Wrestling Matt

Tall, fair, bespectacled, with a youthful face offset by a thin down-turned mouth that gives him an expression of earnest concentration, Entenza, who is forty-two, seems to be precisely the sort of affluent liberal whose lack of hard-edged realism conservatives like to mock. But in this case, appearances are deceiving.

The oldest of three siblings, he was about ten or eleven years old the first time his father took him along on a “payout.” Ken Entenza was, not to put too fine a point on it, a crook whose crime of choice was real-estate fraud—“Selling land he didn’t own and trying to get little old ladies to buy into imaginary subdivisions,” Entenza says. He also came from a family that, in his oldest son’s words, “excelled in competitive drinking.”

At this particular payout, which took place in a parking lot somewhere in Worthington, Ken Entenza was meeting with out-of-state “investors” who showed up expecting to get their share of the take. Only there wasn’t any money to split, Entenza’s father having blown it on drinking and other pursuits. Matt, who crouched in the car while his old man fast-talked his way out of the jam, was along to conjure a little sympathy.

“Even as a young kid, I thought the whole scene was ridiculous,” he says. “It was my first memory of realizing that my father was making the kind of choices that he tried to teach me not to make. It was one of a number of eye-opening experiences that I think propelled me to turn into a watchdog of a different kind today.”

Other times Ken Entenza was not so lucky, returning from failed payouts with a broken arm or jaw. Drifting in and out of the family’s life, he finally disappeared altogether when Matt was fifteen. Entenza’s mother, Georgia, went to work as a public health nurse, but it wasn’t enough to make up for her husband’s improvidence. When Entenza was a junior at Worthington High School, his family’s home was repossessed and he and his mother and younger brother and sister were forced to move in with his maternal grandmother, Louise Mowray.

“The line of creditors was so long that I don’t think they even knew what we owed. We were very fortunate that she could take us in,” Entenza says of his grandmother, who recently died at age ninety-nine and was, he says, “probably the most profound influence on me other than my mother.
“Here she was, a woman in her early sixties, recently widowed, living in a little two-bedroom rambler, and all of a sudden her forty-something daughter, three kids, and a cat and dog all moved in on her,” he says. The house was so small, he and his brother shared space in the basement while his mother and grandmother slept in the same bed.

“I had this yin and yang in my life,” he recalls. “This crazy, out-of-control alcoholic father always scheming to make millions and this salt-of-the-earth grandmother who’d come out of the Depression and thought a penny earned was a penny saved. She worked at the First State Bank in Rushmore from the time she was thirty-three until she retired in her mid-eighties, started a savings account for me when I was a kid, and taught me about thrift, patience, and saving. “By contrast, I can remember when I was ten, my father raided my account for booze money.”

Like a lot of teens from broken families, Entenza acted out, but says he was “saved” by Worthington High School’s speech and debate program. Though it was “totally uncool in a small town to be a high school debater,” Entenza “got hooked” and eventually ended up going to the national speech and debate tournament in 1979, but as a member of a model student Congress rather than as a competitor. Nevertheless, his rhetorical skills were sharp enough to earn him a full scholarship to Augustana College in Sioux Falls, which he attended for two years before transferring to Macalester. He covered the cost of his undergraduate degree with loans and partial scholarships.

“He was very skinny and it was clear that his family didn’t have any money, that they were just skating by,” recalls Lois Quam, now a high-ranking executive with United Health Group who met Entenza at a regional speech tournament in Pipestone when the two were fifteen years old. “There was this clarity about him which came through even at that age. Even then, he seemed driven by his experiences to do something to help make sure that other children did not have to face what he faced.”

The daughter of a Lutheran minister from Marshall, and Minnesota’s high school speech champ in 1979, Quam noticed the flimsy, too-short overcoat Entenza wore at that first meeting. She was intrigued by Entenza’s openness about his father and the straitened circumstances in which he lived. After remaining friends throughout high school, Quam and Entenza began dating when they were nineteen and have now been married for nineteen years. They have three sons.

“Even in high school, Matt had a real air of self-confidence,” says Gary Crippen, a retired Appeals Court judge whose daughter Anne was Entenza’s debating partner. “He was filled with conviction about human rights and about the role of a government that is responsive and progressive in meeting the needs of people. Sometimes his confidence might strike people as a form of arrogance, but that does him a disservice. There’s a genuine humility there, too.”

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