By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Kurt Siedschlaw was far from a model student when he started college.
He was on academic probation twice in his first two years at the University of South Dakota and almost flunked out.
“I didn’t know what I wanted,” said Siedschlaw, who was advised by his high school guidance counselor to join the military instead of attending college, but decided the university was a better first option than serving in the Vietnam War.
He was told he wouldn’t make it through college and admits he “just wanted the hell out.”
Then something unexpected happened. Siedschlaw took a criminal justice class during his sophomore year and everything clicked.
“That meant something to me,” he said.
He transferred to the now-defunct Huron College just up Highway 37 from his hometown of Woonsocket, South Dakota, and posted mostly As and Bs over the next 2 1/2 years, graduating in December 1971. Siedschlaw was the first member of his family to earn a college degree.
The longtime criminal justice professor at the University of Nebraska at Kearney learned early on to work hard for what you want and never settle for something less.
“I always told my students, don’t ever complain about where you’re working,” he said.
Instead, he added, find something you’re passionate about and pursue it.
For Siedschlaw, the road from the middle of pheasant country in eastern South Dakota took a lot of twists and turns before leading to a 29-year career at UNK.
Siedschlaw, one of six siblings, wanted to be a law enforcement officer, just like his older brother. He had an opportunity to join his brother in the South Dakota Highway Patrol, but turned it down to finish college.
After completing his bachelor’s degree, he was hired as a state probation and parole officer and graduated from the South Dakota law enforcement training academy in 1974.
His only time in uniform came in 1979, when Siedschlaw served as a sworn police officer for six days during the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.
He spent five years as a probation and parole officer before making the decision to attend graduate school at Michigan State University. Siedschlaw earned his master’s degree in criminal justice administration in December 1977, completing a thesis entitled “Parole Decision Making and the American Indian” and finishing with a 3.78 grade-point average.
“It all meant something. It all was important,” he said of his graduate school success.
Siedschlaw returned to South Dakota, helped start a support center for domestic violence victims and taught for three years at Huron College before life went another direction.
“I couldn’t afford to keep teaching,” he said. “I wasn’t making enough money.”
So, he gave manufacturing a shot and spent a few years in management positions before losing his job during an economic downturn. After a brief stint with an economic development planning district and discussions about joining a seminary, the man who once despised higher education enrolled in law school at the University of South Dakota.
That, too, was a struggle as Siedschlaw discovered he had a level of dyslexia that hampered his reading, but the 36-year-old with a wife and three kids knew he couldn’t quit.
He received his law degree in December 1988, passed the bar exam and was on his way to Kearney in spring 1989, six days after his fourth child was born.
“Did I always plan on teaching? No. That’s kind of where I was directed,” he said of the journey to UNK.
“That’s what I needed to do,” he added. “That’s what I was supposed to be doing.”
Siedschlaw has taught “everything” within the criminal justice department during his nearly three decades at UNK. Although he never became a law enforcement officer, he takes pride in knowing he helped prepare countless students for careers with agencies at the municipal, state and federal levels.
“I consider myself very privileged to be associated with these students over 29 years,” said Siedschlaw, who also had the opportunity to teach for five weeks at a police academy in Bogota, Colombia, and spent 10 years as an ombudsman officer at UNK.
Siedschlaw made his mark as a researcher, as well.
He was part of the team that laid the foundation for the Central Nebraska Drug Court, and he helped create the first juvenile justice plan for Buffalo County, which led to the establishment of youth diversion and truancy programs. Siedschlaw was hired by the Grand Island Police Department to complete a needs assessment that helped launch the state’s first federal drug task forc,e and he and fellow UNK professor Beth Wiersma were tasked by the governor’s office with evaluating the Work Ethic Camp in McCook. That review led to operational policy changes at the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services facility.
He studied the treatment of Native Americans for the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs, looked at misdemeanor offenses involving Hispanics and Latinos for the Nebraska Latino American Commission and was part of the group that wrote the state’s Native American family preservation plan.
The licensed attorney also serves as a court-appointed representative for children in abuse and neglect cases, a role he’ll maintain after retiring from UNK on Aug. 15, one week after his 69th birthday.
Siedschlaw said he’s been contemplating retirement for a couple of years. He’s had some health scares – thyroid cancer, prostate cancer and two heart attacks – and wants to try some new things before time runs out.
“I just want to do something else while I can still do it,” said Siedschlaw, who’s been married to his wife Joni Tschetter for 47 years.
Their son Seth, a UNK graduate and residential contractor, builds houses locally and Siedschlaw would like to give that a try.
“No shovels, no rakes, no heavy lifting, but last winter he bought a brand-new John Deere skid-steer I can run,” Siedschlaw said with a grin.
Position: Criminal justice professor
Years at UNK: 29
Education: Bachelor’s degree in sociology with an emphasis in criminal justice from Huron College; master’s degree in criminal justice administration from Michigan State University; law degree from the University of South Dakota School of Law.
Family: wife, Joni Tschetter; children, Alissa Marie of Des Moines, Iowa, Caleb of Dodge City, Kansas, Seth of Kearney and Maia of Kearney; and 13 grandchildren.
Fun fact: When he was 16 years old, Siedschlaw spent a summer working for a traveling carnival. He drove a semitrailer hauling a 12-ton Ferris wheel that was assembled at each stop. “You can’t do that today,” he said. “No 16-year-old is going to be allowed to do that.”