It was a mild and beautiful July morning in 2016 when I drove to Stillwater to see Tim Bromelkamp. After years of living the Washington, DC area, he and his wife, also a Minnesota native, moved back to the state with a baby in tow. They’ve had another child since, and chose the outer edges of town so to build their own house. Driving on the street of their house, indeed, I saw several construction vehicles and construction crews putting finishing touches to new abodes on both sides.
Tim was waiting for me in the front of the house, and we came inside and sat at the dining table that overlooked a beautiful and large backyard that bordered either a big pond or a small lake. There was a narrow cement pathway along the lake, and during our conversation I saw a young family riding their bikes. It was one of those ordinarily picturesque scenes in Minnesota: not spectacular and yet quite beautiful in its everydayness.
Tim told me that he talked with Steve Weinschenk earlier that morning and asked him to guess who was coming to his home. Steve was our classmate and a close buddy of Tim, and Steve said that of course he remembered me. Tim also said that John Reardon, another classmate, has his dental practice in Stillwater while living in a nearby town. He called John’s office, only to realize that it is closed on Friday.
I told Tim that I haven’t seen him since graduation, but I saw his parents two or three years later at a small gathering. I was in the seminary at the time, and Hank and Elaine Bromelkamps were involved with Sierra, a group of supporters of Catholic religious vocation. His father passed away in the late 1990s, Tim said, and his mother still lives in Rochester: at a retirement center and on the same floor “right across from the Muehlenbeins,” parents of another classmate. I knew that the Bromelkamps have only sons and no daughters, and thought there are seven in total. Tim corrected me that there are nine.
Tim and I chatted over coffee and some very good pastry. The conversation below has been edited and trimmed down for length and clarity.
Before Lourdes High School
Hoang: Since we’ve talked about your dad, let’s start with him… I knew that he was appointed to an educational consultant position in the government, but didn’t know that it was at the state level until you told me just now. I’d thought it was at the local level.
Bromelkamp: He was appointed by the governor to the state board of education. He was active in getting busing for Catholic schools. Back then the law didn’t allow using public school buses to transport students at private schools. My dad and other people argued that families of private school students paid taxes like everyone else, and students should get free busing like the public schools.
Fascinating. I’d thought he was active in the local board of education, but it was the state board. [Note: The state board usually had eight members, and Hank served from 1975 to 1983. At our high school, he was also a founding member of the Lourdes Foundation.]
Yeah. My dad and his allies eventually got the laws changed on busing… They tried vouchers for private schools too and it didn’t get passed. But the state changed the law to allow busing of students in Catholic schools.
Tell me about the background of your parents. You said they lived in New York for some time, but didn’t they come from here originally?
My dad came from Iowa my mom and dad was born in Iowa, in Dubuque in northeastern Iowa. When they got married, they moved to Poughkeepsie, NY because there was an IBM there. They were in Poughkeepsie for a few years, then they moved to Rochester because of the IBM here. Let’s see, they moved in 1964 and I was born in 1968. There were already seven boys, and I was number 8. They wanted to be closer to their parents, you know, in Iowa. Rochester was close.
That’s amazing, I already knew about all the boys and still find it amazing.
So, I am curious about you too.
Sure, ask any question.
So where did you come from in Vietnam?
Well, I was born during the Vietnam War. I came from South Vietnam, which was supported by the U.S. I came from a town not far from Saigon. The distance to Saigon is similar to from Stillwater to Minneapolis. After the war, there was a great deal discrimination against the people associated to the former regime. A lot of people went to prison. There were economic and political problems. The country’s economy was in shambles. It was like Venezuela now. And there was oppression of all sorts. So a lot of people left – escaped – and my family were among that wave.
Was your family associated with the [South Vietnamese] government?
My parents taught in the public school, so yes. They were grade school teachers. But they lost their jobs after the war. Well, my dad did. My mom could still teach. But my dad was an administrator and lost his job. The communist government gave it to a party member. He became a trader in the black market. Half of the family escaped by boat thanks to help from our relatives. My dad and my sister and I spent over a year in refugee camps before coming to the U.S., to Rochester. The rest of the family came in the early 1990s, in fact in 1990.
Where was the refugee camp?
In Indonesia. I often tell my students that one thing President Obama and I have in common is that both of us lived in Indonesia as kids. Very different circumstances, obviously, but the same country of Indonesia.
Was it scary?
No, it was the opposite. I know, it sounds funny. But it was an island, a tropical island. Beautiful beaches. There was no school. I loved it. [Laughs]
How’s about in Vietnam, when you were trying to leave?
Oh, sorry, you meant was Vietnam scary… Yeah, everything was done in secret so people wouldn’t get caught. So there was the fear of being arrested and put in prison.
What’s about during the war? Was there much fighting around where you lived?
We were in the city and there was little fighting in comparison in the countryside. The war also ended abruptly when the communists entered Saigon, so there wasn’t much bloodshed as it might have been in other circumstances.
High school & college
This is very interesting for me because at Lourdes you didn’t speak English well and it wasn’t possible to explain all this background.
Yeah, I remember our first year, there were a couple of juniors interviewing me for a class project. One was the [older] brother of Gina – oh, what’s her last name? She’s in our class. I remember his name was John but not their last name… Anyway, they interviewed me about my background but of course my English wasn’t good at the time and I explained little.
[Tim found the yearbooks and we saw that it was Gina Kapushman.]
Who are you in touch these days besides Steve?
John [Reardon] works in town. We ran cross-country together [at Lourdes]. He’s a good friend of mine now. Every year we go fishing and hunting up north with Gunnar Johnson, who’s a year older than us. Gunnar Johnson is the city attorney of Duluth, and he has a cabin up in the boundary waters in Babbitt. So we go fishing every year up there.
Very nice. Say hello to John for me. Wasn’t he our class president?
I think so… I talked with Steve this morning and he said of course he remembers you. I think people didn’t notice you because you didn’t speak much English.
Yes, I think it wasn’t until junior or senior year that I could talk more to the non-Vietnamese students, including Steve and you.
I remember Steve and I had some good laughs with you.
Yes, I remember he joked with me sometimes, pretty dry humor, ha.
One thing that Steve and I… You’re talking about memories of Lourdes memories… One thing that Steve and I used to do was going to the guidance counselor’s office and just sat in the chairs there. A counselor would come in and ask if we needed some help, and we always said that we’ve already been helped.
Haha, during open mods?
Yeah. We just wanted to sit in the guidance counselor’s room instead of going to some study hall.
Didn’t you both go to St. John’s [K-8] school?
What were you involved besides track at Lourdes?
I started out in basketball, ninth and tenth grades, the B Squad. After that, I went into track and cross country.
And you still keep it up today?
No. I stopped running the day I graduated. [Laughs] From college. I still did track and cross country in college, and I stopped running after college.
You went to St. John’s [University], right? I remember being at St. John’s during my last year in college. I went to St. Cloud State University for a conference and somehow ended up staying overnight at St. John’s. For some reason, I cannot remember how it happened, I was on the phone talking to Steve Muehlenbein. He invited me to a party, but it was a long day and I was too beat.
There were a lot of Lourdes people there. Steve… Paul Carpenter… I just saw him two weeks ago at the reunion, and I haven’t seen him since 1991. So it was very good seeing him.
What is he up to?
He’s teaching, well, he’s working at an English school in Moscow. I think he worked in Indonesia for a while as an English teacher. Now he’s been working in Moscow. I’m not sure that he’s teaching English as much anymore, but working on bringing more technology into the school. It’s a school for Americans and other English-speaking students, from embassies and English-speaking companies. They want to send their kids to an American-style school. He married someone from St. Ben’s, and his wife did the same thing.
So Paul went to St. John’s. And John Schaar, he’s in the Marines now. Tom McDonald. Paul Sadler. John Devlin.
Did Devlin play hockey?
No, John didn’t playing hockey. He ran cross-country.
Ok, I was thinking of Matt Mahoney.
Yeah, Mahoney played hockey. He’s out in Idaho or Utah, something like that. He and his brother started a restaurant out there.
After college: Alaska, France, Mankato, Rochester
After St. John’s, did you go Washington, DC right after St. John’s?
No. It’s kind of a long story… After graduating from St. John’s, I went to Alaska for the summer and worked in the fishing industry.
Oh, you did?
Yeah, it was a fish processing facility that processed salmon. I lived in a ten-men tent in the woods for about three and a half months. You know, I tried to go on an adventure after graduation and before I had to start my career. So that was fun. I drove with a couple of friends from St. John’s. We drove from Minneapolis to Anchorage; it’s a 65-hour drive. That was an adventure.
Did all three of you do fishing?
Ah, we were going to do it together. But they were a year younger than me, and they needed to save money for their senior year. When we got to Alaska, the fishermen were on strike and there was no work, no fish to work on. So they said, “We’re going to go camping at Denali National Park, and we’re going to see what happens.” About two weeks later, I got a postcard from them saying that they were going back to Minnesota. The original plan was that if anything happened, I’d stay in Alaska.
So I ended up in Alaska for two and half months, working at this fishing facility [later reopened]. Then I came home.
Great that it worked out. I lived in Seattle after college and unfortunately never made it to Alaska. But there were a lot of people traveling from Alaska and working in the fishing industry. There seems to be a pipeline between Seattle and Alaska.
The only time I was in Seattle was at the end of the summer in Alaska. I had to find a way to get home to Minnesota, and my brother gave me a frequent-mileage ticket from Seattle to Minneapolis on Northwest. The ticket only worked in the lower forty-eight states, so I had to get a ride from Anchorage to Seattle, which is like a 40-hour drive. I went with a buddy, then flew back to Minnesota.
Then I ended up going to France for five months to study more French. When I was at St. John’s, I did a semester abroad in France. When I was there [during semester abroad], I noticed there were two work-study kids, working in the library and the cafeteria. I asked them, you know, what are you doing? They said, “We do work-study and we get free tuition and free room and board. We just have to work for 20 hours a week.” So I thought, “That’s what I want to do after college.” When at St. John’s, I managed to get an invitation to go back to France for five months.
It was on the French Riviera and it was a pretty difficult place to be. I ended up studying a lot of French and ended up passing the French Proficiency Exam, the Alliance Française. I passed by one point. [Laughs] My certificate says assez bien, which means “good enough.” [Laughs]
Hilarious. So you studied political science and French at St. John’s…
Yeah, it was government and French. I was studying international relations… International business. It was kind of what I was interested in. The [First] Gulf War made me interested in international relations and national security. I thought, “Geez, I should find a way to get to DC to work on all this national security and diplomacy.” That’s what I had in my mind when I went to France the second time.
Then I got back from France, but I didn’t have any plan and I didn’t have money. Steve Weinschenk called me and said hey. He just bought an old church in Mankato, and he was remodeling it into apartments. He said, “Can you come and help me with the construction? You can live here for free.” So I took him up on the offer because it’s free rent. I moved to Mankato and I lived there for almost a year, I think. We knew where every happy hour was in town. Every night we went to a different happy hour. I think we only took Sunday night off.
Ha! Steve went to college in Mankato, right? He must have gotten a heads-up on where to go for happy hours.
Yeah, he went to Mankato State… That was the summer of 1992.
You had an eventful year: three very different places.
Yeah, I was in Alaska for the summer, then France, then the next summer in Mankato working and drinking with Steve Weinschenk… I didn’t have a car, and I was riding my bike around town one day. I rode the bike by the district office of Congressman Tim Penny.
Yeah yeah, I remember him. [Note: Tim Penny was the Congressman for southern Minnesota during my time in high school and college. He was the first Democrat to win reelection in a generally conservative district. He later became an independent and ran unsuccessfully for the governor’s seat in 2002.]
Well, I thought to myself, “I’m a government major so maybe I should go in there and see if there is any opportunity.” So I went in, and they said, “Actually we can use an intern.”
So I went to work for them as an intern: answering the phone, cutting newspaper clippings, etc. I was on the phone everyday, and talking to these young staffers on Capitol Hill, you know, Congressman Penny’s staffers. I didn’t realize that there were young people working in Washington, DC. So I got interested going to Washington.
But I didn’t know how… This is, you know, before the Internet, before cell phone, and I didn’t have a lot of information. So I started inquiring at Congressman Penny’s office about internships in DC, and they said you could apply but it would take time. He was a pretty established congressman, so it took six months or ten months to get signed up. You had to wait a while to get an internship with him, so it’s a long process.
Well, I noticed in the news that there was another congressman elected in November of ’92, Congressman David Minge from southwestern Minnesota. I thought to myself, “He’s a new guy, so I should try an internship there.” [Note: A Democrat, Minge represented this district until 2001, when he lost to a Republican. The following year, he was appointed by Gov. Jesse Ventura to the Minnesota Court of Appeals.]
About the same time, I went to a wedding in Chicago. It was Mike Bendel’s wedding. You remember Mike Bendel [also from the same class]?
Yeah, yeah, another track guy.
Yeah. So I went to his wedding and met Pat Steward and Gunnar Johnson there. Gunnar is a year older [and a class above], and Pat Steward is in our class. You remember Pat?
Yeah, he ran cross-country too. And is married to Patty?
Patty Greipp, yeah. So I saw them at the wedding. I said to them, “Where the heck are you and what the heck are you doing?” They said, “We’re living in Arlington, Virginia.” I asked, “Where the heck is that?” They said, “It’s right across the river from Washington, DC.” I said, “Well, that’s where I want to go.” “Well,” they said, “Why don’t you come and live with us and look for a job?” I said, “Ok.” This was December 1992, and I said, “Mark my word and give me three months. I need to save some money, but I’m going to come to DC and live with you guys.”
So I went back to Rochester and lived with my folks. I worked at Perkins during day as a cook. And I worked at Red Lobster’s at night as a waiter. I worked 80 hours a week and saved tons of money. After three months, I moved to Washington and got an internship with David Minge.
Life in Washington, DC
I lived with Gunnar and Pat… Actually I didn’t live with them. In the process, Pat found me a room in a house out there. It was in Georgetown. It was seven people living in the house. Cheap room, you know. I began interning for Minge. About three weeks after I started, the front desk person quit the job. I was sitting in the hot seat, and the Chief of Staff came and said, “Tim, you look for a job, right?” I said, “Yeeah.” So they hired me on. I was at the right place at the right time.
Wow, smooth. Was the internship supposed to be a year?
No, three months. But it was only three weeks after I started, so I didn’t even do most of the internship. That’s I wanted, you know, going out there to be hired for a job. This is, you know, two years after graduating from college, so I was “old” to be an intern. But I knew it was a way to get my foot in the door. So I worked for Congressman Minge for four years. Then I wanted to work more in defense stuff, and I went to work for a congressman from Texas by the name of Chet Edwards. He had Fort Hood in his district… [Note: Edwards represented his district during 1991-2011.]
Which committees was he in?
He was on the Appropriations Committee, and the Subcommittee on Military Constructions, which is facility stuff. He had Fort Hood is in his district, which is the largest army installation in the U.S. So I was very up to my ears in military stuff in that office, and I worked for him for three years.
Then I was recruited by a company to work at the Pentagon, for army leaders, as a contractor. The title they called me was “congressional analyst.” I helped the army leaders understand the Congressional activities, you know, like the legislation, the budgets, the committee reports… I would help translate that to the people in the Pentagon.
I did that for five years, at the army headquarters. Then in 2006, I went out to work as a lobbyist for a small lobbying firm: defense appropriations, getting defense spending for my clients. Then in 2009, I started my own consulting firm. That’s what I’ve been doing ever since.
So the bulk of your work in defense came from…
Well, I started working for Congressman Edwards in July 1997. So I’ve got almost twenty years of working with defense stuff. I did a little work on defense for Congressman Minge, but he wasn’t too interested in it. So it was only a smattering of defense work.
To the extent you can tell, what does your work consist of?
That’s a good question. Really, I do two things. Number one is that I do congressional lobby. I try to get members of Congress to support my client projects. Maybe my clients have a new technology, but the Department of Defense isn’t embracing it. So we try to get members of the Congress to write a letter, make a phone call, make some influence on the Pentagon to consider this new technology.
So consultancy means lobbying in this case?
Well, lobbying is a form of consulting; it’s one of two things that I do. The second thing I do is what we call “business development” consulting. That’s when… We’ll simply connect my clients with a customer in the government with a problem. A client comes to me with a new widget for a function, and wants to sell it to the Department of Defense. So I’d leverage my experience and my knowledge of the government to find the customer who needs that.
For example, they might have some kind of UAV – unmanned aerial vehicle – and there is somebody in the government who has requirements for that type of equipment, to do surveillance or whatever. So I’d get an opportunity for my client to go in and give a technical briefing, and hopefully the customer gets interested that they want to buy it.
It’s very similar to lobbying, but lobbying has some specific requirements or criteria. I mean, if you talk to members of Congress, or the Congressional staff, or committee staff, or the top leaders of the agency such as the Secretary of Defense… if you’re talking to them, it’s lobbying. But if you talk to mid-level program managers at the Pentagon, that is business development consulting.
[Click here, Tim’s business website, to read more about his work.]
Chance meeting at airport & back to Minnesota
Why did you and your wife decide to move back to Minnesota?
My wife is from around here, Brooklyn Park. All of our relatives are in Minnesota. So when our oldest was born in 2011, we thought, well, we should find a way to be closer to grandpa and grandma, you know. My mom is 88 now, still doing well. She lives at Madonna House in downtown. You know Madonna House?
Oh yeah. In fact, before moving to California I was there for a couple of times, visiting the man who used to be director of refugee resettlement for the Rochester area. Madonna is a good place.
When I started my firm in 2009, I realized that most of my work was done over the phone and email. I don’t do a lot of face-to-face meetings, so I figured I could do it anywhere that there is a major airport. Now I fly about once a month. I’d go to Washington or another military installation around the country and have a face-to-face meeting.
Did you meet your wife in Minnesota or in DC?
We actually met in the Pittsburgh airport.
She was flying from North Carolina to Minnesota to go to wedding. And I was flying home to go on a boundary water trip. We were on a connecting flight on U.S. Air. We met while waiting for the connecting flight. She was working in North Carolina, but she was moving back to Minnesota [shortly after we met] to be with her mother who was ill with cancer. That was 2002. After her mother passed away she moved to DC, and we got married in 2003.
So interesting. And of course Pittsburgh because there must be many connecting flights from DC… You know, Tim, yours must be the first marriage I know that began at an airport. Two strangers too, not like two people working at the same airport.
Yeah. We’ve a lot in common. She’s very outdoorsy like me. At the time she was taking school children to coastal marshes to learn about the environment. I’m a big canoer in the boundary waters. From 1989 to 2009, my brothers and I went to the boundary waters almost every year. I’m the one who usually organized the trip.
I remember after you emailed me back then, I looked up your name online and saw an article about your involvement in canoeing or something like that in Washington, DC…
Yeah, it was a little different… In DC, I did a lot of whitewater kayaking. A lot of it was in the Potomac River, but also in the Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia and Pennsylvania. For about ten years, kayaked a lot and made my way up. I was at kayak class five rapids, which is kind of an expert level. It got to the point that the next level up is very dangerous. I still have my kayak, but I haven’t done it for a few years.
Is there anything like that around here?
There’s some good whitewater up by Duluth, but not as out in the DC area. In the DC area, the water is like ten out of ten because it is so close to the mountains. In Minnesota, it was maybe three out of ten here because there isn’t much of mountain.
I haven’t been to the boundary waters in a few years because of little kids. But, you know, my boy will be six and half next summer. So I think we’ll go for a couple of nights.
Tim and I chatted for a little more and took a selfie before I headed out. We mentioned the names of a few other classmates and teachers at Lourdes. It was really good seeing him after all these years. Check out his website at http://www.bromelkampgr.com.