Father and sons prove that everyday heroes are a family affair

By Denise Lana,

Serving the public, shoulder to shoulder For Winneshiek County Sheriff Dan Marx (center), and his sons, Airman First Class James Marx (left) and Decorah Police Officer Will Marx (right), being a hero is doing small deeds every day with a conviction to serve and be something bigger than oneself. (Driftless Multimedia photo by Denise Lana)

Long before he wore a badge and became Winneshiek County Sheriff, a young Dan Marx knew he wanted to do something with his life that would be a service to others. Like many young men whose dreams are filled with images of firefighting, flashing ambulance lights and police car chases, Dan was drawn to emergency services, but specifically, he wanted to be in law enforcement. His dream was to wear a shiny badge and be the county sheriff, but as he progressed through high school, Dan’s plans pivoted. 

While still in high school, he set out to get his Emergency Medical Technician certification by taking night classes at Northeast Iowa Community College. Unfortunately, after receiving his EMT certification, Dan’s dreams of being an EMT came to an abrupt halt when he was stricken with severe motion sickness during his inaugural ambulance ride. 

In 1997 and fresh out of high school, Dan attended community college to study Criminal Justice and Police Science and got a job as a civilian jailer and reserve deputy with the Winneshiek County Sheriff’s Office. Juggling work with school, Dan caught the eye and heart of Mary Stromseth, and they started dating. 

After earning his degree, Dan became a bona fide law enforcement officer and signed with the Calmar Police Department. He and Mary married in 2000, and after two years with the Calmar Police Department, he spent one year with the Decorah Police Department before being hired on as a deputy with the Winneshiek County Sheriff’s Office in 2002. Along the way, Dan and Mary had two sons – James in 2003, and Will in 2005. 

Family values

Raising two sons was hectic, with Mary working at WinnMed as Marketing Director and Dan on call around the clock, often working late nights and weekends under stressful and traumatic circumstances accompanied by emotional and psychological strain. But they always took time to instill in their boys strong family values, deep faith, altruism and compassion. 

Big brother James, a get-it-done kind of boy, quiet and meticulous, always loved pirates and ships and thrived on structure and rules. Recalled Mary, “From a young age, his favorite movies were pirate and military movies. He would always tell us he was going to join the Navy.” 

Little brother Will, on the other hand, wasn’t afraid to color outside the lines. “Will was the polar opposite of James in some ways,” Dan recollected. “While both boys were watchdogs and protectors at heart, Will was never afraid to be near trouble. He was always on the fringes of it, defending what he felt was right.”

As his young sons grew and matured, Dan worried about their futures. 

“As a dad, naturally you want your kids to do better than you did. I worried about my sons’ safety and quality of life, and it was hard knowing the time would one day come when I wasn’t going to be able to walk my sons through decisions and protect them.”

James grew into a level-headed young man and discovered the Navy wouldn’t be the best fit for him but remained dead set on serving in some sort of military capacity. Before graduating high school, James decided to enter a delayed enlistment with the US Air Force, signing his agreement on April 1, 2020, and ensuring he would enlist after graduation. He also started dating Mackenzie Schrimer, whom he met during high school. Although Mackenzie knew ‘he had planned to sign his life away to the military,’
their relationship deepened. When James shared with her that he was nervous about having joined the Air Force and it interfering with their growing relationship, Mackenzie helped him stay focused on the big picture.

Said Mackenzie, “I told James, ‘You signed up for this, I came into the picture afterwards, and you need to follow through with it. I don’t want to stand in your way, you need to follow through with the decision you made for your life.’” 

That’s exactly what James did. After graduating from Decorah High School in 2020 and with Mackenzie by his side, James remained steadfast as he set off for basic training in Texas and school in Mississippi, James was stationed at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota. He and Mackenzie got married in fall 2023. 

Serve and protect

With James away from home and Will’s graduation on the horizon, more career decisions had to be decided. When not in high school, Will worked at the local funeral home and considered a possible career in mortuary services. Even though he wanted to do something in public service, law enforcement wasn’t then a serious option. 

“When working at the funeral home, I took tremendous pride in doing a service for others, but there was still a piece missing,” Will lamented. “I loved serving people, but I missed the protecting part, and it became apparent to me that through law enforcement, I could serve and protect.” 

Soon after graduating high school in 2023, an opening for a police officer came up at the Decorah Police Department. He applied and was accepted, and on April 1 this year Will was sworn in as a Decorah police officer. In May, he began the 16-week police academy in Johnston. Concurrently, he finished his associate’s degree in business administration from NICC and graduated in May.

“I always thought Will would make a good law enforcement officer. When Will said he wanted to go into law enforcement, I was extremely proud,” beamed Dan. “Most dads don’t get to work with their kids doing the same job — we understand what each other goes through.” 

Dan added, “One of Will’s biggest concerns was he feared people would think he already knew how to be a cop because his dad is the sheriff. He needed to be taught how to fill out a citation or approach a call, but as far as his common sense of the broader perspective, I think Will is way ahead of the curve. He’s lived and learned in our household. Things that officers with 10 years [of] experience have yet to learn.”

Will readily admits there are numerous boons to having the county sheriff for a father. When not at the police academy, Will runs through scenarios with Dan. He also credits his father for his strong foundation for law enforcement, and prides himself on being able to put his dad’s advice to use at work. 

“Will knows things that other officers at his level might not know, because he has lived it with his dad,” Mary said. “Even though he hasn’t been in the job for long, he understands things way beyond his years because of seeing his dad and learning how and why his dad handled different situations.” 

During Will’s first month on the job, he attended his first major vehicle accident that was being managed by Dan. 

According to Will, his father’s presence comforted him, not only seeing his dad in action but also knowing Dad had his back. Dan agrees, adding that it felt good being on the same call with his son, but felt professional and anything but a “father/son” situation.

“I am fortunate to have a close personal relationship with Dad on the job and outside of work,” Will expressed. “He has been in the field for nearly 30 years, and his experience is a priceless resource.” 

A family of service

When asked how Dan and Mary feel now about his sons and the career fields they have chosen, Dan smiles with pride. “Both boys, although unique in the paths they took, landed in service that was truly fitting for their personalities,” Dan declared. “They could have chosen the route of partying and drinking beer, but they both chose to follow a higher calling — our boys are out there laying their lives on the line every day.” 

Referring to her three boys’ crazy schedules and long workdays and the daily fear of harm or unwelcome news, Mary said, “It’s all I have known my adult life,” adding that as a mom, it’s been a bit of a journey “watching my sons grow and having to make that transition from taking care of them to them taking care of me.” 

Mom and dad are comforted by James being with Mackenzie, knowing he isn’t alone out there in the world. 

“She picked up where we left off,” Mary said. Dan added, “She has done the military with James, she is the poster child for the perfect military spouse!”

Future fears of Dan and Will stick with her as well. “I have not had to yet watch them both leave in the middle of the night to go to a hot call,” divulged Mary, continuing, “But there will be a day that comes where the call comes in and both Will and Dan leave — that will be my next milestone —a new chapter.”

Mary shared the story about when the family traveled to Ellsworth AFB to visit James and Mackenzie. James and his squad were playing flag football, and Dan and Will were invited to join him. 

“There was James, Dan and Will, walking together out onto the field, and as they stood side by side, James’ squad leader saw them — dad, older brother and younger brother — and they were all so alike. The leader laughed and exclaimed, ‘There’s more of them? There’s more Dan boys?’ It was so great watching the three of them together, it was like nothing had ever changed, they played football and arranged plays in their minds without having to even say anything to one another, so in sync and connected. They walk alike and act like, and even after two years of being apart, they just fell back into their groove.” 

“There is definitely a connection between the three of us,” Dan observed. “We all three were sworn in on April 1 of different years — totally coincidental!” 

Mackenzie summed it up best, saying, “Dan and Mary have instilled such strong values in their boys, through faith, through morals. To always do the right thing. To serve their community and their country and make everyone’s life the best it can be. All three of them do their part to make sure we are moving in the right direction so our kids, our grandkids, their grandkids, and so forth, have a better place to live.” 

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