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From prison to fishing, retired Minn. CO angling for 50 states

Donn Weber so far has driven to fish in 47 states, with only Oregon, Washington and Hawaii remaining on his bucket list

By Dennis Anderson
Star Tribune

SOLDOTNA, Alaska - For 24 years he was a corrections officer at Minnesota’s only maximum-security prison, a place where lifers and troublemakers from other confinements do their time.

Now he’s a fisherman, and happier for it.

“I’m not the same person I was before I retired,’' Donn Weber, 58, said.

Speaking the other day from Soldotna, Alaska, Weber, of the Twin Cities, was on a 50-state adventure cooked up while he was still working at Minnesota Correctional Facility-Oak Park Heights.

“Some people don’t like the term ‘guard’ for what I did in my career,’' Weber said. “‘Corrections officer’ is the preferred title now. But I don’t mind ‘guard’. Sometimes inmates used different words to describe us, and some of those I didn’t like.’'

Growing up in Columbia Heights, Weber often traveled with his parents and four brothers and a sister to the family’s cabin on Lake Vermilion, in northeast Minnesota. It was there he nurtured an interest in fishing — a pastime turned passion that since his retirement in 2019 has become a balm for his psyche.

“My original plan was to save up vacation time during my last two years of working and cash it out when I retired — some $40,000 worth — and start fishing,’' he said. “Then they changed the work rules, and I had to use up my vacation. So I fished in my first state, Florida, while I was still working.’'

“First state’’ meaning one other than Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota, a trio of destinations he had checked off his list years ago.

Camping along the way, Weber so far has driven to fish in 47 states, with only Oregon, Washington and Hawaii remaining on his bucket list.

To gear up for his marathon, in 2017 he bought a three-quarter-ton GMC pickup and Arctic Fox travel trailer. He also purchased a 15-horsepower outboard and a 16-foot aluminum boat.

By remote control, he employs a winch and cables to hoist the boat onto a rack above his truck.

“I’ve got more than 150,000 miles on the pickup and trailer in less than five years,’' he said.

David Korte was Weber’s supervisor at the Oak Park Heights prison.

“I’ve had cops tell me, ‘Man, I could never do your job,’ '' Korte said. “But as corrections officers, when we walk in the door, we take a breath, remind ourselves who our clientele is, and that things can be dangerous. Unlike cops who make traffic stops of people who could be anybody, we know who we’re dealing with.’'

During his career, Weber was “an officer’s officer,’' Korte said, whose retirement understandably has been life-changing.

“I think corrections officers, once their careers are done, there’s a lightness that comes over them,’' he said.

After his last day of work in May 2019, Weber beelined for Seattle, then Alaska.

“I left Seattle on a Sunday morning and was in Alaska Tuesday night,’' he said. “You can’t drive that highway any faster than that.’'

Sometimes when Weber arrives in a distant state, he tightens his outboard to the transom of his boat and fishes alone. Other times his son, Graig, 29, or daughter Kimbrilee, 32, a New York City attorney, fish with him.

Graig, who played baseball at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., and is the pitching coach for Macalester College in the Twin Cities, is with him this week in Alaska.

“I’ve fished a handful of states with my dad, some in the Upper Midwest, as well as Florida and now Alaska,’' Graig said. “My dad is a passionate guy, and fishing gives him purpose, which he likes. I think it helps him beat stress.’'

Ione Weber, Donn’s 90-year-old mother, is also in Alaska, fishing. She’s spry enough not only to catch salmon in the Kenai River, but to return to Minnesota with her son in his pickup.

“I’ve fished without a charter or guide in 42 of the 47 states I’ve been to so far,’' Donn Weber said. “Sometimes friends join me, including a couple of guys I call my ‘pseudo sons,’ Ben Mentzel and Jesse Bizzotto, who are also corrections officers.’'

Another officer Weber knew well was Joseph Parise, who suffered a heart attack after rushing to the aid of another officer who was being attacked by an inmate.

Parise, 37, a former Navy firefighter, had been a corrections officer at the Oak Park Heights prison four years. His death was ruled a homicide.

Weber was among those who spoke at Parise’s funeral.

“I became a corrections officer, frankly, because I wanted to get out of a job I was in 24 years ago and because the benefits and retirement looked good,’' Weber said. “During my career, the job has changed a lot. I’m a little heavier now, but when I worked, I was 6-1 and 255. I could be like a drill instructor — you do it my way or you pay the price.

“That’s all changed. Now they want corrections officers to use their intellect and socialization skills more than their brawn. There are plusses and minuses to that approach. It can work well unless 12 inmates want to start a riot.’'

Asked which state has been his favorite to fish, Weber said Alaska, hands down, then Minnesota and Montana.

Biggest surprises?

“Kansas has good fishing,’' he said. “And Wyoming? I never thought I’d have to go back there three times to catch a trout.’'

Hawaii will be Weber’s last state to fish and he hopes to be there this winter.

“Then, who knows, maybe I’ll fish every Canadian province, or perhaps other countries,’' he said. “I’ve met and enjoyed so many wonderful people.

“As I say, I’m not the same person I was before I retired.’'