Catholic Herald staff
For Dan Blank, the door was closing on 25 years as Douglas County district attorney.
Unseated in the 2016 primary election, Blank felt acutely the loss of his longtime job.
The aftermath, he said, left him “licking my wounds.”
But even before Blank could see it himself, his friends – most of them Catholic – were theorizing that perhaps God had another plan for him.
Then, Bishop James P. Powers offered him the position of director of administrative services for the Diocese of Superior, to replace retiring director, Richard “Dick” Lyons.
After prayer and discernment, Blank accepted.
“It was just a real honor to be approached,” he said. “I’m very humbled by the opportunity.”
Raised in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Blank moved to Superior after graduating from Marquette University Law School, Milwaukee, to take a job with a local law firm.
He was elected Douglas County district attorney in 1990, and stepped into the role in 1991.
He and his wife, Sue, checked out both the Cathedral and St. Francis Xavier when they were parish-hunting, he said. They were invited to join a RENEW group – a sort of evangelizing Bible study that was popular in the 1980s and 1990s – and most of the members were from St. Francis, so the Blanks joined the parish.
Later, daughters Danielle, 20, and Elisa, 15, attended Cathedral School, thus the family has been deeply involved in both parishes.
“I kind of feel like a dual citizen,” he added.
Educated in Catholic schools through high school, Blank is a strong believer in Catholic education. After the couple adopted their daughters, there was never any question where the girls would be educated.
“It’s sort of a payback to honor your parents who invested in you a Catholic education,” he said.
Ministry and missions
Blank is an active member of St. Francis, where he serves as a reader, eucharistic minister and confirmation teacher. He also has a passion for youth ministry.
In the ‘90s, when Fr. John Gerritts was associate pastor at Cathedral, Blank was coaching basketball for Cathedral middle-schoolers. Fr. Gerritts invited Blank to chaperone a youth group mission trip to inner-city Chicago, and he accepted.
It was a formative experience in his early adulthood, Blank said. They worked hard, visited the infamous Cabrini-Green housing project and mixed with people of other races and socioeconomic backgrounds.
“It was good for me, being an Iowa boy,” he said. “That was a major experience for me.”
His second youth group trip was a TEC – Teens Encounter Christ – weekend retreat.
Designed for teens, the retreats were also offered for adults who wanted to learn more about their faith. Blank attended a TEC retreat in high school, “but it didn’t take, as they say,” he explained. This time was different – “really powerful.”
Blank continued to join youth group activities, and he also worked with youths in the community through Kinship, Boys and Girls Club and the YMCA.
A member of the Rotary Club, Blank has also traveled to Guatemala to help with the organization’s philanthropic infrastructure projects.
Volunteer activities, both in the church and the community, led Blank to many positive interactions with others, sometimes in sharp contrast to his day job.
Although he felt called to public service and willingly bore the responsibilities, seeing the dark side of humanity sometimes left him heavy-hearted.
District attorney days
“Boy, humanity can be very difficult,” Blank said of his 25-year career as district attorney. “It was an outrageous character-building opportunity.”
Generations of dysfunction, poverty, crime, drugs, abuse, murders – district attorneys are immersed in the social, legal, medical and mental health problems of their communities, he said.
“All day, every day, crime and victimization and violence and depression,” he added. The challenge is to “keep your head up.”
Occasionally, there were bright spots. A woman Blank sent to prison came back later and hugged him; her access to drugs cut off, she’d reformed her life.
In those cases, he felt the satisfaction of being “a small piece of the solution.”
Personal attacks were the worst part, he said. Blank’s family was firebombed out of their house in the middle of the night in 2000, retaliation for the gang-related murder he was prosecuting.
His faith helped him through the ordeals, Blank said. It inspired a belief in mercy and second chances for those he prosecuted, and helped him foster a feeling of teamwork among his overworked, underpaid staff.
Taking the reins
Now, his faith will come to the forefront as he guides the employees of the Diocese of Superior.
Blank started his new job Jan. 2. He said he hopes to be as successful as Lyons, to be “Christ-like” in response to employees and conflicts.
“To follow in those footsteps I feel is going to be a great learning experience,” he added, “a great challenge.”
An extrovert, Blank is especially interested in getting out and meeting people, promoting vocations and continuing his involvement in youth ministry.
“I see my job as serving the diocese and the bishop, and being a team player with the staff,” he said.
His legal training has taught him critical analysis, fairness and clarity. With Catholic compassion and a heart for service, Blank said he will strive to be “the hands and feet of God” for the diocese.