By Mike Heine/The Week
Photographs by Terry Mayer
(Posted Feb. 16, 2007, 10:45 a.m. Originally published in The Week May 21, 2006)
Editor's note: This column recently won first place in the Wisconsin Newspaper Association Better Newspaper contest for feature story in a weekly newspaper.
Milk, it does a body good.
Roger Larsen knows that probably better than anyone in the area.
The 73-year-old Larsen has been giving kids milk mustaches in several Walworth County school districts for 50 years.
Since 1956, Larsen has toted bottles, cans and cartons of milk to schools to make sure kids got wholesome lunches.
He started with Delavan distributor Roger Alder and Sons. In 1961, he started his own dairy delivery business in Elkhorn.
Larsen had a small garage on North Lincoln Street where he kept his trucks. His office was in his home.
He has almost always kept a few school districts on his route schedule.
"When I first started, it still came in glass bottles," Larsen said. "We couldn't leave the glass bottles (at schools). It was too dangerous. They would break. So we brought it in five-gallon steel cans."
The cans were packed in ice. Milk trucks didn't have refrigeration in the mid-'50s when Larsen started hauling in a tiny Divco truck.
The milky-white goodness also spoiled in just five days. And back then, it was just white, 3.5 percent fat, whole milk. No chocolate. No skim.
Boy, how things have changed.
Flavored milks are sold in schools today, along with the now-standard skim and 2 percent white. Resealable plastic milk "chugs" tumble out of vending machines in many cafeterias with no risk of breaking.
And today's processing can keep cow juice fresh for 18 days.
Throughout the changing containers, added flavors and bigger refrigerators, Larsen has remained constant.
With routes starting at 4:30 a.m., Larsen doesn't see the students too often. He is instead a familiar face to the other early birds who open the schools, mostly in the Elkhorn, Lake Geneva and Delavan-Darien school districts and Lakeland School in Elkhorn.
"I made some great friends with these janitors," Larsen said. "They make sure they have the door open for me, and they all wait for me. They're just great."
Don't forget the kitchen staffers, who rarely let Larsen leave empty-handed.
"I can't get away without taking something," he said of the treats. "They have my coffee for me, or sandwiches. Everything before I go to my next stop. I can't eat it all, and you can't say 'no.' And there's lots of cookies."
That's not a problem for the rest of the crew at Alder Companies in Delavan, where Larsen is back after selling his business in 1996.
"He comes back with sandwiches, doughnuts, cookies. Anything you can think of," said Steve Haxton, sales manager. "We look forward to him coming back from his route."
Besides the goodies, Larsen is appreciated for his high-quality work.
Haxton does the bidding for milk contracts and uses Larsen as an incentive for districts to choose Alder Companies Dean-brand products.
"Roger-just the fact of who he is-helps us get the business," Haxton said. "In Elkhorn, I put an asterisk that it will be delivered by Roger."
Deb Alder, granddaughter of Robert Alder and manager of Alder Companies', couldn't ask for a better driver.
"He's what you want when you have your name on the side of a truck and you're sending them out representing you."
Larsen's dependability and personality have made him popular among customers.
Pamela Lange, Elkhorn Area School District food service supervisor, recommended getting Larsen back as the milkman after he sold his company and temporarily stopped delivering to schools.
"The milk can be wonderful from many different companies, but it's also the service that comes with it," Lange said. "He provides that."
Lakeland School officials recognized Larsen for his 50 years of service at a ceremony last month. He's been delivering to the school almost since the day it opened.
"Whenever I see him, he never seems like he's having a bad day," Principal Greg Kostechka said. "He always has something positive to say."
Larsen loves his job. Over the years, the routine hasn't changed much.
He still wakes before most cows are milked and is at the distribution plant about 4 a.m. The routes start about 4:30 a.m.
Armed with a handcart, Larsen moves 750 to 800 crates of milk per week, a number that has grown since his beginnings.
His stops, now 45 between Monday and Thursday, are still done by noon.
"I had so much time in the afternoon, so I'd go out and help my dad on the farm after doing the milk route," said Larsen, who grew up on a dairy farm in Sugar Creek Township with his seven brothers and sisters.
Larsen used to have to stand while driving the old Divco trucks, which carried about 40 cases of milk. Standing made it easier to jump out from stop to stop along his route. He delivered to restaurants, grocery stores and homes, sometimes putting the milk in the refrigerator for the customer.
Today, he can pack 300 cases of half-pint milk onto his diesel truck. That equates to about 40,000 cartons to 20,000 happy customers per week, Haxton said.
His job is important to kids.
"It's reasonable for them price-wise in schools, and I don't think they get it as much at home," Larsen said. "They don't always get it with their families like they do at school."
Laws actually require schools to provide milk for their students.
Even though Larsen is driving the milk, it's the milk that's driving him.
"I like to do it," he said. "I like to get up in the morning and get going. People get old when they sit around. Personally, I don't like to sit around."
So it's true. Milk, it does a body good.