Fifty years after Mayer resident Stan Heldt first started teaching DNR firearms safety classes, he still recalls with ease what first inspired him to begin sharing his expertise with youngsters in the community.
As a child himself, Heldt’s father was never a hunter. In fact, Heldt says he can’t recall an instance when his father ever even fired a gun.
Instead, it was Heldt’s own firearms safety instructors that took him under their wings, passing along a love for hunting that Heldt has in turn passed on to countless others during his five decades as an instructor.
“Wimpy Rolf and Ray Dummer were sort of my hunting fathers, and of course, they also did firearms training,” said Heldt. “I became good friends with them and hunted with them over the years.”
Heldt said he believes Rolf and Dummer were widely responsible for starting the firearms safety program in the Mayer area. But what those two men started, Heldt has carried on with a passion.
Fifty years after becoming certified as an instructor, Heldt is being honored for his five decades of service during an open house on Sunday, Oct. 20. Refreshments will be served at the event, which will run from 1-3 p.m. at the Mayer New Germany Sportsmen Club, with a program at 1:30 p.m. All DNR firearms safety trainers in attendance will also be recognized during the event.
Heldt said that when he first started as an instructor, it was a much simpler process to become a certified instructor than the online classes and in-person examinations that are required today. After passing the course himself, his instructors simply passed on his name to the DNR and vouched for his readiness.
But while the process for becoming certified has changed over the years, Heldt said little else has.
“I’d say 90 percent of it is still the same,” he said, noting that changing laws make up for the bulk of the change in material. The class has been sponsored by the Mayer New German Sportsmen Club during all 50 of the years he’s been involved.
Heldt said the class covers a wide variety of material, with the majority focusing on the safety elements.
“Wherever the gun is pointed, that’s where a shot could go,” Heldt said. “We stress that very highly. We stress the safety thing so strongly that sometimes we probably scare the kids a little bit.”
Other things covered in the class include shooting positions, trigger squeeze, how to hold the weapon, different ways to carry the weapon, and how to clean a weapon. The class also goes over how to cross fences and creeks, and typically includes visits from a game warden to talk about laws, a DNR naturalist to talk about game identification, and a farmer to talk about the expectations farmers have for hunters.
Heldt said he never gave it a thought 50 years ago how long he might keep teaching the class, but as long as he keeps enjoying it, he says he sees no reason to quit. He said the class in general — not just his own, but similar DNR classes throughout the state — have been instrumental in promoting hunting safety in Minnesota.
“There definitely is a need for it,” he said. “Since this program has been put into place, the number of fatalities and gunshot wounds have gone down considerably, and it’s because of the awareness from this program.”
For Heldt, firearms safety has actually become a family affair. His wife, Sandy, has been teaching classes with him for the last 40 years, while his son, Charlie, is approaching nearly 15 years as a certified instructor. Their daughter, Beth, also became a certified instructor 4 or 5 years ago, and together, the family now has well over 100 years of total experience teaching firearms safety.
Stan Heldt said that having his wife involved has been a big asset for the program. He said there have always been a large number of female students coming through the program, and he’s starting to think it’s not a coincidence.
“Just her presence in the classroom, we feel like it gives comfort to the moms and the girls,” Stan said. “I think in so many of the classes, it’s all men. We’d always steer Sandy to helping the girls, and I think that helped. We’ve had a ton of gals coming through our classes and we never thought too much of it at first, but then we started to think maybe some of them are steering this way because of Sandy.”
Stan and Sandy now spend their winters in Arizona, but firearms safety has become so ingrained in their lives that they now take it with them. The couple recently started offering a firearms safety training course in their retirement community.
“Our training has sort of followed us down there,” Stan said. “We said, ‘I bet there is a senior gal whose husband has passed away and his weapon is laying in the drawer and she doesn’t know what to do with it.’”
Both Stan and Sandy said their teaching in Arizona has opened their eyes a bit, too. While their training in Minnesota is typically teaching youth how to safely handle and store a long range rifle for hunting, that isn’t the case with seniors.
“When we started this class in Arizona, people would come in and say, ‘This is for my safety. Why would I want to lock it away where, if somebody comes into my house, I can’t get it when I need it?’” Stan said. “After all the training we’ve done, we thought we knew it all, or had a good handle on it, but we were retrained down there to a different mindset. … We had to adjust our training to accommodate this kind of a mindset, because they’re not going to put it in a safe.”
Back in Minnesota, the Heldts stressed that they’ve gotten plenty of help over the years in teaching their class. They gave special thanks to instructors that have helped teach the class, farmers that have shared their expectations with students, DNR game wardens and naturalists that have been guest speakers, and anybody else that has helped along the way.
“We can’t do it alone,” Stan said. “When a class is put on here, there’s countless people involved in making a class happen.”
Contact Matt Bunke at [email protected]