close look at volunteers picking up trash along the highway. 1, or, or, or… because it’s good to take care of the needs of others and the community, Kajala said, when his needs are met.