Don Dahlke

Maybe he has slowed down a bit since he was a young man, but Don Dahlke has never let grass grow under his feet.His activity level these days continues to keep him busy and involved. At age 76, he might be labeled a “senior citizen” although his lifestyle reflects the mental and physical agility of a person half his age!

Don’s life began in north central Brown County, South Dakota, near the small town of Mobridge. As a youngster he and his family also lived in Eagle Butte, S.D., which is located in the middle of the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, and Timber Lake and Firesteel, along the northern edge of the reservation. He is the sixth of nine children - four boys and five girls. An older sister, Lucille, also lives in North Pole and Don lives in a cozy cabin on her property. He has lived in the community full time since 2005.

The first time Don visited Alaska was in 1951 when he moved north with his parents. His sister had married a man who wanted very much to live in Alaska and they had moved to Fairbanks. That’s where Don attended high school, for three years. At age 16 he also served as a volunteer fireman for Trainer Gate fire department. He described the department’s only fire truck as a big, revamped Army surplus truck.

While in high school Don contracted polio and was hospitalized. He needed braces on both legs for several months but was determined to stay on the track team. At first he walked the track and after his braces were removed he ran the mile. He even set a school speed record!

During his senior year Don lived in Montana with an aunt and graduated from high school there in 1953. That school had a good vocational program that met his needs, he said, because he didn’t have to take the usual academic classes. He admitted that he “had a real hard time with algebra.”

One of the many funny stories Don enjoys telling is about his elementary school attendance and riding to school on a big, old white horse named Billy, kind of like a “four-legged school bus.” He said that seven kids could fit on Billy’s back and he took them all to school in the morning and returned in the afternoon to take them all home.

After finishing high school, Don worked at a variety of jobs and in 1953 went to work for the Alaska Railroad in Fairbanks. He was sent to Nenana to work on tug boats that came from Louisiana via the Panama Canal pushing barges filled with fuel oil, dried fish and other kinds of freight. He also worked as a fireman on the steam engine Nenana which is now on display at Pioneer Park. The engine traveled between Fairbanks and Nenana and was later sent to White Horse, Yukon Territory, to be converted to diesel.

During his many years in the workforce, Don was a long haul trucker who drove for many trucking companies and also owned a rig of his own at one time. His longest trip was from northern Alaska to the Panama Canal to deliver a big electrical transformer. After delivering the transformer, he sent the truck home on a ship and flew to Seattle, home at that time to him, his wife and children.

When he lived in Seattle, Don also worked for Seaway Express loading barges in Seattle and then flying to Anchorage to unload them. He said it was a lucrative job that paid for 48 hours of loading in Seattle and 48 hours for unloading in Anchorage. He has also worked for the Caterpillar Company, was a member of the Alaska Territorial Guard and was involved in boat racing for several years. He was a five-time state champion and recalled that “the guys in the boat racing organization said I was the only racer they knew who could cheat fair. I got a real chuckle out of that.”

In 1979 Don suffered a major medical setback and the diagnosis was tuberculosis. He spent nearly a year in the Ferndale sanitarium in Seattle. When asked about current health issues, he replied that “people don’t like to hear all about somebody’s ailments; I just say that I’m recycling myself.”

Since moving permanently to North Pole more than six years ago, Don has been a participant in the Senior Olympics. He said he’s not sure exactly how many medals he has won but figures there’s more than 20, mostly gold for first place finishes. Events have included the 50-yard dash, 100-yard dash, the quarter mile, Bocci ball, horseshoes, Golf, javelin and novelty games.

Does he have any special plans for the future? Don said that he intends to remain active and agile, both mentally and physically. You go, Don!

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