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Fashioning life among windmills; Couple: In retirement, Kees and Jane Verheul took on an unlikely business project, reviving a once-dying business and finding fulfillment.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SAN ANGELO, Texas -- When Kees Verheul decided at age 62 to leave the comfort of retirement and return to the business world, he chose an unlikely venture: a windmill manufacturing plant.

Before he bought Aermotor Windmill Co., Verheul consulted his bride, Jane, who had one question for her husband: "Will it interfere with my fishing?"

He assured her that it wouldn't.

Verheul, who made a fortune manufacturing parts for oil rigs and retired at age 47, paid $1 million in cash for the windmill company in 1998. The couple set aside their fishing gear and hunting rifles and left Verheul's 19,000-acre ranch in Spur for a one-bedroom apartment in Jane's hometown, San Angelo. Two months later, the windmill man had a confession to make.

"I never lied to you," he told Jane, his fourth wife, "and I don't want to lie to you now, but this [company] is going to interfere with your fishing."

And it did.

Kees Verheul set out to save a relic, a quixotic quest, and he's succeeding. But this isn't just a story about the longevity of an old-fashioned technology. It's a tale of a millionaire who is a tinkerer at heart, and of a Texas socialite who's promoting wind power. It's a story about love.

Kees (pronounced "case") Verheul bought Aermotor Co. in spring 1998 after reading an ad in a cattleman's newspaper. One of two remaining windmill makers in the country, the company dates to 1888, when founder LaVerne Noyes sold his first Aermotor.

ka0 In years past, windmills were as plentiful across the American prairie as oil wells across Texas. The wooden structures pumped a family's fresh water and filled watering holes for cattle and ponds for fish.

When the Verheuls arrived, the warehouse was nearly empty. Now it is stocked with six sizes of windmills, each stamped in red with the Aermotor name.

In Verheul's callused hands, the company has expanded its machine shop and built an on-site foundry. Sales are climbing. In today's wired world, who buys a windmill?

Nostalgia accounts for some purchases, as windmills rise above restaurants or grace country homes.

In remote corners of the American West, especially on Indian reservations, windmills are doing the work they did in the 19th century for a fraction of the estimated $50,000 cost of running electricity to a rural farm. A basic, steel-framed windmill -- a wheel with blades set atop a wind-powered pump -- costs about $2,300.

By some accounts, there are as many as 30,000 windmills on farms and ranches across the country. During the millennium hubbub, the Verheuls advertised their Aermotors as "Y2K ready since 1888." Aermotor is on the Internet, and Jane is dreaming up ways to pitch the product. It was her idea to hold essay and photo contests the last two years.

"You got to understand," says Kees, in work cap and jeans. "If I had a choice of playing golf or working in a machine shop, I'd work in a machine shop."

"He just loves cutting iron," his wife says.

On the edges of San Angelo, across the Concho River, a towering steel windmill, its sails creaking in the wind, marks the Aermotor site.

In the low-rise building with the Aermotor sign out front, the Verheuls have his and her offices. His is spacious and utilitarian. The desk is cluttered with papers and machine parts. Two deer racks hang on opposing walls. Amid the sketches of gears and windmill parts is a framed letter and water-color drawing by the late Western artist C. M. Russell.

"In the city, men shake hands and call each other friends," Russell wrote from Great Falls, Mont., "but it's the lonesome places that ties their hearts together and hearts do not forget."

Her office is smaller, but just as plain. It features framed reprints of old Aermotor advertisements, the winner in the windmill photo contest -- shot at sunset -- and a computer. Tacked to the wall is the paper target that this grandmother pumped full of holes to gain her concealed-weapons permit.

From the day Verheul took over the company, his wife has been by his side. "He wants me here," she says. "Whether I'm working or not working, he just wants me close. And that's nice. I've done it the other way. It's a lot nicer this way."

Verheul explains: "Jane, she is an unusual person. She'll do anything to help whether you're cutting up beef or doing PR or running the computer. She's just very loving and attentive. She's extremely smart. She was the belle of San Angelo."

The main street in town is named for Jane's father, Marcellus D. Bryant. He was known simply as M. D., a friend of President Lyndon B. Johnson's who made his millions in the oil business. He chased black gold from Louisiana to Arkansas to Texas.

The way Jane tells it, her father started out as a tool pusher. He skimmed oil off sludge and sold it in buckets in town until he landed a stake in the largest shallow oil field in these parts, the Yates oil field, a pit of prosperity about 150 miles west of San Angelo in Iraan, Texas.

Her parents, says Jane, lived in a tent in a cotton patch until an oil fire burned it to stubble and ash. The family lived in town until Jane's father bought the ranch in 1936.

"Her daddy was stinking rich, like somebody out of 'Giant,'" Verheul says, referring to the 1956 movie about Texas oil barons. "She was in the movie 'Giant.' They filmed it out in Marfa. She had a bit part in it."

Verheul's father, a Dutchman, traveled the world for Shell Oil Co. Kees was born in an oil field hospital in Borneo. At the onset of World War II, the senior Verheul moved to the United States and began manufacturing oil drilling tools in Houston.

Trained as an engineer, Kees got his hands dirty early, preferring to work in the machine shop. He took control of the company in 1960, sold it to a Canadian interest in 1975 and ran the business until 1983.

Then, he retired at age 47 and moved to the ranch in Spur.

"I had no intention of working again," says Kees.

Jane and Kees met for the first time 20 years ago when Kees was looking to lease pasture for his 900 head of cattle. He arrived at Jane's ranch in Marfa in a private plane. She was a brunette then, her three children grown, her husband causing her trouble. Kees leased the land, stayed for dinner and flew off into the blue Texas sky.

They didn't see each other again until about four years ago. Kees, a father of four, was recently divorced from his third wife (they had been married for 30 days). He had celebrated his 60th birthday dove-hunting in Argentina. He was looking to lease pasture. He was looking for Jane after seeing her name in a magazine.

"This is the best part of the story," Jane confides over a steak dinner.

Kees' then-girlfriend had nagged him about taking her to a fancy dude ranch. She had read about one in Conde Nast Traveler and showed the magazine story to him. It mentioned the ranch's historic and mountainous setting, its five-star rating and its "grandmotherly" receptionist -- Jane, who'd divorced her husband of 46 years and let her hair go back to its natural white.

But Kees didn't find Jane there. She had quit and was working at a clothing store in San Angelo.

When Kees ambled into the store, Jane thought, "Ohhh, I like this."

"The tender trap," he says, recalling their courtship. "I tried to re-lease her ranch." She counters, "He got a better deal."

The couple signed prenuptial agreements and married July 29, 1997.

"That was going to be our life -- fishing and hunting quail," says Jane, a lean 70. "I tell my children, I've traded my silks and satins, beads and feathers for camo [camouflage]."

She had, until Kees saw an ad in the cattlemen's newspaper Livestock Weekly: Someone was looking to buy used windmills. Kees had several to sell. He called the man and learned about a windmill manufacturing plant for sale.

Kees drove to San Angelo to investigate. The company had been run by absentee owners in recent years. The warehouse was almost empty. Morale among the dozen or so employees was low. The machinery was in need of repair. The credit was ruined.

"They were losing their customers for the simple reason they didn't have anything to sell," says Kees. "Once a company goes downhill, it's like a runaway train. The management books say don't try. But I didn't have any management courses."

Kees ended his retirement. Truth be told, Jane says, "that man, his mouth was watering to cut iron again."

That was two years ago. Neither of them has taken a salary. Their two-month-long hunting and fishing vacations have been cut to two weeks.

"I've worked harder than I've ever worked," says Kees, over the din of the machine shop. "It's a labor of love. There's nothing more rewarding than a successful private enterprise. We're not there yet, and we may not get there, but we're trying."

The company is debt-free. The Verheuls promote their windmill as "the lowest-cost pumping power on earth." It has a life of 50 to 75 years with proper maintenance, says Kees. "Have you heard the expression 'He's a pretty good windmill man'? When a cowboy applies for a job, he says he's a good cowboy. He also says he's a pretty good windmill man."

"That's the beauty of that windmill," says Jane. "You grease it. You change the oil but once a year. It's very forgiving."

Kees smiles proudly.

"It's as wonderful as it sounds," he says, "our relationship."

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