OWATONNA — Even founding member Don Matejcek admits that Owatonna is a weird place for Minnesota's largest diving club.
The Owatonna Diving Club, which started 50 years ago as a way for local divers to get an air compressor for their tanks, held a banquet last weekend to celebrate its five decades in existence.
Matejcek, whose son Troy was named diver of the year, is the last original member still active in the club. He said he was surprised to see the club persevere through the years, especially when numbers slid in the early 1980s.
“(The diving club) has had ups and down,” Don said. “In the 1980s, the old-timers from the 1960s and ’70s started backing down and it was hard to get new people.”
Don Matejcek said led by his son Troy, Tom Stephan, Leon Ellis and the Morris family, the club took off again in the late 1980s. Today, the Owatonna Diving Club is the oldest and still the biggest diving club in Minnesota, with 90 families, some of which are from Lakeville, Farmington, Austin, Mankato and Rochester.
“You could call us the Southern Minnesota Diving Club, but it all started in Owatonna, so we are the Owatonna Diving Club,” Stephen said.
Scuba diving got started in Owatonna in 1961 when local teacher John Kroke, who enjoyed diving in Florida in the summer, and local toy store owner Jim Daly decided to teach a scuba class as a community education course. Don Matejcek was in that class.
Matejcek said most people taking the class were law enforcement and firemen or civil defense officers. He was one of a few who took the course for sport.
After two years of large classes, Matejcek was part of a group that started the Owatonna Diving Club in 1963.
“The main reason for starting the club was, before the club, for us to get air we had to drive to Rochester to its fire department," Matejcek said. "We had to put our tanks into the trucks, drive over there and wait three to four hours to get a few tanks filled. We just wanted to get a compressor of our own to fill the tanks.”
Whereas several places in Minnesota offered “rushed weekend classes,” said Stephan, Owatonna offered a 10-session, in-depth course, which has been very popular through the years. The club still offers two winter courses. In the 1960s when the classes started, there would be 30 in each class. Many of the students eventually joined the club, and in the 1970s, the Owatonna Diving Club grew to 120 families.
The classes have continued for 50 years, although fewer now sign up. Forty years ago, more than 60 would sign up. Now, the number is closer to 20.
Matejcek and Stephan said the sport’s rising costs has made it tough to scuba dive for young newcomers. Matejeck said 50 years ago when he bought his gear, it costs roughly $100. Now, $100 doesn’t get much.
“Back then, it was way cheaper,” Matejcek said. “It was $15 to $20 for the course. Now, it’s $300.”
Waseca resident Corey Monahan is the current instructor.
Along with holding classes for certification, the group plans several trips. The group will travel to the Minnesota North Shore, Lake Superior and Lake Michigan. The Lake Michigan trips allow divers to investigate ship wrecks.
“My love of diving was always the shipwrecks of the Great Lakes,” Matejcek said. “I just love the history of the wrecks. It’s so peaceful and quiet and you never know what you are going to find. You always find something new.”
Matejcek — who bought his first dry suit, a necessity in the cold Minnesota water, in 1973 — still dives 52 years after signing up for a scuba class.
“The diving club has been resilient,” he said. “It has just kept going. People would be surprised that Owatonna has a club. It’s a weird place, but it just keeps going.”
Reach reporter Derek Sullivan at 444-2372, or follow him on Twitter @OPPSullivan