Dennis Hjelle 1968 was among the first class of 72 students to graduate from the University of Minnesota Technical Institute. Hjelle grew up on a farm in Argyle, Minn. and he knew that he wanted to be a Trojan because he would be able to stay close to home. He stayed in McCall Hall on campus during the week which allowed him to return home to take care of his animals on the farm. Hjelle attended the “Tech” from 1966-1968, was a member of the flying club “The Flying Trojans” and was their vice president his sophomore year, was involved in the drama club, FFA, AgriCore, Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, and as a member of the Trojan newspaper layout staff. He graduated with high distinction with an associate degree in applied sciences.
Hjelle was an accomplished student-athlete as a member of the wrestling team. At the time, the Trojan’s wrestling team was coached by the late Rod Mosher, who was inducted into the Athletic Hall of Fame in 2001.
“We had to try out for the team and were given the chance to prove ourselves to Mosher,” Hjelle explained. “I dropped my weight to about 114 pounds and made the team.”
Hjelle had many fond memories and experiences while wrestling for Mosher and has many great things to say about his coach. His experience wrestling under Rodney Mosher gave him the grit, perseverance, and tenacity that he would need to endure his experiences in the near future.
As a student, Hjelle also excelled as he graduated with his associate degree in applied sciences and a 3.97 GPA. He recalls some of the classes he took where they would project the lecture onto the television and view a recorded teaching from the Twin Cities campus. Hjelle says his favorite professor was Crookston’s famous Stanley Sahlstrom.
Hjelle recalls his favorite memory of his time as a Trojan was attending a freshman social, where freshmen were given the opportunity to meet their professors and other students. This is where he first met founding provost Stanley Sahlstrom. Then on Monday morning, the first day of classes, Sahlstrom greeted every student by their first name. Sahlstrom’s welcoming presence and kind gesture solidified everything for Hjelle, and he knew he had made the right choice to attend the University of Minnesota Technical Institute.
Outside of school and sports, Hjelle worked in the sheep barns. He remembers waking up early and going to work at three in the morning during lambing season. Luckily Hjelle’s roommate was also a “farm kid”, so he didn’t mind the early mornings and they were able to become good friends. Hjelle was also able to connect with other people who shared similar interests and he expanded his social scene. He shared fond memories with both the wrestling team and his friends in the agriculture area.
After his two years at the University of Minnesota Technical Institute had come to an end, Hjelle went on to study at North Dakota State University (NDSU) to obtain his bachelor’s degree. Two years later, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in animal science and agriculture economics, and a minor in horticulture landscape. During his time at NDSU, Hjelle was a member of the Alpha Gamma Rho (AGR) fraternity. Alpha Gamma Rho was a fraternity for men pursuing degrees in agriculture, food, fiber, life sciences, natural resources, forestry, and environmental fields, states NDSU.
Following graduation, Hjelle enlisted in the North Dakota National Guard. He specialized in and was trained in engineering and MOS truck driving. Hjelle completed his basic training and Advanced Individual Training (AIT) in San Diego, California, where he stayed for six months. He began his service in Fargo, North Dakota and then transferred to Grand Forks. Hjelle served as active duty for six years total.
After four and a half years in the military, Hjelle acquired some land and was able to farm. A year and a half later, Hjelle lost his right arm in a farm accident after it was caught in the hay baler. Lucky for him, a neighbor heard his cry for help and called 911 and was able to get the machine turned off. Neighbors used a torch to cut the metal machinery and free Hjelle, which ultimately saved his life. He was rushed to the hospital, but unfortunately lost his arm and shoulder. Because of the accident, Hjelle was discharged from the National Guard.
A common theme in Hjelle’s life is overcoming difficulties. He jokes that he is very injury-prone, and his friends have a running joke that he has only “one and a half kitty lives left.” Hjelle recalls another accident that left him unconscious for 11 days. And within a timeframe of two years, he had 13 major surgeries, one of which landed him in the hospital for three months. Hjelle says that sometimes you have to “learn to laugh at yourself” or, during rough times, to stay positive and get through it.
Later in life, Hjelle took the opportunity to give back to others. Since losing his right arm in the accident, Hjelle has attended many 4-H meetings to speak about the importance of farm safety to children and teens ages 6-18 years old. Additionally, he belonged to the Lions Club and American Legion for over 40 years. Hjelle said he got involved because he is a veteran and wanted to help others.
Hjelle’s ability to conquer adversity stems from his gritty attitude.
“You have to work hard in life if you want anything, and sometimes you have to be stubborn,” he says.
Hjelle also lives by the mantra “if you don’t work, you don’t eat.” His strong foundation has aided him in persevering through all the difficulties he has experienced in his lifetime. If you learn one thing from Hjelle, it’s the value of hard work and perseverance. He hopes his positivity and mantra have passed down to his two sons, Sean and Christopher.
Written for the Summer 2023 Torchlight e-Newsletter