Forty years ago, a new graduate from Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter faced a choice: move to Sweden to play professional hockey or take a job as a Hennepin County welfare caseworker.
Dan Engstrom unlaced his skates, got six weeks of training and took on a caseload of 200 families. He retires this week after 15 years at the top of the Human Services and Public Health Department, the county's largest with 300 employees and a $500 million annual budget.
"It's the ever-changing face of the client, the programs, that keeps your interest," he said.
In his tenure, Engstrom oversaw tidal changes in welfare laws, including the "paradigm shift" of 1996 that put a five-year lifetime cap on benefits. But even as he leaves, the 62-year-old Minneapolis native known for his calm betrayed no signs of fatigue or frustration from a career working with the county's most challenged and fragile residents. Instead, he praised the state and federal governments for giving the county flexibility to run its programs.
When he started, the work was done on paper; computerization was years off. Clients got checks and used food stamps. Now they get cash and food benefits loaded onto what looks like a credit card.
As a young man, he paid visits to Minneapolis homes, spending a lot of time at Little Earth near E. Franklin Avenue, where he worked with American Indians. He is proud of a satellite county office established there to help residents. "We became a part of their community," he said. "We're right there to make sure they're not falling through the cracks."
He's been a driver in the county's groundbreaking move to regional offices where staff members aren't tethered to desks. By the end of 2014, the county expects to operate six regional offices to serve residents closer to their homes.
The geographic moves bring a new, integrated service delivery in which a client only has to tell his or her story once to get an action plan and services ranging from aid for children and adults to veterans' programs and training.
Also on his list of achievements: social workers going to homeless shelters. "They don't have to try and find us," Engstrom said. "We're out there trying to find them."
Another big change from his early years: the office of multicultural services. Engstrom said a staff of 40 to 50 county employees speaks 50 different languages and can help new arrivals who are unfamiliar with the system. "We can help them understand what services the government has available," he said.
Tightening the connection with schools should be a goal for his successor, Rex Holzemer, Engstrom said. Mental health professionals are in 71 schools to help kids, but he said the program needs to be bigger.
Even as he climbed the administrative ranks, Engstrom stayed in touch with his beginnings, when he knew those families, their kids and birthdays. Some kept in touch, including Ben, whom Engstrom helped find a new home when he was displaced by Metrodome construction in the 1980s. "He would come see me until he recently passed away at a nursing home," Engstrom said.
He also occasionally saw drop-in clients who wanted to "talk to the person at the top," Engstrom said with a soft shrug and smile.
Before he was elected in the early 1990s, Hennepin County Board Chairman Mike Opat said he visited Engstrom on the job to learn about social services and was impressed by how kind, orderly and organized he was.
Over the years, he's seen Engstrom gracefully manage change, and also praised him for hiring smart, strong-willed staffers. "He's never been afraid to hire people who would challenge him."
Engstrom and his wife of 38 years, Kathy, have plans to visit Sweden and Norway for the first time, and he hopes to see his grandsons play hockey.
But he will stay true to his work. He will volunteer for the homeless at his church and plans to start a Minnesota chapter of the MPN Research Foundation to promote the study of blood malignancies called myeloproliferative neoplasms.
"It's been an honor and privilege to serve the residents of Hennepin County," he said.