Easter’s message of hope and renewal could be a difficult pill to swallow for the Dan Hoehn family. But Kendra Hoehn, wife and mother of five, keeps the faith.
Dan keeps battling the ravaging pancreatic cancer that has hospitalized him often since a startling Jan. 20 diagnosis and has kept him from the community involvement that became so commonplace for this Waseca attorney and new Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton School Board member.
The communities and organizations he loves have rallied around him and the Hoehn family. A cancer relief benefit has been planned for Sunday, April 19, at Trinity Lutheran Church in Janesville. The benefit will feature a brunch and silent auction and is expected to draw 500 to 1,000, according to Kendra’s sister, Lindsay Kagol, who has spearheaded the event.
“It’s overwhelming,” said Dan, who returned Wednesday afternoon from the Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato and a third round of chemotherapy. “It’s amazing how people have been and I’m thankful for the amount of support, even from people we don’t even know. It’s all helpful.”
For Kendra and the five Hoehn children, ages 4 to 12, their simple hope is that Dan will be able to attend. Dan struggled mightily with each round of chemo, Kendra said. Round four was expected to begin April 7, but Kendra said they might hold off in hopes Dan is strong enough to attend the April 19 benefit.
Five weeks of radiation would follow the fourth round of chemo, Kendra added, and if Dan then regains enough strength, doctors have suggested the Whipple procedure, an extremely complex and difficult surgery in which the head of the pancreas, gallbladder and portions of the small intestine are removed.
“If everything went great, he could have years,” Kendra said. But she hasn’t hidden from the fact that pancreatic cancer is fast-moving with poor survival rates.
“Unfortunately, it’s just gotten worse. Every day, he hopes to get out (of the hospital) the next day. We’ve really had to just take things a day at a time. It’s definitely been a long road.”
And the Hoehns have not kept the difficult news from the children.
“Pancreatic cancer,” Kendra started, needing to pause. “Some people have lived a couple years.”
But for Dan, the family knows it might only be months, maybe just weeks.
“We know the odds aren’t the greatest,” Dan said. “We also have faith. At times we’re going to be sad, but we’re still going. Even if things turn out for the worst, you’ve got to keep going.”
The strength of wife, mother, family
The Hoehns’ five children spread out on two sofas in their rural Waseca home, located 7.5 miles from Janesville, 8.5 from Waseca. It’s near a state wildlife management area, a country home that Dan always dreamed of building.
Daughter Regan, at 12, the oldest and a seventh-grader at Trinity Lutheran School, talked of the family’s bucket list. While the youngest, Samuel, 4, dreamed of Walt Disney World, Regan’s hope for a simpler Duluth trip reveals the reality of her father’s prognosis and condition.
Kendra, head cook at the Trinity Lutheran School where her family has a five-generation history, looks amazingly strong through it all. But says, “children shouldn’t have to already be worrying about bucket lists.”
“My oldest daughter started it,” Dan noted. “Sat down and started writing down a list of things we should do.”
Dan, 47, and Kendra have been married 19 years. He’s an Elysian native, she’s from Janesville. They met while both worked at Brown Printing in Waseca. Dan earned his bachelor’s from Minnesota State University, Mankato and law degree from William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul. After living and working briefly in the metro area, the Hoehns came home.
Dan wanted to practice law in rural Minnesota, hopefully close to home. The couple settled first into North Mankato. In 2011, Dan started his own firm in Waseca and moved to the area. And in August 2013, he merged his law firm with Robert Schmidt’s.
Dan is the son of Jim and Janell Hoehn of Elysian; Kendra is the daughter of Richard and Luane Adams of Janesville. The Hoehn children are Regan (12), Brennan (11), twins Carter and Madeline (8), and Samuel (4).
While Dan’s pancreatic cancer prognosis didn’t hit until late January, “he hadn’t been feeling well since August,” Kendra said. An initial trip to St. Mary’s Hospital in Rochester noted problems with Dan’s gallbladder, which was removed just prior to Christmas. But because physicians thought that was causing Dan’s severe pain, there seemed to be no need to look further, said Kendra.
“They actually think he’s probably had the cancer for years,” she added.
After calling their parents, the Hoehns broke the news to the children.
“We sat down with the kids when we got the news,” Kendra said. While the children have handled it well, it was a “very sad” moment for the family. But Dan and Kendra agreed that honesty with the children was important. Still, it was tough, she said.
“It’s definitely a shock,” Kendra said. “I didn’t know what to think right away. Hearing those words are a shock. You think of the lifelong memories that he won’t be around for.”
The support community
Dan Hoehn took little time to jump into the Janesville and Waseca communities. It’s why he entered the practice of law, to return close to home and make a difference in diverse ways.
He has been active on the Waseca Chamber of Commerce board, moving up to chairman in January. In November, Dan was elected to his first term on the Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton School Board. He’s also been active with the Waseca Rotary, St. Anne’s Catholic Church in Janesville and given countless hours to a personal love of his, the Elysian Library Board.
“He feels real bad he hasn’t been able to stay active,” Kendra said. “He’s really enjoyed it. He’s hoping to stay on the School Board was long as he can.”
Kelly Heitkamp, JWP School Board chairman, said he’s only known Dan Hoehn for a short time, “but I could tell that (he) would be a fantastic school board member.”
“We can just keep him and his family in our prayers and hope things can turn around.”
JWP Superintendent Bill Adams was stunned by the news, having known Dan for years and was excited about his presence on the board.
“He has a vested interest in the school district happenings with five kids,” Adams said. “But he obviously hoped to shape the future not only for his kids but for the other kids in the school district, too.”
Despite Dan’s deteriorating health, Adams said he consistently keeps in touch via email and phone.
“He wants to stay in the loop with the things going on in the school district. I was really looking forward to having him on the school board with his legal experience.”
Adams gives plenty of praise, as well, to Kendra and the children.
“His wife obviously has helped keep things together,” he noted. “They look at the positives and keep focused. They’re very strong.”
Law partner Robert Schmidt agreed.
“She’s a wonderful lady,” he said of Kendra. “She’s been an absolute rock for Dan. I’ve got the greatest admiration for her.”
Schmidt had little time to settle into the merged law practice with Dan, but his partner’s passion for community service shined bright. Now, “it’s tough to walk in and look to his office and he’s not there.”
“In the relatively short time he’s been here, he’s really impacted a lot of people. That was one of the things that I found out about Dan. He understood what it is to be an attorney in a small town.”
Kim Foels, Waseca Chamber of Commerce executive director, shared similar sentiments.
“I’d been so looking forward to this year,” she said, as Dan was beginning tenure as chairman in January. “He’s very, very passionate about the agribusiness community. His leadership style is a listener, but he’ll speak up when action needs to happen. He’s a very fascinating gentleman.”
Foels thinks of him often and believes “there’s miracles in every day.”
“We think of him daily and our thoughts and prayers are with his family. A lot of things were falling into place for him to truly make a difference.”
The road ahead
Kendra’s sister, Lindsay, is aware of the odds with pancreatic cancer. And the costs. The April 19 benefit will help, but the medical expenses keep mounting.
Lindsay also hopes Dan will be strong enough to attend the benefit.
But she’s also been keeping tabs on sister Kendra. Or maybe it’s the other way, she noted.
“She’s very strong,” Lindsay said. “She’s very hard-working. When something like this happens, her first thought is, ‘What have I got to do.’ And her first fear was, ‘How do I take care of the kids?’ “
Kendra said it’s day-by-day.
And Dan knows that the bucket list needs to stay simple.
“None of it’s too extravagant,” Dan said. “In the end, it’s the kids. It’s the time that matters.”