In the last year, the Pine River-Backus School District has said goodbye to longtime educators and staff. One of the most recent was Dean of Students Jacob Mongan, whose resignation the school board accepted at the September board meeting, almost exactly 10 years after he joined the district.
Work at PR-B wasn't necessarily in Mongan's plans. When he started, he hadn't yet completed a degree in any educational field. That came later. He had already been hired as dean of students when he started finishing his degree in organizational behavior from the College of St. Scholastica. He received the degree in 2017.
He had been working at the Scamp travel trailer production plant in Backus, and he had previously worked with at-risk kids at Mille Lacs Academy. Providing guidance and counseling to students in need has long been one of Mongan's passions.
"The passion that did drive me to education was psychology," Mongan said. "I didn't necessarily know exactly what I wanted to do with it out of high school, and that led me on kind of a winding road that ended up back at PR-B School."
He was born in Texas, but moved to Minnesota when he was 6.
"I'm originally from Houston, Texas; however, I would say I grew up in Minnesota, specifically Pine River," Mongan said. "We moved here when I was 6, so I attended Pine River-Backus Schools from first grade on and graduated from Pine River. My mother's family is from Houston, but my father's family is originally from the Backus area."
Athletics were a big deal to him growing up, as was reading.
"I wanted to read scary books," Mongan said. "And you know, it never could go in depth enough for me. It eventually could never get dark enough. I just really enjoy an author taking me there. So it definitely started at a young age."
He grew up with a sister, a stepbrother and a half brother. They were all close, but his half brother was particularly special to him.
"He was born with severe disabilities," Mongan said. "He lived his life for a while at the house, but when it was kind of overwhelming for them, he lived in a group home. He just died a couple years ago."
Mongan's half brother was an inspiration for his life going forward. His brother was the reason he took an interest in psychology and in working with children who might need just a little more guidance and help.
"I think it was at first confusing just not knowing what my role was in that situation," Mongan said. "But I feel like even though he was never able to talk, he taught me so much. And a big part of me having a passion to work with at-risk youth really was driven, I think, right there. That's when it started, I think because I just saw a need for voiceless kids."
Mongan always had an interest in psychology and counseling because of that. He attended Central Lakes College to get his associate degree before taking a job at Mille Lacs Academy. Though he didn't exactly know where he would end up, he never really thought he would be back at PR-B, where he grew up and graduated. Still, after being hired in 2010, he applied himself to the position.
He said he could have imagined himself retiring from the school district. After 10 years, he was established as a regular part of the district and a proud supporter of the school and its teams.
"I still bleed orange and black." Mongan said. "I went to school at PR-B. I'm so appreciative of the time I got to work there. They're in really good hands. They are going to continue to be in a good place, which is where I think they've been."
He began to pursue another interest - writing. Like working at PR-B, he had never necessarily imagined himself as a published author, but he found himself writing, nonetheless.
"In high school, I didn't think, 'I am going to be a writer. I'm going to write a book,'" Mongan said. "That wasn't on my mind. I liked telling stories. I liked writing at times, but that wasn't necessarily on my mind. But over time, I found myself just thinking such things, and especially when I was doing a job at Scamp. I know I thought a lot about writing a book. I was just doing something that I had down and I was able to do it through muscle memory, and I thought a lot. And so the first book, 'Exit Lights,' I was writing in my head for a solid decade before I ever tried to put anything down on paper."
In 2019, he published "Exit Lights" under the pseudonym Jacob Moses, a suspense thriller inspired by his love of the genre when he was younger. He said in the beginning the story wasn't necessarily drawn from his life, though by the time he finished the book it had started to take inspiration from his real life.
"The ideas and setting really were just my thoughts and where I kind of ran with it," Mongan said. "However, I realized early on that I was writing with life experiences. Certainly my wife can pick out some quirks and maybe attach herself to a character. It's not an autobiography. I think it creeped my mom out to put that character in those locations."
Perhaps one of the silver linings of the COVID-19 pandemic was that it gave Mongan and others a chance to pursue their artistic interests. Such was the case when Mongan published a prequel in August, a more suspenseful thriller called "The Big Bastard."
"I probably should have put COVID-19 in the acknowledgements," Mongan said. "And I didn't . Maybe next time. I definitely had more time to write."
Not long after releasing his second book, September was time for his next big change when he decided to change careers and now works in the field of child advocacy. Mongan felt that the field was an even closer fit to his interests than working at the school.
"I'll enjoy this job," Mongan said. "It's gonna be hard. It's gonna be hard, hard work, some tough situations, but I feel like my past work has definitely prepared me for what that'll look like."
Mongan hopes to work in his new career as long as he can. He's already planning more books as well. If the past is any indication, there's no telling what the future may bring.
"I feel like I found my last position," Mongan said. "It's early on, so that could go all kinds of different directions as I get going in that career change."
Travis Grimler may be reached at 218-855-5853 or email@example.com. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Travis.