Duane Houkom graduated from the University of Minnesota Crookston Technical School in 1975 with an associate degree in Natural Resources and Conservation. Houkom was born in Grand Forks, North Dakota, but he grew up all around the United States. By the time he was in first grade, Houkom had moved nine times. Houkom’s father was active in the U.S. Air Force and was called into the Korean Conflict, which is why he and his sisters had traveled and lived in so many places during his upbringing.
Houkom wound up in New Jersey throughout high school. One day, when Houkom was 17, he took the day off of work and hitchhiked to Newark, New Jersey to visit his father. During this trip he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. Houkom was in the Navy for three years, and initially intended to make a career out of it, but left due to personal issues. He got to work in photography during his time in the Navy, and worked with a team that went out with President Lyndon B. Johnson for news releases.
Not minding the lifestyle of moving around frequently while he was growing up, this became a recurring theme throughout Houkom’s life.
“I was never afraid to pick everything up and move across the country, but always found my way back to the Minnesota and North Dakota area,” said Houkom.
Houkom was not afraid to experiment in different career fields either, so he has collected quite a full resume. His first job after the Navy was as a church directory photographer, which he did for over a year. Houkom enjoyed photography so much that he used the skills he developed throughout the entirety of his life and implemented his love for photography into his other careers, especially in diving and aquatic biology.
Houkom also worked as a security guard in the Twin Cities and as an architectural draftsman. He met his first wife in the summer of 1969. Houkom moved to Crookston because his wife, Linda, was interested in the equine program at UMN Technical Institute. He met her when her 1958 Chevrolet had stalled in the road and he stopped to help. While attending school in Crookston, Houkom was involved in the Veterans Club where he held the position of secretary/treasurer. He also worked part time at a cattle company in Crookston, which had a 1,300 cow/calf herd ranch. Houkom also interned with a forest service in the summer of 1974. His favorite faculty member was Dan Svedarsky, and his favorite class was Parks and Recreation.
Houkom says going to school at UMN Technical College was significant to him because after he completed his degree, he moved to Stewartville, Minnesota and got started in an aquatic biology and restoration project for a lake in Stewartville. This was a one year project where he did a feasibility study with a research partner. Unfortunately, years after this project, the dam collapsed due to flooding. Houkom says the area was turned into a park, which is very beautiful. This job kickstarted his love for aquatic life and aquatic biology.
A few years after Houkom graduated from UMN Technical College, he decided to go back to school. Houkom attended Bemidji State University (BSU) where he got his degree in Aquatic Biology. At BSU, Houkom met his second wife, Rita. Houkom says he was wearing a sports coat and tie and with first sight of Rita had the urge to go sit with her and have a coffee. He gathered the courage and did just that.
Houkom held a number of exciting and unique jobs including an internship at Chippewa National Forest, working in hydrology for the Department of Natural Resources, conducting a population study at Voyageurs National Park and a feasibility study in Maryland, and held a short-term position as a semi-truck driver for Magnum Transportation. He also drove for Murphy Brothers Carnival where he transported different rides. Houkom says his favorite ride was the giant ferris wheel. While on a transportation trip from Wisconsin to Florida, Houkom told his trainer that Florida was hot and humid and he would never move there. Ironically, soon thereafter, he applied for a job as a diver for Biscayne National Park in Florida, and moved there.
Houkom has a lot of fond memories from his time diving in Florida. While working there, Houkom was in charge of monitoring the growth of sponges for different species. He set up research areas of 100 square meters and said the water was beautiful and clear. Houkom did a lot of oceanside anchor surveys. The purpose was to make sure people are properly anchored to where they do not damage the sponges. If they are anchored improperly, Houkom’s job was to talk to and educate them, then he would freedive down and pull the anchor out. Houkom says his favorite part and memory of the job was protecting the coral reefs, as well as having interactions with the sea life. He says he was never afraid of any sea life, and recalls once looking up and watching a manta ray swim over his head.
“The ocean was my office,” Houkom joked.
Houkom also worked at the United States Geological Survey - Wetland and Aquatic Research Center in Gainesville, Florida, where he did sea turtle research. He studied Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, which are highly endangered. When a turtle was spotted they would encircle the turtle and someone would snorkel and recover the animal. Then they took measurements of the weight and sex, tagged the turtles, and took blood samples. Houkom found this research to be very interesting.
Houkom also found work in aquatic biology in Arizona on the Colorado River, at the Willow Beach National Fish Hatchery, and again in Gainesville, Florida at the Caribbean-Florida Water Science Center. In Florida, Houkom worked on the Suwannee River, “like the song” he joked. Houkom has also fearlessly and valiantly used his diving talents to not only help aquatic life, but people too! In December of 1978, Houkom volunteered to dive into a frozen Lake Pepin to help recover a pickup truck that went through the ice. He was driving by the scene when it happened and stopped to help. In another incident in 2017, Houkom was called in by the Kittson County Sheriff's Department to dive down and help recover the body and car of a woman who had been missing for four years. Houkom’s diving expertise helped to bring closure to the family and the community.
“It was one of the most difficult jobs I have ever done,” said Houkom.
Houkom gets by with the support of his second wife, Rita, and his pets. He has three rescue cats named Dana, Franklin, and Kacey (who he found in a snowbank last December.) He also has a rescue dog named Mandy, and an unofficial dog named Manford who, Houkom says, “belongs to the farm down the road but comes over to the house frequently to meet with his other pet friends.”
In the summer of 2023, Duane and Rita attended the UMN Crookston Alumni and Friends Brew Bash in Hallock, Minnesota. Houkom says he saw the advertisement on a poster in town and asked Rita if she would like to attend and she agreed.
“We enjoyed the heck out of ourselves!” Houkom said.
Houkom keeps himself busy these days driving semi-trucks again. He also says he hopes to renovate some of his 1800s Victorian home.
“I need to retire already!” he joked.
Written for the Fall 2023 Torchlight e-Newsletter