For HOL Meats’ Denny Campbell, the blessings and gratitude are countless after surviving a frightening on-the-job heart seizure

By Louis Hoglund

Denny Campbell is a grateful guy this Thanksgiving. He collapsed from a heart seizure, right at this spot in the Heart O’ Lakes Quality Meats back shop in September, and was out cold for 14 minutes.
Thanks to fellow workers, emergency crews, and physicians—the 72-year-old was back to work in a matter of weeks.

“Professor” Denny Campbell is the most thankful guy around.

Number one, he successfully escaped Illinois for “God’s Country” Minnesota, about four decades ago. Number two, he’s thankful to the Stetz family for providing steady employment much of his good life in the lakes area. 

Also…by the way… he’s also thankful to be alive after a September heart seizure that killed him — for about 14 minutes. And—thankful to the enumerable folks who rescued him from the threshold to heaven’s door.

Thanksgiving 2022 is a bountiful time for Campbell; alive, well, and back on the job at Heart O’ Lakes Meats in Pelican Rapids—at age 72. 

“I wish I could shake everybody’s hand… I’m very thankful,” said Campbell. 

They call him “The Professor” because the entire crew at the HOL meat-cutting shop relies on his knowledge. Customers, too. Because the “Prof” can tell them how to cook just about anything. 

“I never thought he’d make it…He was dead,” said HOL Meats owner Jason Stetz. “I saw him take his last breath…I saw the color completely disappear from his face.” 

Campbell had just finished sharpening his knives first thing in the morning back in September. He was preparing to commence cutting when he collapsed. He banged his head on the floor, which opened a bloody wound. 

“I had a pretty good hole in my head,” said Campbell, who manages to find some humor in the near-fatal incident. “That’s the hole that knocked some of the dumbness out of me.”

First on Campbell’s Thanksgiving list: Heart O’ Lakes colleague Chad Werner, who had CPR training. He went to work immediately. Arriving quickly thereafter, Police Chief Jeff Stadum continued emergency treatment and confirmed, “I have a pulse.” 

Also responding rapidly, nine Pelican Rapids Volunteer firefighters and a Ringdahl Ambulance crew.

“Commotion” was how Jason Stetz described the scene at the shop. An understatement, especially for Denny’s wife, Becky—who was also there for the entire episode. Denny and Becky have the distinction of being a husband-wife butcher team—who have been cutting meat together for at least 20 of their 33 years together. 

The entire Heat O’ Lakes crew, pictured in the back shop with owner Jason Stetz, left. Most of the staff were on hand, preparing for a busy day, when Denny Campbell, foreground back, collapsed from a heart seizure in September.

With barely a heartbeat, Ringdahl ambulance rushed him to Detroit Lakes. 

“They didn’t think he’d even make it there,” said Becky. She fondly noted that Pelican firefighter Jason Fahje rode along in the ambulance. Jason told her later that he didn’t believe Denny would make it to the hospital alive, and he didn’t want her to be alone to receive the tragic news. 

Jason Stetz remembers vividly the solemn look on the Pelican firemen’s faces as the ambulance rolled out of the parking lot. Truth is, they didn’t think Denny Campbell would be back. 

But miracles happen, and that’s how everybody describes the life-and-near-death experience.

He was air-flighted to Fargo; and in less than three days—Denny was walking the hospital halls like a caged critter, anxious to get back to work.

“The doctors said they had never seen anybody at age 72 come out walking, talking…and now working!” said Jason Stetz. “He has nine lives!”

The medical professionals are also on Campbell’s Thanksgiving list.

“Miracle Man” Denny Campbell, in a plaid shirt, is thankful to be alive this holiday season. His Thanksgiving blessings and gratitudes are extended to a long list of folks, but for starters, Fellow Heart O’ Lakes Meats staffer Chad Werner, right, immediately began CPR after Campbell’s on-the-job heart seizure. Equally thankful is his wife, Becky Campbell, at left, who is also part of the Heart O’ Lakes crew and was on duty at the time of the medical emergency. Back left, Heart O’ Lakes owner Jason Stetz—thankful that Campbell survived and returned to the team.

“He’s so stubborn, he wanted to come back to work almost right away,” said Stetz. “I told him no way…Not until there is a ‘get out of jail free’ card from the doctors.”

So, Heart O’ Lakes forbade Campbell from coming near the place—for one full month. That was as long as they could fend off the old butcher. Now, he’s back full-time—working like a young man, thanks in part to the heart pacemaker.

With a half-century of meat-cutting experience, Campbell is a real pro. Add to that six years with the U.S. Navy back in the Vietnam era, where he had a commissary-food supply assignment. He was aboard ship from Florida to Iceland and other points and ports. His expertise was with the food supply chain, from the quartermasters to the sailors’ mess hall. 

He left Bloomington, Illinois, for the Pelican lakes area in 1980, and hardly looked back. He loves the lakes—and the people. 

“I couldn’t get over all the natural resources up here,” said Denny. His connection to the Stetz family spans nearly two decades. He was first hired by the late David Stetz, who operated Dave and Ted’s Meats in downtown Pelican until 1991. He continued working after the company closed, including Central Market in Detroit Lakes, and was basically retired—when Dave’s son, Jason, called him back into action.

“I was so appreciative of Jason’s dad giving me a chance up here,” said Denny. When Jason began planning to open HOL Meats, Denny was one of the first calls he made.

He married Becky, and they’ve been cutting meat ever since—together. Before regulations tightened up, Becky and Denny would process deer, on the side, for hunters. They handled up to 90 a year, and figured they processed 2.5 tons of venison ring sausage. 

And thanks to a whole lot of folks, Denny and Becky are the happiest pair of butchers in the world.