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FROM THE ARENA
Column for the Anchorage Times 16 December 1990
by Wayne Anthony Ross

Christmas is a time for remembering old friends, and one of the people I always think about this time of year, is the Reverend Dan Jespersen.

It was the summer of 1967. A buddy and I had left Milwaukee, after finishing our law school exams, and were driving to Alaska in an old Volkswagen bug. We had heard a lot about Alaska, the "Last Frontier" and we decided to spend our summer vacation seeing what this State was all about. We hoped to find summer jobs to help us with our college expenses the next Fall.

All went well until we reached Fort Nelson, B.C. Then the VW's engine stated making goshawful noises. Fort Nelson, at that time, had three or four service stations, none of which worked on Volkswagens. The nearest VW garage was in Whitehorse, some 600 miles away.

We thought about trucking the VW to Whitehorse, and found a company with an empty truck leaving for Whitehorse that afternoon. They said they'd take the VW there for only 600 dollars! Six hundred dollars was more than we paid for the VW in the first place! It was more money than we had in the world!

We thought about buying another car and towing the VW to Whitehorse. Unfortunately, there were only two cars for sale in Fort Nelson. Their engines sounded worse than our Volkswagen's.

The bus company told us we could scrap our VW and take a bus into Anchorage, but we were limited to 40 pounds of luggage apiece. We would have had to abandon most of our gear, which included tents, sleeping bags, and fishing equipment.

We seemed to be stuck.

Then somebody remembered that the local preacher used to have a Volkswagen. Maybe he knew something about them. We promptly went to see the Reverend Jespersen.

Dan Jespersen was the Pastor of the Fort Nelson Alliance Church. The church was in an old military barracks. Dan, his wife, and their infant son lived in a small house in back of the church. The church had only 7 or 8 families in attendance at the time, and to survive, Dan worked part-time as a bag boy in the grocery store.

Dan listened to our tale of woe and the noises coming from the VW engine. He said he thought he could help. He had a book in his parish library entitled "How To Fix Your Volkswagen" and, if we were willing to assist, he would take the VW engine apart, see what was the matter, and order new parts over the telephone from the VW garage in Whitehorse. Dan figured he knew what was wrong with our car, and he estimated he could repair it with around $70 worth of new parts. If we were successful, Dan said he would charge us the cost of the parts, and $25 for his labors. We told him to go ahead.

For the next 5 or 6 days we worked on the car by day, and slept in the church at night. Dan and his wife fed us moose burgers and berry pie. After the engine was torn down, the new parts were ordered. When they arrived via mail plane, we put them in the VW, and surprisingly enough, it ran. Dan apologized however. The parts had cost more than he thought they would. Since the total parts bill was $120 rather than $70, Dan said we did not have to pay him anything!

We disagreed. We gladly paid the parts bill, slipped Dan $50 rather than the $25 he had originally asked for, and headed, once more, for Alaska.

The only problem we had on the rest of the trip was that, somehow, we had goofed up the wiring. Every time we would turn the lights on, the engine would shut off. With the long daylight, during the early part of the summer, we had no trouble. But returning to Milwaukee in the Fall, we spent a lot of time driving the Alcan in the dark. By the time we got back home, the VW was tired. It wouldn't go any faster than 32 miles per hour by then, but we did make it home! 32 miles per hour across North Dakota, however, does give a fellow a lot of time to think about a lot of things.

We lost touch with Dan after that. We tried to contact him several times without success, until finally in 1982 while in B.C., we got a phone number and called him. We renewed old acquaintances and have kept in touch, at Christmas, ever since.

Several years ago, Dan called me and told me that he had hoped to visit us when his Church voted to send him to the Billy Graham Crusade in Anchorage. Unfortunately, the Church couldn't raise the money for him to come, but he hoped to make it here eventually.

After talking to Barb, we sent Dan the money to come to the Graham Crusade in Alaska. As Barb put it, "He helped you to get to Alaska. The least we can do is to help him get here!"

When Dan arrived here, he asked what he could do to repay us. I told him that I was repaying him, but that he could say a couple of prayers for me at the Billy Graham Crusade. (Even though I'm a Catholic boy, it doesn't hurt to have all my bases covered.)

That long ago summer of 1967, Dan Jespersen gave me one of the best gifts I've ever received. That gift was, of course, the chance to experience Alaska. And during this Joyous Christmas season, I still think of him with gratitude.


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