Winter Springs centenarian Red Christensen has an entrepreneurial mind and an enduring spirit
“I ask for hot coffee, and I get it!” Sitting in the kitchen of his Winter Springs home, Red Christensen marvels at the pace of the steaming refills produced by his granddaughter, Laurie. After breakfast, Red and Laurie sit together and reminisce their way through several photo albums and review multiple pieces of significant memorabilia, with Red supplying stories all the while. There’s plenty to talk about when you’ve lived for 102 years.
In 1914, just as World War I was brewing across the Atlantic, Reynolds “Red” Christensen was born to parents Lynn and Jenny near the small town of Biwabik, Minnesota. More than 100 years later, Red is still laughing, dancing, and reflecting on the legacy he built by turning nothing into something.
As a young man during World War II, Red served in the Army motor pool in Alaska for four years, teaching soldiers how to put additives in their oil and gas so it wouldn’t freeze. A budding entrepreneur and nonsmoker, Red sold his cigarettes to Army buddies to earn what would become the seed money of his career. After his service, Red took $500 he’d earned to NAPA Auto Parts in hopes of opening his own store. When they rejected his offer, Red struck out on his own and became a traveling salesman. Working out of his car, Red sold auto parts from the NAPA catalog at a 35 percent profit, frequently driving to local mines and other places of business to save his customers the trip.
Red’s wife, Joan, speaks highly of her husband’s work ethic. “When he’d go to work, he had on a hat, an overcoat, a suit, and galoshes,” Joan recalls. “He had an amount that he wanted to sell everyday, $300. If he didn’t sell $300 that day, whatever he didn’t sell he added to tomorrow’s $300. And that was his goal every day.”
Most days, Red made his goal. Forty years later, Red owned 12 NAPA stores across four states. The NAPA Christensen Auto Parts and Service stores could be found in Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, and Florida (on Goddard Avenue in Orlando). The Orlando store used to service Disney’s automotive fleet until The Mouse brought everything in-house.
“He has a math brain,” says Joan of her husband’s mind and business savvy. “He does math in his head, without using a computer. He can add and subtract faster than I can do it on an adding machine.”
And he’s a natural talent. Red spent only one year in college, studying economics.
In the mid-1980s, Red was considering retirement and had bought a house in Winter Springs. While visiting his Orlando NAPA store, Red noticed a woman wearing red shorts in the service department with her head under the hood of her car. Red had to meet her. Two-and-a-half years later, in 1987, Red and Joan wed, the second marriage for both. When asked which life accomplishment gives him the most pride, Red answers without hesitation, “Marrying Jo.”
Until they settled in Winter Springs permanently in 2002, the Christensens split the year by spending six months in Minnesota and six months in Florida. Time up north was spent hunting fowl and visiting Red’s children and grandchildren from his first marriage.
Red also enjoyed sharing his love of the outdoors with his employees.
“He used to take all his employees for a fishing trip every year on a houseboat,” Joan says. “They’d spend it right on the boat, for a week. Red was a good boss.”
Not only was he a good boss, but Red remains an active participant in the community to this day. A faithful member of the Elks, Lions Club, and Maitland and Winter Park Cotillions, Red also continues to cast his vote at the polls every year.
“Did you tell her I still have hair on my chest?” Red interjects while his wife was being interviewed for this story.
“Yes,” Joan answered with a grin, “and it’s red, too.”
A natural redhead, Red came by his nickname honestly.
Between the two of them, Red and Joan have nine children, 22 grandchildren, and 33 great-grandchildren. Despite Red’s countless family blessings and business successes, when asked what he wants people to remember about him, Red answers with his typical humor: “My good looks!”
Joan sums up her husband well when she says, “I think his life proves that you can take almost nothing and build it into something – which a lot of young people don’t feel they can do, but you can. You just have to have the ambition to do it.”
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