Don Ilse had $5 in his pocket when he landed in Hong Kong 35 years ago. He didn't speak the language, had no place to stay and had no means of transportation. He was lost.
"This is a lot like landing in Hong Kong," said Ilse, who three months ago became Anoka County's Human Services division manager after years working in Community Corrections.
"I feel like I'm in a foreign country."
Ilse, 60, is an avid canoeist and smart enough not to get into a boat without a paddle. Since his appointment at the end of April, he has inherited a staff of about 1,000 -- along with county budget cuts, a state government shutdown and administrative changes on the county board, in the county attorney's office and the county administrator's office. There have been five key early retirements among county officials.
But Ilse also is a marathon runner who knows that every course has its obstacles, and he is as resourceful they come.
As a young man, he'd hitch-hike across the Iron Range with a five-gallon gas can at his side. One motorist who assumed he'd broken down picked him up -- and drove him 240 miles.
"The gas can made me look reputable," he said with a laugh.
The third of five boys, Ilse grew up in Tower, Minn., where the temperature hit a state-record low of minus 60 on Feb. 2, 1996.
"We didn't pay attention to the cold," Ilse said. "I went winter camping with three of my brothers. When you got out of the car, you heard the announcer on the radio say, 'Good morning. It's 32 below zero.'
"Who in their right mind would be [living] there? But you get used to it."
His parents were teachers. He loved the closeness of the community on Lake Vermilion. Life was good.
Then his father died of a heart attack. Don was 11.
"When you're 11, you're really still too young to comprehend the impact it's going to have on your life," he said. "Had I been a little older, I might have been completely devastated. But when you grow up in a small town, it's a very supportive environment."
He worked as a dock boy, a carpenter's assistant and in a union construction job in the taconite mines. One of his jobs with the Forest Service involved raking mounds of dead flies from the beach.
"I wanted to see more of the world," he said.
The eight-year college plan
He got as far as the Twin Cities -- college-bound, with no long-term career plans. He arrived at Augsburg College, a kid from the Iron Range plopped into the West Bank at the tail end of the '60s. He would later travel the world, but probably never encountered such a drastic culture shock as he did upon discovering the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood.
He studied political science. And he decided that he wanted to travel and that taking more than eight years to earn a college degree might be twice as stimulating as graduating in the traditional four.
He purchased a continuous airline ticket that took him around the world as long as he always went in the same direction. Six months later, he'd been to Hawaii, Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand, Burma, India, Nepal, Africa, the Middle East and Europe. His pockets were nearly empty, but he didn't have a care in the world.
Two years before graduating from Augsburg, Ilse tried working a construction job in Tower. It was 30 below zero two days in a row. On the third day, it hit minus-35. A union rule prohibited work at that temperature. His car broke down and he waited 15 minutes for a ride.
As he stood on the road, he thought to himself, "Perhaps working construction the rest of my life is not the best career choice."
Hired on the spot
Armed with a degree in 1978, Ilse went job hunting in Anoka County, because a friend had a job there. He applied for a job at the juvenile center. He'd worked as a psychiatric technician and with adolescents at St. Mary's Hospital in Minneapolis -- one of the nation's pioneer chemical-dependency rehab centers.
He was interviewed by three people. One was Jerry Soma, the current Anoka County administrator who preceded Ilse in corrections and as division manager of Human Services.
Ilse was walking to his car after the interview and was surprised to see that a county employee had followed him to the parking lot. She offered him the job on the spot.
Through a number of jobs within the department, he worked as a probation officer and with the courts, dealing with juveniles and then adults. In 1996, Ilse was appointed director of field services and supervised a staff of 125.
His new job puts him in charge of a staff nearly 10 times that size.
"We've always been impressed with Don," Soma said. "He's such a top-notch worker, a good communicator, respected by his peers. He had a real good understanding of the county.
"I value people who have had different working experiences. I did work in construction. Don worked in the mines on the Iron Range. He's a person who can wake up every morning and say, 'I'm glad I have a job inside.'"
Apparently, he can't wait to get there. According to Soma, Ilse often arrives at work between 6 and 6:30 a.m.
"I'm chair of the public safety committee and Don's enthusiasm about his [former] job was so gratifying," said County Commissioner Carol LeDoux. "When you work a project with Don, that enthusiasm is contagious."
Ilse didn't push for the human services job but heard through the grapevine that he was a candidate. Within a week of Soma's official hiring as the successor to retired county administrator Terry Johnson, Ilse succeeded Soma.
"I had a high degree of confidence and the comforts of having worked in corrections for so many years," Ilse recalled. "I knew the rules, the people, the politics.
"Switching to the new position, I didn't know the rules, I didn't know the people and I didn't know the politics.
"Clearly, it's a challenging time, budget-wise. But we're still providing very good, useful services. The sky isn't falling."
The timing seemed about right. Ilse has entered a new stage in his life. His daughter, 22, recently graduated from college, and his son, 20, is a student at Drake. He may never succeed in getting his wife, Joyce, to understand his need to canoe in Canada three or four times a year. And his canoeing buddies may never understand why Ilse prefers to keep paddling rather than take fishing breaks, Soma says.
But the guy who came to the Twin Cities four decades ago without a game plan sees things very clearly these days.
"Your role and perspective constantly change," he said. "When you're asked to take on some big responsibilities, it's a compliment. I appreciate the confidence the board has in me.
"But I hope to one day travel the world again. And much to my wife's consternation, I know when it's time to go to Canada and get into the canoe. It's my passion, but it's more than that.
"There's something about the water. There's something about canoeing and getting away."
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419