DULUTH, Minn. — After providing 24 years of military service to his country, Anthony “Tony” Klar is looking forward to a new career of service, assisting veterans, their families and others in need of a little support.
The 51-year-old Moose Lake man graduated from the College of St. Scholastica summa cum laude this weekend with a double major in management and organizational behavior. He was just one of the 822 people who walked across the stage at Amsoil Arena on Sunday afternoon to receive their degrees from the private college.
Klar already has been accepted for fall enrollment in the master’s degree program in social work at St. Scholastica.
“I’m so thankful that St. Scholastica, the GI Bill and the good Lord have all provided me with this opportunity to help other people,” he said.
As a sergeant in the Army and Army Reserve, Klar said he gained firsthand knowledge of how combat stress and separation from loved ones back home can take a toll.
“I want to help not only service members but their families, too,” he said.
A recipient of the Bronze Star, Klar served three tours of duty in combat zones, including two deployments to Iraq and one in Kosovo.
After retiring from the military in 2010, Klar, who was working as a facility and distribution manager for Bernick’s Beverages and Vending, enrolled in night classes at St. Scholastica. Initially he aimed for a management degree, but he soon took an interest in psychology, prompting him to adopt a second major in organizational behavior.
Klar said the death of his 28-year-old son, Joseph, in a September 2012 traffic accident also convinced him to pursue a degree in social work.
“Joe was a good son and a loving father, but he struggled with some substance-abuse issues,” Klar said. “After losing him, my whole goal is to help anyone else that I possibly can.”
Klar said his own sense of grief was complicated by his service abroad.
“I felt guilty about not being here for my son when he got involved in some of this stuff. If I had been around more, maybe I could have helped,” he said.
Although he attended classes in Hinckley, Klar never earned a high school diploma. Instead, he settled for an equivalency certificate, following a successful round of General Educational Development testing.
Klar admitted to feeling uneasy about returning to a formal classroom.
“I was pretty nervous, but all my instructors were excellent,” he said. “They were willing to provide me with a lot of one-on-one help, and I think that’s a big part of what allowed me to get the grades I achieved.”
Klar graduated with a grade-point average of 3.9.
Dave Lucia, one of his instructors, said it was clear that as a non-traditional student, Klar initially felt out of his element.
“He struggled a little bit at first,” he said.
But Lucia was struck by Klar’s determination.
“Tony put a lot of work into his studies, and that impressed me from the very beginning,” Lucia said.
As Klar advanced in his studies, Lucia said he saw his confidence grow.
Tabitha Eskuri, Klar’s 31-year-old daughter, lives with her father and daughters Jade and Taylor, ages 10 and 6, respectively. She worried at first that he might have been taking on too big a challenge.
“I thought he was a little crazy, when he first told me he wanted to earn two degrees in 2½ years,” Eskuri said.
But she said her father never wavered in his commitment, often continuing his schoolwork deep into the night. On the brink of his graduation Sunday, Eskuri observed: “He’s pretty amazing.”
The way Klar handled the tragic death of his son also made an impression on Lucia, who said he believes his former student will be able to draw from a valuable set of life experiences in his future work as a social worker.
“He has been there, and largely because of that I think he brings a true sense of empathy to the table. I think he will have the ability to understand where a person is coming from and the ability to help based on his own personal experience combined with what he learns through his academic studies,” Lucia said.
In October, Klar left Bernick’s to take a job with the Minnesota Sex Offender Program in Moose Lake. He hopes the position will help him get his foot in the door for other roles with Minnesota Department of Human Services in the future, once he is a credentialed social worker.
Eskuri contends her father is uniquely suited for the next chapter of his career in social work.
“I think he will do very well. He has one of the biggest hearts of anyone I know,” she said. “If anyone can help you, he can.”