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Hometown Heroes: Grand Forks flood shows man's generous nature

Steve Sulland stands in front of Valley Petroleum Equipment stands on Friday, Dec 19, 2014, in Grand Forks, N.D. Sulland worked closely with the city on protective measures during the 1997 flood. (Logan Werlinger/Grand Forks Herald)

Steve Sulland's selflessness has shone through the most trying times, according to his sister.

During the 1997 flood, Sulland, who co-founded Valley Petroleum Equipment, sent his family out of Grand Forks while he stayed behind, working with city officials to protect the city from further damage, said Cathy Obregon.

But the qualities his friends and family admire extend beyond events like this and the long list of organizations he volunteers for, they said. He has a calm demeanor and reasonable approach, but most of all, he's known for his humility, they said.

"He's one of those people who stays behind the limelight but shines brighter than most," said Mark Aubol, Grand Forks street superintendent who has known Sulland for nearly two decades.

Sulland shrugs off the attention. He wants to walk in the footsteps of his late father, Howard, who worked for his family and helped people whenever he could, he said.

"We learned from his example," he said.

Flood work

Although Sulland has volunteered for several organizations throughout the years, the devastating flood revealed his generous nature in a more meaningful way.

Kathy Reiser, Sulland's secretary for 22 years, was visiting her grandmother in South Dakota when the flood hit. While the city was flooded and the fires smoldered and Sulland checked on underground tanks and scrambled to save his mother from a nursing home, he somehow still remembered to send flowers, Reiser and Sulland's sister recalled.

Secretary's Day was that week, and he'd hunted down her grandmother's address, Reiser said.

"He actually remembered," she said.

At the time, Sulland had significant concern for the city. A longtime employee of Valley Petroleum -- he co-founded the business in 1984 -- he knew exactly where each underground tank was located, and wanted to make sure none would rise to the surface, he said. His fear wasn't unfounded -- tanks have floated out of the ground here before, said Aubol.

Sulland said he also helped his family and others during the clean-up. "Nothing that nobody else didn't do," he said.

Aubol commended him on his ability to balance keeping customers and his employees happy.

"It's nice to have a person that has the best interests at heart for everybody involved," he said. "He's got a great work crew that responds to everyone's needs, and for us at the city, it's been a godsend."

Sulland, who is notoriously private about his good deeds, said that's just the way he was raised.

"You help people when you can, because you never know when you're going to need help," he said. "I just kind of like to live by the Golden Rule."

Thoughtful at all times

The selflessness of Sulland's father had a stunning impact on his own philosophy, he said. During a three-day blizzard in 1996, his father drove through the storm to help restore a coworker's furnace but couldn't return to his own home for two days, he said.

"He was honest as the day is long," he said.

As a result, Sulland said he grew up believing more that people should help each other.

"I just think if more people would try to help each other, we wouldn't have quite so many problems," he said.

Years ago, he and his wife, Linda, had a chance to do something similar. They welcomed a woman and her young daughter into their home for two days during a blizzard, recalled his sister.

"He never told anyone until we read it in the paper," she said.

Obregon said that's typical of her brother. Once, he spotted an elderly couple at a gas station who ordered one piece of broasted chicken. Without a word, he placed a $20 bill inside a newspaper, folded it and laid the paper down when he passed their booth, she recalled. He hoped the small amount of money would buy them a full meal, she said.

Aubol said Sulland is the type of guy you always want to work with and be around.

"If you could meet someone like him at every turn of the corner, life would be so much easier," he said.

Jennifer Johnson

Jennifer Johnson is the K-12 education reporter for The Grand Forks Herald.  Contact her if you have any story ideas or tips and visit 

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