HIGHLAND | Hard work, not giving up and giving back to others provide the framework for Milford P. Christenson’s life.
At 92, the founder of Christenson Chevrolet Inc. remains active in the dealership he started in 1951, still coming to work every day. That’s a lesson he learned from his family growing up in Griffith, a town he still calls home.
When Christenson wasn’t attending the Griffith public schools, he worked for the family businesses, which included a hardware store, a furniture store and a construction firm.
“Our family believes in education,” he said. “We don’t care where you go. Just get your education.”
He followed that family belief, enrolling at Indiana University in Bloomington in the fall of 1940.
“My final semester, I was drafted into the U.S. Army,” Christenson recalled. “I served 3-1/2 years in the 87th Infantry as a radio and communications man.”
In July 1944, he began his military service in Europe, escaping death three times as his unit fought during the Battle of the Bulge during December 1944 and January 1945.
Completing his B.S. degree in business administration at IU Bloomington following his discharge, he returned to Griffith and took a prominent role in the family businesses. In 1951, he and his family bought a local Chevrolet dealership and ran it in downtown Griffith until 1963.
The dealership grew, and the Chevrolet Motor Division required the business to relocate to larger quarters, he said.
“We purchased a cornfield out in the country on Route 41 in Highland and built a 40,000-square foot building on six acres of land,” he said of the current Christenson Chevrolet dealership.
Milford Christenson’s ability to pursue a goal even in the face of rejection surfaced during the new dealership’s grand opening in the fall of 1963.
“Lorne Greene starred in Bonanza, a family show that was sponsored by Chevrolet. He was in the commercials. I thought a guest appearance by Lorne Greene would be the absolute best draw for the grand opening,” he recalled.
“I called the Chicago zone office and got turned down by Chevrolet. They said, ‘He belongs to corporate’ and that there was no way he could appear at a local dealership.”
He said he recalled reading a newspaper clipping about the William Morris Agency representing Lorne Greene.
“I called the agent. He said Lorne Greene had never appeared at a dealership but would be happy to. That turned out to be the biggest and best promotion we have ever had,” Christenson said with pride. “He arrived on May 4, 1963, and asked me ‘What do you want me to do?’”
The framed full-page newspaper ad announcing Lorne Greene’s appearance hangs in Christenson’s office along with his military medals and photos of him and his wife, Margaret, with celebrities and U.S. presidents.
“We had wall-to-wall people in here, waiting to meet him. He sang, told stories and met a few thousand guests. Until the day he died, Lorne Greene was never in another dealership.”
As a successful businessman, Christenson said he believes in giving back both with his time and funds.
For 25 years, he served on the volunteer Griffith Fire Department and was a Griffith School Board member from 1965 to 1980.
A member of the Griffith Rotary Club, he has had a record of perfect attendance for more than 47 years, and has attended Rotary Club meetings in 46 countries around the world.
Milford’s generosity to nonprofit organizations, universities and special causes remains a testament to both his upbringing and his legacy.
Asked which of his many charitable gifts touches his heart the most, he instantly said, “Father Blaney’s handicap mission (Share Foundation in Rolling Prairie near LaPorte) and what used to be called Hoosier Boy’s Town, now Campagna Academy.”
For years, Christenson has presented a check for $5,000 to Campagna Academy on the first Monday of December.
“That’s so they can have a Christmas party and a Christmas gift for each one of the residents,” he said. “We’ve gotten letters over the years for the children. That means the world to us.”