Stephen Gallivan is perched atop a hulking, hand-painted 1979 Ford Econoline camper van in the Uptown Lunds & Byerlys parking lot. It’s a sunny Friday, late in the afternoon, and there’s a pretty steady flow of young families and fresh-from-the-office shoppers pushing carts full of weekend grillables back to their compact cars.
Which is to say, Gallivan—now booming out a greeting and scrambling down from his auto—is getting a few looks. There are bemused expressions. Not that he even appears to notice—he’s used to it, as this is actually a more understated version of the guy than most people see.
Because today, he may be Stephen Gallivan, but he’s perhaps better known as Wally O’Wonka: a bespectacled, bowtied, seersucker-suited ice cream man handing out frozen treats and inflating balloon animals on a vintage tricycle cart he calls Leprechaun’s Dreamcycle.
“Isn’t she gorgeous?” a grinning Gallivan asks, patting the van as he pulls his bike from her belly. “I just painted her a few weeks ago.” (“‘The Cow’?” I venture, pointing to some lettering on the passenger-side door. Gallivan smiles again. “Of course. She’s big and slow and full of dairy.”)
The camper may be new, but he’s needed it for a while. Against all odds (and the expectations of his family), the whole treats-by-tricycle thing has rather taken off since he started delivering desserts in his St. Paul neighborhood in 2010. It’s been his full-time gig since April Fools Day 2014, and as we hop on our respective rides and hit the path, he explains that he often finds himself traveling beyond the Twin Cities. He wanted a vehicle that would transport his whole rig.
What prepared this middle-aged father of two for a career in balloon animals and bicycles, you ask? Why, what else: Before this, he spent 14 years as a concierge at the historic St. Paul Hotel.
Perhaps you’ve guessed a guy who knows how to make more than 30 different balloon animals was not entirely satisfied wining, dining, and guiding guests to the finest hotspots in town. The truth is, he kind of always wanted to be an ice cream man—he just figured it was a faraway, goofy daydream he’d return to after a long career, once he sent his kids to college and settled into retirement.
But then, in 2008, his wife, Tena May, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. She couldn’t work, and the medical bills were piling up to the point of becoming insurmountable. The family was broke. Gallivan needed another job. He reached out to friends in recruiting but couldn’t find work; he considered taking a paper route to supplement his income.
Instead, behind Tena May’s back, he bought a vintage Good Humor ice cream tricycle on eBay.
“I’ve learned through doing this that I’m more off-center than I thought I was,” Gallivan laughs of the way his friends and family took it. It’s not that they weren’t supportive, but they were concerned. Tena May felt betrayed. They also thought he was a little nuts.
The tricycle paid for itself in a few short weeks. Treats were flying. There was something in the simple act of bringing joy by way of balloon animals and frozen bars that resonated with people. “And on my one-year anniversary, the family had a surprise ‘Eat Crow’ party for me. They were like, ‘You were right, dude.’ We still have these stuffed black crows all around the house.”
The business has taken off to a point where this summer, if you see Wally around town, you’ll walk away having been given your frozen treat sans charge. A few years ago, a woman contacted him with a request: If she sent money, would he give out ice cream for free? She paid him a few hundred dollars, and he paid it forward by way of pro bono desserts. And when he posted about it on Facebook, other people started doing it, too.
Occasionally, these gifts are from people he knows; often, they aren’t. But he’s banked enough now that he can hand ice cream out for free all summer long—sometimes to kids on Summit Avenue; sometimes, to the homeless.
Of course, it’s not really about ice cream. Gallivan is more of an event host, or a street performer. Hire him for your wedding, and you’ll find he’s the de facto babysitter, surrounded by 20 kids. He wants to connect with people; starting next April Fool’s Day, he’s taking that aging Econoline on the road for a 13-stop, 40-day road trip, revisiting best friends he never thought he’d see again, former loves, people who’ve shaped him. He’s much more interested in asking about the first concert you ever went to or your first favorite song than retelling the story of how he got into the frozen dairy business.
And when he does talk about himself, he’s often talking about his family. About his wife, who lost function in one of her eyes to that tumor but today is otherwise healthy, and who sometimes appears alongside him as Wanda O’Wonka. There’s also his 16-year-old daughter (“Wendy O’Wonka”), who will sling ice cream alongside her dad for the first time this summer, and the 18-year-old Archie (“Waldo O’Wonka”), who’s been working with him these last few years. In fact, when Archie applied to college, his admissions essay was about becoming an ice cream man—about chasing your dreams while trying to make the world a better place.
“I used to think people hired my father to attend their events because ice cream is widely enjoyed, and ours represented the pinnacle of quality,” Archie wrote. Eventually he started to understand that the Dreamsicles the family sold were really the same as any you’d find in the freezer at your closest grocery store—that the family sold a service rather than sweets. “And that service isn’t ice cream at your doorstep,” he noted, “it’s a brief human connection.” This fall, he’ll head to George Washington University on a full scholarship to study political science.
Like his son, Gallivan says it took time to realize the business is more about spreading happiness than sugar. “If you see me this summer, it means one of your neighbors has said, ‘We think this is cool, go do good things.’” He shakes his head, full of wonder at the kindness his character has inspired in the community. But he describes himself as simply a funnel, or an instrument, or a conduit for that message of joy.
“It’s your neighbors who are doing it, though,” he adds. “Isn’t that the coolest thing in the world?”