In late August of 1992, a 53-year woman from Arizona went for what was supposed to be a two-hour hike in the San Juan Mountains of Ouray County. It was in this southwest corner of Colorado, about eighty miles north of Durango, where Dan Bender ‘74 was working as a deputy for the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office on the New Mexico border. The woman was an experienced hiker, having written a book on the hiking trails of Colorado including the one she was hiking on.
Several hours later, however, the woman was reported missing and, a couple days after that, Bender was asked to be a part of a search team assembled to find her.
Dan Bender grew up in Findlay, far from the rugged terrain and mountain ranges of Durango, Colorado that he now calls home. By his own admission, then-Findlay College was a well-ingrained part of his landscape growing up, so it wasn’t surprising when he ended up enrolling as an Oiler. After a freshman year temporarily interrupted by a fourteen-month stint as a military police officer in Vietnam he returned to lead the relatively quiet life of a college student, made even more so because he never lived on campus during his four-year academic career. “I lived at home, first with my parents, and then, once I was married, with my wife, so I missed out on dorm life,” Bender said. “For my last years at Findlay, I was also working full time and supporting a family [Bender and his wife, Jon, have two daughters, Rachael and Rebekah]. To live and work in the same town that I was attending college in was a blessing. Findlay College felt like home.”
Lending to that feeling of home, Bender explained, was the small size of the classes, thus allowing for free exchange of ideas and positions on many topics. In much the same way as they do now, the intimate size of the classes in the early 1970s allowed for easier access to professors, something that Bender took advantage of, particularly with the late Dr. Jean Nye, who taught Spanish. Bender took several Spanish courses as an undergrad, and found that the class and the professor would turn out to be more important than first expected. “Dr. Nye taught me not only language skills, but the realization that language was a tool to better understand the history, the culture, and the perceptions of others,” he said. “She was one of the finest people I’ve ever met.”
It was especially after his graduation with a sociology degree, Bender said, that the education he received and the relationships he made at Findlay College, specifically that with Dr. Nye, would serve him so greatly. Throughout several endeavors, her comprehensive approach to teaching and language would assist him with jobs like serving as a recruiter with workers in the fields to encourage them to allow some of their children to attend summer school. With the stakes high, he was still able to use his Spanish language skills to help clarify things. “[If their children attended summer school], that would mean fewer hands to pick crops, which meant less income for the family,” he explained. As a census taker in Spanish speaking homes in New Mexico, Bender added, he was able to interact more closely with people; and lastly, as a law enforcement officer, he was afforded the ability to question, comfort, and converse with Spanish speaking victims of accidents and crime scenes.
As a part of his career as a law enforcement officer, including an early stretch as volunteer reserve deputy with the Hancock County Sheriff’s Office and a volunteer reserve police officer with the Findlay Police Department, Bender was also a K-9 Handler for the La Plata county office. He worked with a German Shepherd named Zahn whose job, in part, was to help find missing persons. After beginning their search for the missing hiker, Bender and Zahn eventually reached the last point where she was last seen, in a remote wilderness area at an altitude of about twelve-thousand feet and miles from the primary search area. After spending the night in their tent, Bender and his dog set out the next morning into a steep drainage that ran several miles and a few thousand feet in elevation down and into a narrow canyon. “I found the woman’s tracks and followed them until I lost them due to entering a forested area where the ground was covered in pine needles,” Bender recalled. “We continued until Zahn picked up a scent and led me along the top of a cliff overlooking a narrow gorge.”
Bender called out the woman’s name and heard her shout back.
After climbing to the bottom of the gorge, across the river and back up the other side, Bender and Zahn established contact with her, and, except for being hungry and cold, the hiker was in good shape, despite spending three days in the wilderness. Being so low into the canyon meant that there was no radio signal, so, after a while, when a U.S. Army helicopter flew near them, Bender fired flares into the air until the pilot spotted the man, woman, and dog. The helicopter couldn’t land due to the tall timber and narrow gorge, so it hovered as the woman was attached to and raised up through the bottom hatch of the helicopter and carried away to safety.
While it was a successful rescue of the woman, Bender said, the helicopter didn’t come back for him, likely because of terrain and no vertical climbing harness for Zahn. Adding to the concern was a snowstorm rapidly approaching the area, and the fact that Bender had given his wool clothes to the hiker. “I couldn’t call anyone on my radio to tell them where I was, so command post thought I had flown out with the Army helicopter,” Bender remembered. “Zahn and I had a six hour climb back up several thousand feet, in a rain storm that turned to a snow storm. I got high enough in elevation to contact the two search and rescue people by radio and they linked up with me in a shelter of rocks. They gave me warm clothes, food and drink. The newspaper titled the story ‘Successful Rescue Leaves Bender Cold.’”
Now, still living in Colorado and retired for over two years after a thirty-seven-year career, Bender has been carrying on with both family and the love of photography that he’s had since his childhood. “Now I have the freedom to pursue my love of the outdoors and photography as often as I want whenever I want, wherever I want, and I have much more time with family, especially with our nine grandchildren. I turned seventy last year and consider myself fortunate to be a full-time husband, father and grandpa.”
We at University of Findlay consider ourselves fortunate, as well, to have alumni like Dan Bender along with past and present educators like Dr. Jean Nye, who, in addition to teaching classes well into the years following Findlay College becoming University of Findlay, developed the undergraduate program in bilingual multicultural education, created the master of arts in teaching English to speakers of other languages and bilingual education program, and was named assistant vice president for Institutional Advancement; these are the important folks who continue to affect students in many, often vitally important, ways. Through both Bender’s heroism and the past establishment of the Dr. Jean C. Nye Memorial Scholarship Endowment Fund at UF, meaningful lives and productive careers are being lived, recognized, and carried into the future.