Honor, Charity, and Good Brew:
Legacy of Juan Villarreal lives on through ‘Brew-BQ’

By ANNIE GRANLUND agranlund@owatonna.com | Mar 8, 2019

Silent auction items are a staple at Chubb’s Brew-BQ, helping the committee raise $25,000 in the first three years of hosting the event. So far, the money has benefited an extracurricular fund at the Owatonna School District and the We All Play project, aligning with Juan Villarreal Jr.’s belief that kids should always follow their dreams.

“Juan in his core — he just wanted to make the world a better place.”

Amy Villarreal lost her husband Juan to pancreatic cancer in Oct. 15, 2015, after several years of battling the disease. While that day may have haunted some families, for Villarreal and the rest of Juan’s loved ones, it has become a time to celebrate the man they loved.

Juan was born in Maple Island, a small community near Hollandale in Freeborn County. Following High School, he joined the Air Force and lived all over the world for eight years. He moved to Texas after his time in the military and later accepted a job with Federated Insurance, ending up back in Minnesota. It was at work at he met his future wife, and the two made quickly made Owatonna their home with their daughter Samantha and son Tony.

“When I met Juan, I saw what I wished I was,” Amy Villarreal said. “He has a charismatic and zealous character. He had unfiltered fun everywhere he went. Owatonna may have been my stomping grounds, but everyone knew Juan.”

Juan’s community involvement was diverse, as he offered his time and talents to a number of organizations including, but not excluding, Adopt-A-Highway program and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southern Minnesota.

“He just wanted to bring a little joy to everyone,” said Amy Villarreal, adding that after Juan lost a friend to suicide is when his volunteer work started to take a slight change. “That really hurt Juan to the core, to see someone who seemed to put together and so happy be hurting so much. He did a lot of soul searching trying to understand and figure out how he could have helped.”

It was then that Juan went through extensive training to become a volunteer at the Crisis Resource Center of Steele County. Amy Villarreal still has distinct memories of Juan picking up a phone call in the middle of the night and leaving to help someone in need, even while he was sick, even toward the very end of his own life.

Devastating diagnosis

“Cancer is profound and earth-shattering. It’s like the rug is pulled out from under you,” Amy Villarreal said, looking back on when Juan was first diagnosed with cancer in 2013. “Pancreatic cancer can be deadly quick and fast.”

Despite the devastating diagnosis, Amy said that her husband refused to let the cancer win by taking the very spirit that defined Juan as a man: his generous and caring heart.

“He never, ever complained,” Amy Villarreal laughed. “He would say that he doesn’t want to give cancer a minute more than he has to.”

And he didn’t. Juan continued his volunteer work throughout his cancer treatment and even going back to school and graduating. Amy Villarreal said it was as if life had settled into a new normal, something she never would have guessed while they fought the cancer raging through his body.

Even when the community reached out to Juan to give him support, Amy Villarreal said he used the opportunity to continue to give to others. In 2013, the From the Heart organization selected Juan as a recipient for their fundraising 5k walk/run that supports local families battling cancer.

“It was beautiful and heartbreaking,” Amy said as she held back tears, stating that Juan agreed to be a recipient so that their children would feel the community support and so his story could help others who may be struggling as well. “You want to be the one helping, but sometimes you have to sit back and let it be your time to receive. It was humbling for all of us and mind-blowingly overwhelming.”

Juan’s original chemotherapy treatment stopped working in March 2015, and Villarreal said the “plan B” treatment didn’t work as well. By July, the Villarreals knew things were no longer in their favor.

“Juan passed away on Oct. 15, but to me it will always be Oct. 14 because we hadn’t gone to bed yet,” Villarreal said through tears and a forced smile. “Nobody thought he would die that day, but I think Juan called it that night. It was a beautiful ending to a beautiful life.”

Keeping his legacy alive

With a new hole in her home as well as the entire Owatonna community, Villarreal said that the family knew immediately after Juan’s passing that they needed to do something to keep his legacy alive. It was Villarreal’s brother, Matt Walerius, who came to her one day with an idea that would eventually become Chubb’s Brew-BQ, with the inaugural event taking place on the one-year anniversary of Juan’s death.

“We knew we couldn’t do a run. Juan would turn over in his grave,” laughed Amy Villarreal. “But Matt had this idea of a backyard barbecue with craft brews and some kind of tasting competition. Beer and barbecue was right up Juan’s alley.”

In the May following Juan’s death, a committee of family and friends came together to start planning the fundraiser that would feature barbeque and brew tasting, a silent auction, and live entertainment. The goal was to honor Juan’s happy and fun-loving spirit while simultaneously raising money to fill a local need in the community, the true heartbeat of Juan’s legacy.

Where that money would go, however, was something the committee had to kick around for a little while.

“Matt reached out to the school to try to layout some of our options and just asked them what the greatest need was in the school district,” Amy Villarreal said, adding that one of Juan’s biggest things was making sure every kid had a chance to follow their dreams. “It turns out that the district needed extra funds for kids to be a part of extracurricular activities. Whether it would be for gear or registration or camps, there just never seemed to be quite enough.”

Villarreal said that she knows Juan would have felt it was unfair or unjust that a child would be held back from doing something they dream of doing, making the decision to raise money at the first fundraiser for that particular need an easy one.

As for the name, that is a story that Amy Villarreal admits to having a hard time explaining without getting a fit of the giggles.

“The name ‘Chubbs’ comes from a joke between Juan and my brother,” Villarreal chuckled. “They were always teasing one another on who weighed more, so they started calling each other ‘Chubbs.’ That was their name for each other.”

While the committee had high hopes that some people would come out, have a good time, and hopefully raise a little money, Villarreal said they were blown away with the reality of what they accomplished. In the first year, 300 people attended Chubb’s Brew BQ at Ritchie Bros. Auctioneers in Medford. Nearly 100 silent auction baskets were donated, helping the event raise $5,000 to go towards the extracurricular fund within the school district. Villarreal said it was not only exhilarating, but possibly the best way for those who loved Juan to spend the night on the anniversary of his death.

“The event forced us to talk about him,” Villarreal said. “That first year is kind of a foggy memory, but I know Juan would have had the best time.”

Before the total amount raised was even counted, Villarreal said that the plans were already falling into place to bring the fundraiser back for another year. Seeing the excitement and momentum behind the event, the committee decided to relocate to Retrofit Companies in Owatonna. Keeping with the tradition of holding the event as close to the anniversary of Juan’s death as possible, the second event in 2017 exploded with double the attendance and double the funds raised.

“It felt like Juan was in the house,” Villarreal said about the second event. “We could almost hear him whooping and hollering and just having a great time.”

After cutting a $10,000 check to the school district once again, the committee decided to take a look at other needs in the community that would still fit with Juan’s legacy. Because the money technically goes into the Juan Villarreal Jr. Memorial Fund, Villarreal said the committee wanted to be sure that they are aiding in the greatest community needs at the time.

In 2018, the money raised by the third Chubb’s Brew-BQ benefited We All Play, a project to bring an inclusive playground and miracle field to Owatonna. Villarreal said that the project is a great local and community initiative that continues Juan’s legacy of letting kids follow their dreams.

With the continuing growth of the event, however, Chubb’s Brew-BQ moved one more – and what Villarreal is hoping is the final – time to the Steele County Free Fair Beer Garden. The move proved to be a positive one, as Villarreal described the third event to be the best one yet, allowing her to cut another $10,000 check for the second year in a row.

“Juan would have been proud,” Villarreal said as happy tears welled in her eyes. “He left his mark just by being his beautiful self, and this is a way to let everyone see his great heart once a year.”

Chubb’s Brew-BQ will return to the beer garden on Oct. 12, 2019. The committee has yet to decide where the money raised from the fourth event will go.