Lake Country Faces: Backus resident is a man of many hats
A storied life led to a community oriented retirement.
Red stocking caps, military uniform hats, high visibility sun hats and trucker hats - Don Lohse has worn an awful lot of hats over the years.
These different hats have taken him as far away as the other side of the world during wartime and as close to home as local grocery stores during Christmastime.
He wasn't born in the Backus area, but he was raised here since age 7. His mother was born and raised in Ponto Lake Township. His great-grandparents owned what's called "Dead Man's Curve" near Longville, a property that is now a cemetery eerily close to the road.
Lohse's family moved back to the area in 1958. He and his two sisters grew up like many in the area - farm kids who helped feed animals and milk cows.
" She's kind of the guiding hand in my life. She made me into what I am today "
— Don Lohse.
Lohse graduated from the Pine River school before the Pine River and Backus schools merged. He has a quick wit and a quick tongue, which no doubt left local draft board president Glen Leverington a little perturbed when Lohse called him about a year after graduation. It was during the Vietnam War and Lohse told him: "Don Lohse here. I ain't going and you can't make me," before hanging up the phone.
It took a dinner with Leverington, Lohse and his parents that day to learn the rest of the story. Lohse already knew he was being drafted. His lottery number was 13 and he jumped into action as soon as he knew they drew it, but before they had officially informed him.
"I thought, yeah, no," Lohse said. "I went and joined the Navy. I came home from doing my physical and raising my hand to take the oath and then in the mail was my draft notice."
Lohse downplays much of his time serving. When he tells stories about his time there, they often come off as humdrum, everyday affairs - even when they are anything but - whether they be stories about carrying Marines on amphibious transport along the coast or picking up a "high priority" cargo of 42 ceramic elephants in Saigon as decoration for the officers club.
Then there's the time the ship he was on chased a typhoon for days in the South China Sea because three of the ship's water evaporators had broken and the storm gave them the chance to catch fresh water for showers and laundry.
He acknowledges that there are some unpleasant memories from that time.
"I remember the good parts," Lohse said. "And there was a lot of bad parts to it that I don't care to relive."
" I like giving back to the community that helped me when I was a kid "
— Don Lohse
That time was the start of a life that one might describe as footloose. Lohse served nine years before returning home to be a truck driver. When his father died, he became a Navy recruiter in Willmar before becoming a company commander in the Great Lakes before transferring to Keyport, Washington.
There he was involved with weapons tests for torpedoes used on ships today. From there he had shore duty in San Diego, where he retired in 1992.
Lohse said that with retirement from the Navy, he was finally able to afford to be a truck driver. Thanks to his many miles on the road, it's easier to list where he hasn't been than to list where he has.
"I've not been to Maine, Vermont or New Hampshire," Lohse said.
He's seen amazing sights halfway across the globe.
"I remember watching Mount Fuji as we were offloading Marines and backloading Marines," Lohse said. "I can't think of the name of the beach anymore, but there was Mount Fuji up in the distance. We did it all by boat in a four-day period. We offloaded all the Marines and gear we had and backloaded the rest round the clock."
He's seen sites in his home country.
"On top of a mountain looking down at Los Angeles there was an observatory and I had to go there to pick up a load," Lohse said. "I drove up the evening before, parked the truck and got to watch the lights of Los Angeles from about 2,000 feet in the air."
After all that, 15 years ago he decided to settle on 40 acres he inherited from his father. Since then he hasn't really slowed down. Over the years he's gravitated toward service organizations, first with the local Veterans of Foreign Wars organization and then about two years ago he became a founding member of the Jenkins Area Lions Club.
"(I like) giving back to the community that helped me when I was a kid," Lohse said. "I grew up with people from Brainerd, Walker, Akeley and all over the place. People have helped me in the past and I'm paying it forward. Plus, my wife said I have to. I might be retired but I'm just under new management. Talk to my wife."
No matter what he does, he is always an advocate for veterans. That passion landed him yet another way to stay involved in the community.
"It was probably 2013 and I was in Walmart," Lohse said. "I have a red T-shirt on because on Fridays we wear a red T-shirt. R-E-D, remember everyone deployed. There's a national organization for that where you wear a red T-shirt every Friday. Anyway, I felt a tug on my pants at about knee level and I hear, 'Santa?' I was going to ignore it but the wife said, 'You better not!' So I said, 'Yeah, I'm Santa Claus,' and that night we went home and ordered a Santa suit."
Since then he puts on the suit to be the jolly old elf in stores and at private homes throughout the Christmas season.
Five years ago Lohse became an aquatic invasive species inspector for Crow Wing County after meeting a boat inspector at Rock Lake south of Pine River.
"I meet a lot of interesting people," Lohse said. "Always one less than cooperative boater every weekend. For the most part people are some of the nicest people you've ever wanted to know. They understand what we are doing and why we're doing it and are more than willing to help."
Lohse's sharp wit has served him well in those pursuits where the gift of gab and a sense of humor endear him to the organization members, boaters and children. It also ultimately endeared him to a special person - his wife, formerly Marna Sandoz.
Lohse admits his first meeting with her while she was a produce manager wasn't entirely positive. He may have given her a bit too much grief over a black spot on a green pepper. In spite of that first impression, he was still able to win her over on a date years later.
"She walked in and said, 'Oh, you're that (jerk),'" Lohse said. "Six months later we got married and we've been together ever since. She's kind of the guiding hand in my life. She made me into what I am today."
Most of the things Lohse does, Marna does too. When he's Santa Claus, she's Mrs. Claus. When he's inspecting boats at Sibley Lake, she's inspecting boats at the Crosslake campground. He's president of the Lions club and she's a director.
They just celebrated their nine-year anniversary. The plan is to backtrack some time in the future because Lohse wants to show Marna the sites he saw when he was driving truck.
"(There are) interesting things I've seen but never had time to go back and look at," Lohse said. "We're going to change that."
Travis Grimler is a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal weekly newspaper in Pequot Lakes/Pine River. He may be reached at 218-855-5853 or firstname.lastname@example.org.