Dave Paulson just can’t get away from Brooklyn Center.
The 1986 Brooklyn Center High School graduate, now age 44, has 20 years of service in the U.S. Navy and a world of travels under his belt that he is putting to use working at his alma mater. He started as a groundskeeper and bus driver in the district in 1997, an opportunity that is the culmination of a journey dating back to before he could vote.
Paulson enlisted in the United States Navy during the middle of his senior year at the high school. He attended Earle Brown Elementary School through fourth grade and then private school before returning to the high school for his last year.
By the time he knew the date he would receive his diploma, Paulson also had the date he was to report to basic training in Orlando. A number of factors contributed to Paulson’s decision to enlist in the Navy.
There is military service among Paulson’s relatives, including his father and several uncles on his mother’s side, he said. Then, a friend from high school joined the Navy during junior year and mailed Paulson postcards from faraway places.
Before he knew it, Paulson had scheduled departure from Minnesota to begin the next chapter of his life.
“Nobody pushed me that way. It was a decision I definitely made on my own,” Paulson said.
The decision was a surprise – literally – to Paulson’s parents, Wayne and Marion. They still live in the home where Dave and his sister Janice were raised.
“We actually didn’t know he went to the recruiting office and signed up,” Marion said. “We weren’t particularly happy about it because he wasn’t 18. We just thought he was making a mistake, but it worked out beautifully.”
Dave’s enlistment did mean his parents would not see him a lot while serving active duty across the country and world for the next 10 years.
The Navy provided discounted travel for families of the basic training graduates, and Wayne and Marion were able to see the ceremony.
Dave relocated to San Diego, Calif., after one year in Florida to work on the USS Henry B. Wilson, a ship used in the Vietnam War and decommissioned from service in October 1989.
He said he learned skills to be a machinist and engineer to take ships out of service before they were sold to the army in other countries such as Brazil, Greece and Turkey.
Paulson traveled with his crew to Australia, Thailand and Hong Kong and eventually taught engineering classes to other Navy service members, he said. “The most impact it had was going to instructor training school and learning to teach,” Paulson said of his service in the Navy.
His skills also led him to serve one year in Kuwait in 2006.
By then, Paulson and his former wife Debra had already moved back to Minnesota from the west coast. They had a son, Samuel, who is now in college, and adopted another son, 13-year-old Rick.
Family, with his parents still living in Brooklyn Center, was the reason Paulson said he moved back to Minnesota after nearly 10 years in the Navy.
He continued his service career through the Navy reserves, leading to his duty in Kuwait as well as several trips to New York for Fleet Week and helping to teach other ship engineers.
Paulson’s sons were 15 and 9 while he was in Kuwait and he said they changed a lot in one year.
The challenge, whether completing service during a conflict or not, is being away from home, Paulson said.
Support in Brooklyn Center
But Paulson has a support system in his hometown and through his career in the Brooklyn Center School District.
Well before he retired from the Navy, in 2009, Paulson found a career where he could use his engineering skills. His parents’ neighbor worked for the school district at the time and knew they needed a custodian. Seventeen years later, Paulson splits his days between school bus routes and repairs to the district’s maintenance vehicles.
The school bus routes are his favorite part of Paulson’s job because of the students he has been able to see grow up over the years, he said. “I tell people that’s the best part of my job,” he said.
He added that it was always helpful to have a supportive employer in the Brooklyn Center School District while he was in the Navy. He would have to leave work for service, often on short notice, but a replacement was always available as well as his job when he returned.
“I’ve seen how having a supportive employer back home is really important,” Paulson said.
Advice for young minds
Paulson has not persuaded his sons to consider any kind of military service, but said he does want to advise them and students in the school district to take opportunities and chances.
“I wouldn’t change it for the world,” Paulson said of his time in the Navy. “I’ve had so many great opportunities.”
Looking back, he said he enjoyed his Navy service from the beginning, including the intensive basic training and boot camp.
“I grew up in a pretty strict household and then I went to private school, so I think I was more prepared for it than most people,” he said.
Now Paulson loves telling his story and talking with other people with a service background.
Brooklyn Center High School Principal invited Paulson to speak at a recent Rotary Club meeting. He said he created a quiz about Navy terminology for the meeting and encountered people with their own stories to tell too. He shared pictures from his childhood and service in the Navy.
Sorensen said Paulson exhibits a strong sense of “Centaur Pride” to the staff in the district, referencing Brooklyn Center’s mascot.
“I gained a stronger sense of appreciation for how hard our servicemen and women work to protect freedom,” Sorensen said.
“Dave’s work at the high school is tireless and he has a sense of pride in a job well done,” Sorensen said.
Contact Katy Zillmer at [email protected]