'Mushin' Mortician' believes mental toughness gives him an edge

March 5, 2011 

Scott Janssen, the Anchorage funeral director who calls himself the Mushin' Mortician, is a dog driver who comes equipped with necklines and punchlines.

Asked if anyone's ever told him that the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is a stiff undertaking, the undertaker doesn't miss a beat.

"No," Janssen says with perfect timing, "but I'm dying to do it."

A man with an appreciation for the offbeat -- radio ads for his funeral homes are set to Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit in the Sky" -- Janssen is a rookie in the 39th Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

He said he briefly considered using a hearse as a dog truck, an idea deemed impractical, but his fancy dog truck leaves no doubt about the occupation of its owner. "The Mushin' Mortician" nickname appears prominently, as does the logo for Janssen's funeral home.

Gimmicks aside, Janssen is serious about his pursuit of sled-dog racing, just as he is determined to treat the dead with dignity.

He is a garrulous man who quotes Robert Service and is as apt to answer a question with an essay as he is a quip. He looks little like the man pictured in portrait hanging near the entrance to Evergreen Funeral Home, and not because he's gone gray since sitting for the photo.

The man in the photo is clean-cut and the man on his way to Nome has grown a goatee and has let his hair grow long for the first time since the 1970s. The man in the photo looks like a businessman. The man going to Nome looks like a musher.

Janssen is both businessman and musher, and he thinks his career as a funeral director and embalmer has given him an attitude that will help him on the 1,000-mile trip to Nome.

"The things we've seen, and the way people die -- right about the time you think you've seen it all, you see something new," he said. "I've seen things that psychologically some people would have a hard time getting through, and that gives me a mental toughness."

He vows he'll make it to the finish line, but he knows every musher thinks that until they break a leg or bust a sled or their dogs get sick.

His race could end "if something happens with the dogs, if something happens with the sled," he said, "but I'm not going to quit because of some psychological problem or physical problem. I broke my big toe three or four weeks ago, dislocated it, and it's duct-taped to two other toes right now. Things like that happen, and you need to keep going."

'I WAS HOOKED'

Janssen began his journey to this year's Iditarod almost as soon as he and his wife Debbie moved to Anchorage in 1985 for what they believed would be a two-year interlude from their life in Crookston, Minn.

On the first Saturday of March 1986, Janssen went downtown to check out the start of the Iditarod, kicking off a tradition that has yet to be interrupted.

About a 15 years ago while at the race, he heard Kasilof musher Paul Gebhardt talking and recognized a Minnesota accent. Janssen introduced himself, the two chatted, and Janssen told Gebhardt that if he ever needed a sponsor, to give him a call.

"We became the first funeral home to sponsor a musher in the Iditarod," Janssen said.

The sponsorship turned into a friendship, so much so that on Christmas Day of 2007, Gebhardt turned to Janssen for help during a tragedy. The previous day, Sarah Armstrong, the wife of Clam Gulch musher and 1984 Iditarod champion Dean Osmar, had died in a Sterling Highway car accident and Osmar had asked Gebhardt to make her coffin.

"I went down to Kasilof to give Paul some pointers on how to build a coffin, and late that night Paul said, 'You want to go mushing?' I said, 'You mean ride in the sled?' and he said, 'No, you take 14 dogs and I take 14 dogs.'

"I was hooked. ... That feeling of standing on the runners, there's no better feeling."

FIRST SLED DOG

About the same time Janssen became a sponsor for Gebhardt, a stray dog wandered into his family's yard -- and into its life. Named Thunder -- either for the sound he made when walking or for an AC/DC song, Janssen doesn't remember which -- the dog provided Janssen with his first taste of mushing.

"We lived on L Street and every winter we'd build a big igloo in our yard," Janssen said. "I was going to work one day and this big husky came running out of the igloo."

Debbie gave the skinny animal some dog food, and the family papered the neighborhood with "Dog found" signs while praying no one would come collect the dog. No one did, and Thunder was a member of the family for the next 12 years. When Anchorage was buried by a record snowfall on St. Patrick's Day of 2002, Janssen hitched Thunder to a sled and mushed to the Aurora Village Carrs.

"He was the best dog ever," said Janssen, who cried while remembering the dog who died in 2008. "And here we are three years later and one of the dogs who is taking me out in the ceremonial start is Thor, who in mythology is the god of thunder, and who is identical to Thunder. Sometimes I even slip and call him Thunder.

"It's weird how things work out. Some people call it fate, some call it a plan. I think things happen for a reason"

SETTING ROOTS IN ALASKA

Early in their marriage, Scott and Debbie's plans didn't remotely include Alaska.

The coupled married in 1980, during Debbie's senior year of high school -- even though, as Scott points out in case anyone is wondering, they didn't have to; daughters Angela, 25, and Chelsea, 20, were born years later.

They planned on living in Crookston forever. But they lived two houses away from a funeral director who convinced Janssen he'd be good at the job.

After studying mortuary science and graduating from the University of Minnesota, Janssen was ready to accept a job in the Twin Cities. Then Dick Rome, one of the original partners at Evergreen Funeral Home and a Minnesota man, came looking for morticians. Scott and Debbie decided they were up for a two-year adventure and headed north.

Two years turned into three, but the couple still planned to return to Minnesota. And again fate intervened. Dave Franke, the owner of the funeral home, died of a heart attack at age 60, and Janssen couldn't bear to leave. His employers and coworkers had become family, and he couldn't desert them.

About a week ago, Janssen had a dream that he was mushing across muskeg and out of nowhere was a huge house being painted by a man on a ladder. The man was Dave Franke.

"I put my snowhook down and he petted my swing dogs and I gave him a big hug. 'I think about you every day, Dave,' I told him. He said, 'I can't believe you're running the Iditarod.' ''

Janssen never got to say goodbye to Franke in life, but he did in that dream.

"If not for him, I wouldn't be on the runners," Janssen said, fighting back tears. "It's all those things, and how they come together, and how they're all tied to me running dogs. I'll be thinking about that dream during the hard times of the race."


Reach Beth Bragg at bbragg@adn.com or 257-4335.

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