December 16, 2015
As committed as Spitz was to sound design principles, his personal philosophy included a healthy respect for fun. He affectionately referred to the entire staff as “henchmen.” His calm demeanor was the perfect cover for his many pranks—dressing up like the janitor for a prestigious recognition’s photo shoot, presenting a wooden chicken to a worker who’d made a mistake, fining employees who made rude noises. His own office was a bizzare collection of mementos from clients and colleagues: a sandbox, a porcelain toilet with elevated tank, and other odds and ends that each told a story.
Though it was sometimes hard for outsiders discern when Spitz’s serious tone hid a joke, staff enthusiastically played along. They took advantage of Spitz’s trips abroad with his wife, Engla, welcoming the pair home with hoaxes that bespoke how far they’d go to top Spitz at his own game. During the Spitznagels’ extended round-the-world-trip in 1963, employees walled off his office and cast strangers as office staff—so the real workers could hide in the basement and listen to their boss’ sputtering confusion via the intercom. When the couple returned from a November 1965 jaunt, a group of employees met them at the airport passenger gate with a banner that read: “Welcome home, Ugly American.” It was a cold day, and Spitz made sure he and Engla were the last to disembark, so his staff could get the full health benefit of the bracing air as they stood outdoors.
The staff’s most elaborate prank didn’t fool just Spitz, it convinced an entire neighborhood that the building had been converted to a gas station. With help from the sales staff at Skelly Oil Company, which leased the ground floor as a district office, Spitz’s employees transformed the building’s façade, brought in false pumps, and hung pennant bunting from towers of tires.
Here’s the firsthand account, excerpted and adapted from partner, engineer, and finance director Duane Paulson’s “The Spitznagel Organization: A Sixty-Year History 1930-1969”—
In April 1961, the Spitznagels had made plans to leave Sioux Falls within a month for a trip to Europe. They had retained a realtor to find a tenant for the first-floor office vacancy in the TSP building at 1800 S. Summit Avenue. About three days before their May departure, the realtor found a prospect: the Skelly Oil Company. While the lease rate was resolved, the details for necessary remodeling could not be settled prior to Spitz’s departure date. Spitz gave a last-minute written authorization to Duane Paulson to represent the Spitznagels in making minor Paulson and securing the signed lease agreement. Spitz left a forwarding address in Switzerland for Paulson to report on the project’s success and then departed on a two-month trip.
Just 20 days later, the remodeling was completed and the lease documents were fully executed. Paulson wrote to assure Spitz that the tenant had moved in. “You won’t know the place when you get back,” he wrote.
The Spitznagels’ return flight was due to arrive back in Sioux Falls mid-afternoon on July 21—a Monday. The Friday before, several employees brainstormed how they could surprise Spitz when he returned. All it took was a short visit with the Skelly office manager to explain the plan for a instant gas station. Skelly offered two gas pump “shells,” which were light in weight and could be delivered early Monday morning. Skelly also provided the company’s standard banners for advertising, open house, free prizes, and more. TSP partner and architect Bill Bentzinger borrowed a pickup truck with tires and tire display racks from his brother-in-law to complete the picture.
At 7 a.m. Monday, employees arrived with ladders, fasteners, and tools to set all the pieces in place. An hour later, they were inside as usual, while the outside was anything but. Employees’ cars parked down the side streets completed the illusion, and several workers’ wives stopped by to see the mock station.
Residents across the street, though, weren’t in on the joke. Up in arms over the City’s permitting of a gas station in the neighborhood, they started calling City Hall to complain. One woman stood on her lawn, crying that she would lose her tenant. The prank earned TSP its own call, from the City’s Building Department.
Drivers passing by on the street started pulling in, stopping at pumps, and honking for an attendant to come fill ’er up. Others got out of their cars to ask where they should sign up for the free prizes. The Argus Leader sent a photographer, and the gas station that wasn’t made the front page of the evening edition.
Around noon, office staff learned that the Spitznagels’ flights would be delayed until about 6:30 p.m. Spitz and Elga’s son, Steve, agreed to keep his parents from driving by the office until around 9:30 p.m., and to make certain they didn’t see the evening paper. Employees needed the extra time to ensure their work wouldn’t get lost in the dark. They made phone calls and ran errands to secure strings of lights and spotlights to illuminate the gas station’s lot.
Meanwhile, Steve drove his parents across town to visit his sister and her family, since they all had some catching up to do. When it was time, Steve invented an excuse to pass by the office on the way home.
Not even Spitz could pretend he knew what was happening when he first saw the bright lights. He’d later admit he thought it might be on fire. Next, this: What had possessed Paulson to allow Skelly to put up a gas station? Spitz was so disoriented, it didn’t occur to him that it could be a joke—until he saw so many familiar faces gathering around his car. One of them was his secretary, who’d padded her clothing to make it appear she was expecting (and had one more surprise for the boss after two months away).
An hour later, the parking lot was cleared of all the props and extra lights. The neighbors stayed up to watch that nothing was left behind. And when morning came, they might have wondered if it had really happened, or it had all been a bad dream.