Dante Stephensen ’58 was nearly expelled from Carleton his first year—for keeping a coyote on campus. “I saved him from a Minneapolis animal fair,” Stephensen explains. “His living conditions were horrible, so I traded something for his release and drove him back to campus in a friend’s father’s Cadillac.” Dean Casey Jarchow was not amused when he found the coyote living in a biology lab closet, and he threatened to expel Stephensen. Fortunately, President Larry Gould allowed the coyote safe haven on campus until Stephensen found him a permanent home on a Wisconsin farm.
The coyote story is one of many Stephensen can share about his adventurous life. Following Carleton, he enlisted in the National Guard and eventually joined the original team of Navy SEALs. He marched for civil rights in Atlanta in the early 1960s and worked for four railroads. Since 1982 he’s lived in an 820-square-foot railroad car (pictured above right), built for the Woolworth family in 1926.
A legend in Atlanta, Stephensen founded the nation’s longest-running live-jazz supper club, Dante’s Down the Hatch, an award-winning pirate-themed fondue restaurant that featured a rigged sailing ship and live crocodiles in an 18,000-gallon moat. Alas, a county tax hike forced him to close his doors and sell his property last July after 43 years in business. The restaurant’s contents were auctioned off and the building demolished to make room for high-rise apartments.
Before Stephensen’s next adventure (to be determined), we served him the Carl Quiz.
Famous guests: There were many: Candice Bergen, Burt Reynolds, Danny Kaye, John Travolta, Francis Ford Coppola, Bill Cosby, Morgan Freeman, Gladys Knight, Jimmy Carter, Newt Gingrich, and the list goes on.
Person living or dead who you wish had visited Dante’s: Red Skelton, my all-time favorite comedian. He never told a dirty joke.
Passionate about: Trains. During college, I worked summers for the railroad as a fireman, brakeman, and switchman.
First question you asked all job applicants: “What do you like about yourself?” It causes introspection. My second question was, “What don’t you like about yourself?” This reveals humility, which all successful people must have.
Greatest inspiration: My parents, both immigrants: my dad, a concert pianist from the Ukraine, and my mother, one of the nation’s earliest Montessori teachers, from Denmark.
Key to a good fondue: Meat
Why: Our beef came from Australia, where they produce the best beef in the world.
Secret to success: At my supper club, I would personally greet every customer. I’d start with the youngest person at each table to make kids feel important.