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Pastor Dan Cloeter: a remarkable career of service and running

By Jacob Knabel on Jul. 28, 2020 in Cross Country

When the Concordia Athletic Hall of Fame honored its inaugural class in 1994, the inclusion of distance runner extraordinaire Dan Cloeter probably felt like something of a no-brainer. Twenty years earlier, Cloeter graduated from Concordia as the most accomplished distance runner the school had ever seen. It seemed fitting that he was inducted alongside another star runner in Kregg Einspahr (who came along later in the 1970s) a six-time national champion.

Since that time, Cloeter (pronounced clay-ter) has been the subject of numerous media articles from newspapers located in the areas where he has made his mark athletically, such as Chicago, Fort Wayne, Lincoln and St. Louis. Wherever the path has led him, Cloeter has gone on the run.

“It was just something we did,” Cloeter said in describing how running became part of life within his family. “I guess there were some (physical) gifts involved. I had some success on the track and it was something that came pretty naturally (to my younger brother Dave and I). We had each other to run with and to push each other. We both were slightly built and both had speed and endurance. It was enjoyable to us.”

Cloeter has found running so enjoyable that he once paced 4,000 miles per year for four-straight years as he prepared himself to compete at the Olympic Trials. Those efforts are part of an impressive post-collegiate running career that has included six marathon championships. As a Bulldog, Cloeter completed a four-year sweep of individual Nebraska Intercollegiate Athletic Conference cross country titles, captured five All-America awards (between cross country and track), won three NAIA District 11 championships and took first place at 39 of 45 college cross country meets.

At this stage of his life, Cloeter is less than a month away from retiring as pastor at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Osceola, Neb. He’s served as a pastor for 42 years as a chain in the six generations of Cloeters who have made worshipping God their vocation. Cloeter says he wanted to be a pastor ever since seventh grade and his experiences at Concordia only strengthened that aspiration.

“It’s somewhat of a Cloeter tradition,” he said in discussing his college decision. “It’s a well-known Concordia name for decades. Three of my four kids went there as well (in addition to his mother and father and several extended family members). My dad was in church work in Lutheran education and became a pastor. My sophomore year of high school my dad became the principal at Concordia High School and was the principal until it closed. I attended three years of high school and four years of college at Concordia. I knew about Concordia before we moved to Seward, of course.”

Cloeter won two two-mile high school state championships in Nebraska but received very little athletic recruiting interest from colleges. That did not phase Cloeter, who appreciated the environment that Concordia had to offer. Cross country coach Stan Brassie (a member of Halls of Fame at Concordia-Nebraska and Concordia University, Chicago) made a lasting impact upon Cloeter. In turn, Cloeter became a legendary Bulldog athlete. According to records that date back to 1969, Cloeter is the only NIAC/GPAC runner to win four-straight conference cross country titles.

Like many student-athletes who come through Concordia, Cloeter thinks more about the relationships he developed, rather than athletic feats that were a byproduct of his countless hours of pounding the pavement, quite literally.

“Even greater than personal accomplishments are the relationships,” Cloeter said. “Just awesome relationships and lifelong friends. There were a number of guys I went through Concordia High School and College with. Now that we’re pretty much all retirement age, we get together on Zoom periodically. These are guys I’d go to the wall for and deeply care about … of course my greatest joy was meeting my wife at Concordia.”

In the early years of his marriage, Cloeter trained somewhat obsessively. While living in Springfield, Ill., Cloeter had a part-time job at JCPenney’s and would run three-and-a-half miles to work and back. When he taught physical education at a Lutheran school in Fort Wayne, Cloeter ran seven miles back-and-forth from the seminary. As a young pastor, Cloeter was known to run five miles before leading church on Sundays. After services, he would run 20 more miles.

Cloeter won the first-ever Chicago marathon in 1977 and then won it again in 1979. He also took first in the Lincoln Marathon in 1979 and yes, again in 1981. His intense training allowed him to qualify for the 1980 Olympic Trials. Unfortunately, the U.S. boycotted the Olympics in Moscow due to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. Cloeter missed his opportunity to perhaps earn a spot on the Olympic team. He could not commit to the 1984 Olympics due to the growing demands of family and work life. The man who had earned sponsorships from Nike was getting out of the world of marathon training. (The sponsorship from Nike paid for shoes and travel expenses).

Cloeter was at peace with that decision. As quoted in the Columbus Telegram in 2014, Cloeter said, “I get a lot of peace and enjoyment from running but it’s not the peace that I have knowing my sins are forgiven because of my personal relationship with Jesus. Running is fleeting. Life is fleeting, but having a relationship with Jesus is forever.”

At the age of 61, Cloeter impressively galloped the Lincoln half marathon in a time of one hour, 39 minutes. In the present, 46 years since his graduation, Cloeter remains physically active as he nears retirement. His future plans are to continue his ministry while serving an organization called Food For The Poor. Cloeter would also like to get back into a bit more strenuous running routine once again.

Other plans include attending more Bulldog sporting events. Cloeter and his wife will retire to nearby Lincoln and keep a close eye on several Concordia sport programs. Cloeter very much adores Concordia’s commitment to a Christ-centered atmosphere. His status as an inaugural Concordia Athletic Hall of Fame inductee is something he still takes great pride in.

“Of all the years of Concordia’s history to be chosen in that first class – it’s hard to even express in words what it means to have that kind of respect from your peers,” Cloeter said. “That was very humbling because I think it not only deals with a person’s accomplishments but also their character.”

Not long after the Hall of Fame induction, Dan and his wife Marji were honored with an alumni award for ministry and mission service. As Cloeter puts it, “Ministry has been a blessing.” He added, “I’ve been able to do the best thing in the world: teach people God’s word.”