Fallen Hayfield police chief honored for sacrifice
Growing up the son of a law enforcement officer, Dodge County Sheriff Scott Rose knew Doug and Kathy Claassen.
Kathy worked at the Dodge County Sheriff’s Office, and both she and Doug were big supporters of the police and sheriff. But Rose said he didn’t know the rest of the story until much later.
Rose said he was talking with the Claassen’s daughter, Jean Allen, who works in administration for Dodge County, about Sheriff’s Capt. Loring Guenther, who had died of a heart attack in 2013. Rose and Jean had been friends since they were teens, so when Jean “said something to the effect that ‘I understand the challenges with my dad’s line-of-duty death,’” Rose was caught off guard.
As far as he’d known, Kathy Claassen was someone who worked with his dad, and Doug was a nice guy who, as long as he’d known him, was confined to a wheelchair.
Friday night, at the 2019 SE Minnesota National Police Week Memorial Service at Soldiers Field Veterans Memorial, former Hayfield Police Chief Douglas Claassen’s real story was be honored, Rose said, as it should have been years ago.
Rose said that on that day in 2013, he asked Jean what she meant about her dad, and the story came out.
On April 30, 1977, while trying to arrest a suspect after a car chase and eventual traffic stop, Doug was repeatedly kicked in the head by the suspect. While Doug went back to work after the incident, it didn’t take long for the pain to become nearly unbearable.
So, Claassen, then the chief of police in Hayfield (he’d also worked as a Claremont police officer and a Dodge County Sheriff’s deputy) went to the doctor and got the bad news. The pain was related to a spinal cord injury, and it was only a matter of time before he would be confined to a wheelchair.
By the time Rose, then a teenager, met Doug, the former peace officer was in that wheelchair. He had one arm, in a sling, that worked just a little and another that didn’t work at all.
“In spite of his physical condition, he was always upbeat and positive — always joking around and always let you know what he thought about things,” Rose said. “He enjoyed everyone’s company, especially law enforcement.”
That was true of both Claassens.
In the days before a Casey’s or Kwik Trip could be found in nearly every small town, Rose said there was really nowhere for a law enforcement officer to take a break in the middle of the night. So, Doug and Kathy left their porch light on all night and their door open for officers and deputies who needed some coffee or cookies or, in the summer, a bit of ice cream.
Doug’s slow decline
As it turns out, the Claassens were likely awake anyway.
Doug’s injuries affected more than just his mobility. His circulatory and respiratory systems were compromised. At night, he’d stop breathing, which kept Kathy awake to reposition him, Rose said.
Eventually, Doug had to sleep in a chair in the living room. Kathy slept nearby on a sofa. And every cop and deputy knew that porch light meant a welcome respite during a long night on duty.
“The guy sacrificed everything for the community he lived in,” Rose said.
Finally, after nearly 22 years from the night he pulled a suspect out of a car in a field east of Hayfield then got kicked in the head for his efforts, Doug Claassen died on March 13, 1999, from complications due to his injuries.
Family of service
“Until I was sheriff, I hadn’t known he was hurt in the line of duty,” Rose said.
The family never talked about how Doug had ended up in that wheelchair, they never complained about how that night had changed their lives, Rose said.
Seeing Doug Claassen honored during the memorial service Friday meant a lot to Rose, he said, and he hopes it meant more to Kathy, Jean and Jean’s brothers, Mark and Bill.
“For the longest time, they never got him recognized as a line-of-duty death,” Rose said.
Kathy worked for several sheriffs through the years but, Rose said, she always felt they were too busy to be bothered. And it took several years before Kathy received line-of-duty death benefits from the state and federal governments.
“For me it’s huge,” Rose said. “I thought, ‘You need to see him recognized.’”
Doug’s name was eventually added to the wall at the federal memorial in Washington, D.C., Rose said, and he helped make sure Kathy was flown out to a ceremony where Doug’s name was read. Friday’s ceremony is another step in that process of thanking Doug, Kathy and the whole family for Doug’s sacrifice, the sheriff said.
“It’s a pretty amazing story, I think, and it’s been missed so long,” Rose said. “It feels good to make that right for the family.”