From Minnesota to Baghdad and back: a man’s quest for his dream

Joe Carlson

Editor’s note: About 50,000 students, faculty members, staff and visitors converge on the University’s Twin Cities campus everyday. In the midst of this sea of people, it’s easy for some to think of the strangers passing them as just anonymous faces.
Every Monday during spring quarter the Daily will peek inside the lives of some the strangers you see everyday. Randomly chosen from the University phone book, those profiled could sit in your class, ride your bus or pass you on the sidewalk someday. They share the University with you, and now they won’t be strangers.

Dean Klenz is trying to console his agitated daughter who is crying in his wife’s arms. He talks to her in a low, kind tone of voice, that tone only a father could produce.
And it works. Within seconds, 3-year-old Kendra is calm — at least calmer than before — and both Klenz and his wife Pam know one thing for sure: It’s bedtime.
So far this evening, Kendra has been a zebra, a kitten and King Kong. All the imaginary animals have worn her out. “When Kendra cries, the whole building knows it,” Klenz says.
Despite the many hassles of parenthood, Klenz loves his daughter dearly. When Klenz — a first-year veterinary science student — is not in school, at work or studying, he’s playing with his daughter.
Unfortunately, the public aspects of his life don’t leave very much father-daughter time. Time is precious now, and every moment counts when your kids are young.
Speaking with a soft voice and an easy smile, Klenz is modest about his life’s story, telling only bits and pieces of it when asked directly.
But the path between Klenz’s childhood home in Fairmont, Minn., and his apartment adjacent to the St. Paul campus is long and winding. It travels to Augsburg College, where he met his wife, then veers off to the Middle East, where he helped capture surrendering Iraqi troops in Operation Desert Storm. From there, the path comes full circle to his hometown, where he gave up his dream of farming to travel to the Twin Cities to become a swine veterinarian.

Small town kid
Klenz was born Sept. 24, 1965. His mom Judy knew from the very start that her son was a hard worker and that he’d go far in whatever he chose to do. She and her husband Russell raised Klenz and his sister and brother on a farm in the southern rural town of Fairmont.
All Klenz ever wanted to do was farm. He dreamt of the day he would own his own plot of land and make a living from the fruits of the earth. He didn’t know how hard it would be someday to break into the world of profitable agriculture.
But from his earliest years, Klenz lived the rural life, driving farm vehicles, feeding farm animals and living in a farmhouse.
“He’d come home from school and he’d go out and get on the tractor and do whatever had to be done,” Judy Klenz said. “He was driving a tractor probably long before he should have, but he was always so careful he never had any accidents.”
It was probably on his parents’ farm that Klenz learned of his interest in pigs that would one day propel him hundreds of miles north to become a swine veterinarian. His mom said he always liked animals — especially pigs.
He also enjoyed school, and he worked hard at that when he wasn’t out sowing the fields. He graduated with the second-highest grade point average in his small class at Ceylon High School in 1984.
“There was 13 (graduates), and three of them were brothers,” said Tom Anderson, Klenz’s close friend during his adolescence. Both he and Klenz grew up wanting to be farmers. Today, Anderson is research specialist in agronomy at the University of Missouri.
To Klenz’s dismay at the time, Anderson was the only student to graduate in 1984 with a higher GPA than himself. Even today, Klenz cracks a competitive grin about that, though Anderson insists Klenz is one of the least competitive people he knows.
Example: At the bottom of the forth quarter, it had been a grueling high school basketball game. The home team had sunk as many baskets as the opposing team, and the season was riding on this victory. Both Klenz and Anderson were playing.
With players panting and dripping sweat from every pore, coach Schmidt called a timeout to plan a strategy of action. The Ceylon Huskies huddled around the coach, determined to find a way to coordinate offense and defense, determined to find a way
Besides basketball, Klenz went out for baseball and football, as well as playing trumpet in the school band and singing for the choir.
It wasn’t that he was an excellent athlete or musician, his mom said, it’s just that in a school the size of Ceylon High School, everyone goes out for everything.
Between farming, school and extracurricular activities, Klenz never really had time for a love life in high school. He and Anderson went cruising all the time, but to no avail — except once.
Klenz had a cat in the back window of his high school car whose eyes lit up when he hit the brakes; once, a couple girls stopped to ask him about it. But it never went any farther than that.
“We were singles, but swinging wasn’t the word for it,” Anderson said. “They never stopped long enough for us to get their names.”

College life
Golden Valley Lutheran College suddenly closed its doors for good shortly into his freshman year. From there, he drifted over to Augsburg College near the University’s West Bank, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting in 1988.
Around his dorm, Klenz was known as a thoughtful guy with a good sense of humor, said Jerry Dieffenbach, his college roommate. During finals weeks, Klenz was known to do things like wear underwear on his head to lighten the stressful mood around the dorm.
Klenz was also known for being a guy you could always count on, Dieffenbach said. Time after time, Klenz would do favors for people. Dieffenbach said he couldn’t even remember the number of times Klenz gave him late-night rides home from work downtown.
Another major favor Klenz did was type papers. Dieffenbach said Klenz never wrote the papers, he just typed them into the computer — except when he couldn’t read Dieffenbach’s writing.
“I had a 3.5 (grade point average) as a student, and I credit the majority of that to him,” Dieffenbach said.
In college, Klenz also met his future wife, Pam. They first saw one another at an intramural softball game, when they played on the same team.
“I thought he was pretty cute,” she said of her first encounter with the man who would someday become her husband.
Dieffenbach said he and everyone else could tell from the very start of their relationship that Pam and Klenz were perfect for each other. They weren’t “gushy” around each other, he said, but those with them could definitely tell there were sparks.
About a year after they first met, Klenz popped the question in the cab of his pickup truck in a park near Klenz’s home in Fairmont. It took Pam a week to decide if she wanted to commit the rest of her life to him, but in the end she did.
“He was bugging me the whole week,” she said.

Semper Fi
Screaming across the sky in the cockpit of a jet was another of Klenz’ dreams as a child. But bad news from military medical experts would curb that idea.
He got his commission to be in the armed forces, but two separate neurosurgeons told him he would never fly. After multiple brain scans — wires hooked to his head on all sides — the doctors told him a childhood headache condition would prevent him from ever screeching low over enemy territory in a United States jet.
So rather than abandoning the idea altogether, Klenz did what, in his mind, was the next best thing: He joined the ground forces in the Marines.
Little did he know that about the same time doctors were examining colorized images of his brain, the military dictator in Iraq was plotting a hostile invasion of a tiny Middle Eastern country called Kuwait. The invasion would eventually cause him to travel halfway across the globe to march behind U.N. military forces and capture surrendering Iraqi soldiers.
As part of Operation Desert Storm, Klenz’ ship landed on a Saudi Arabian beach, where he and fellow Marines slowly made their way into Kuwait.
Although Klenz was a soldier who stays slightly ahead of the rest of the company to relay information to heavy guns behind, he said he never saw any explosions the whole time. The only shooting he ever saw was friendly fire.
His duties in the war basically consisted of collecting Iraqi troops who were pouring across mine-ridden deserts faster than the front lines could capture them. The danger he’d been anticipating for months as his ship slowly crossed thousands of miles of ocean turned out to be a myth.
“I think New Year’s in the Philippines was more dangerous,” joked Klenz. “I felt like I was missing the war because I didn’t have CNN.”
Klenz’s most vivid memory from the war was of billowing plumes of black smoke that filled the air after retreating Iraqi troops set fire to Kuwaiti oil wells. At high noon, the sky was as black as night, Klenz remembers. He couldn’t see his hand in front of his face, except for when it rained, which covered everything with thick, black soot.
But that lack of danger was just fine with his mother, who was back home in Minnesota thinking about her son at war. Although she knew Klenz was doing his duty for his country, she remembers many long, tense moments wondering where her baby was, how he was doing, and whether he was still alive.
Having a son go away to another country to fight in a war is one of the most stressful things a mother can go through, she said.
“I don’t know how they did it in World War II, where they were gone for years and years,” she said. “You just pray every second that nothing’s happened.”
The sense of responsibility that Klenz felt for his country — the feeling that uprooted him from Minnesota and propelled him across the globe — was impressive, especially for a man who wanted nothing more than to be a pig farmer. One Marine who was particularly impressed was Mike Cordero, an artillery officer with Klenz in Desert Storm.
Cordero remembers asking Klenz why he ever went into the Marines in the first place. Klenz’ response so influenced Cordero that he still uses it when he trains new troops.
“If you join the Marine Corps, no one can ever take that away from you, and I tell them that based on what Dean told me that day,” Cordero said. He said he’s directly trained about 400 troops with that insight.
Other than a slight tiredness, Klenz said he’s never felt any of the signs of Gulf War Syndrome that have been reported in the media since the war.

From Baghdad to Fairmont
Klenz had left for military training — and eventually war — less than a year after he was married. He returned on the day of his second wedding anniversary; in the last year, he’d seen his wife for a total of six weeks.
After a post-war stay in California, the Klenzes bought a plot of land in Fairmont that wasn’t too far from his parents’ farm.
Unfortunately farming didn’t work out for the Klenzes. His mom said Klenz tried to start a farm at about the worst possible time. The early 90s were a hard time for farmers, even those who had been in agriculture their whole lives. For Klenz, it was impossible.
“He liked farming, it’s just that it wasn’t very profitable,” Judy Klenz said.
There were many factors that led to Klenz’s decision to get out of the farming business. Besides his bad timing — the floods of 1993, for example — Klenz found that the business had changed a lot since he’d been a kid.
Modern farmers are slowly herding their livestock across the bridge to the next century. Today, farmers keep track of data on computers, two concepts he’d never imagined growing up.
He also never predicted that both he and his wife would have to work full-time jobs off the farm to make enough money to pay bills. During a year and a half Klenz realized another goal of his: to drive a truck.
But it wasn’t exactly what he was expecting. He hauled whole trucks full of pigs here and there for local farmers and corporations.
“Unloading a trailer-load of pigs is not the greatest experience, especially when they’re stacked three deep and you’ve got a 3-foot crawl space to work in,” Klenz said. “You tend to get a little full of manure.”
Financially, Klenz took a bath on the farming endeavor; he wouldn’t say how much money he lost, other than the amount was five figures long and is now largely paid off.
Another factor that took him out of the risky farming business was an ever-ticking biological clock. So far, their marriage was childless, and they both knew it wouldn’t be right to bring a child into such a financially unstable situation.
Disillusioned, Klenz decided he needed to get out. His wife began to do some research on colleges and apartments. “I came home from work one day about 3 o’clock, and my wife said, How would you like to go to the U?'”
In their first stroke of good fortune in the four years they had been farming, Pam Klenz had found an apartment in the cities just off the University campus in the Commonwealth Terrace Cooperative. Normally, prospective tenants have to put their names on a waiting list and twiddle their thumbs until an apartment opens up. But someone had moved out unexpectedly, and the complex’s management needed someone to move in, pronto. So they headed back to the Twin Cities.

It’s different’
A sign hangs in a hallway outside Klenz’s lab in the small animal hospital on the St. Paul campus. The sign sums up a few of the personality traits Klenz’s friends and family often attribute to him:
“We, the students of the College of Veterinary Medicine, abide by an honor code; its intention is to promote ethical conduct, mutual respect, and fairness to all.”
On a typical day, Klenz wakes up next to a picture of him in camouflage and stumbles into the bathroom down the hall. Wood animals hang on the walls and in the nooks of his apartment. He walks past his daughter Kendra’s room, where she is probably still sleeping; she was born shortly before they moved off the farm, in January of 1995.
Even though he lives within spitting distance from his classes, he has to get into his car to drive Kendra to day care. Then he goes back to school, where he is in his first year of veterinary education.
In one recent lab, he studied organology. A picture of a pig in a spacesuit smiles at him as he examines the insides of a cat’s lung dyed in yellows and blues. He looks at a microscope slide in a valiant search for an elusive epithelium. “I’m not sure what I’m looking for yet,” Klenz says, flipping through his lab manual.
All of the veterinary students take the same classes on the same schedules, and then perform the same experiments in the same lab. Thus, most of the 75 students in the lab get to know one another before too long.
“I think he’s the only guy in the lab with a kid,” said Rochelle Kallstrom, one of the students who sits nearby. Most people who sit near Klenz in the lab say he’s a good-natured, easy-going, wise-cracking type of guy.
And then he goes to work. About twice per week, he works in technical support at Pig Champ, a University-run company that sells a program to help farmers quantify their farming data. His wife works full-time in the same office to support Klenz and Kendra.
Sometimes, work is the only place Klenz gets to see his wife. He tends to study in the lab most days, “because this little girl is too much of a distraction,” he said, pointing to a photo of his daughter.
Klenz said although he likes to go out and party as much as the next person, he doesn’t get too many opportunities to do it anymore. “When you’ve got a family, it’s different,” Klenz said. “I took last Saturday off and bought my daughter a bike.”
Other weekends, Klenz is in the Marine reserves, practicing the art of war and keeping his military skills sharp. One of his friends from the Marines, Staff Sergeant John Pinsonneault, said he respects Klenz immensely. It’s not just the fact that he’s a good soldier, he said, but rather that he can be a good soldier on top of having a wife and child and being a full-time student.
“That’s a big plate to handle, and in my eyes that makes him more of a hero than anything he could do in the Marine corps,” Pinsonneault said.
Before Klenz knew anything about accounting or Iraq or an epithelium or changing a diaper, Klenz used to think about what he was going to do with the rest of his life. He wanted to farm and he wanted to drive a truck.
“I’ve lived both of those dreams,” he said, “and now I’m on to something else.”