Our Neighbors...There's no place like home
Here's a multiple choice question for you.
Where would you like to start your business: Hawaii, Cloquet or (fill in the blank)?
For Jeff and Alyson Leno, the choice was simple.
"Being a chiropractor is kind of like being a nurse, you can go and set up shop just about anywhere, except a really small community," Jeff said.
So, about a year and a half before he was going to finish his studies at the Palmer College of Chiropractic, they started talking. Where should they move when Jeff graduated? Somewhere warm and tropical? Or perhaps out West? Over many walks and many glasses of wine, looking at all the options, they kept coming back to Cloquet.
It just felt right, they said.
"We just knew that's how we were defined as people," Alyson said
"To the core," added Jeff. "I feel such a connection to this town."
Moving home was a well-considered choice for them.
"I grew up in a blue collar family," Jeff said. "My parents worked hard to give us what we needed. The events that went on ... I want to be a part of that. And we want to give our kids those same opportunities."
"Plus both our parents live here still," Alyson said. "We wanted to be closer to them and have our kids close so they could have a good relationship with their grandparents."
Some were surprised by their return. At least in recent history, Cloquet hasn't exactly been a magnet for young professionals. Still, having lived in Duluth for a year and Davenport, Iowa, for four years, it had a strong pull for Jeff and Alyson, who both grew up here.
Cloquet Mayor Bruce Ahlgren points to Jeff and Alyson when he talks about the future of Cloquet.
"It's nice to see the young kids move back to the community and want to be active and involved," said Ahlgren, who's known Jeff since his own children played hockey against and with him when they were growing up. "Just to inject energy into our community again - we need that. The baby boomers are retiring and we need young people to come back."
It's actually been just 16 months since the pair of CHS graduates officially moved home. In February of 2011, right after he finished school, Jeff and Alyson set up house in Cloquet in a quiet little neighborhood off the back side of Pinehurst Park with Zeppelin - named after the band - a German Shepherd who's all bark and no bite.
"He's our son," said Alyson, who is expecting their first baby in September.
Both of them chuckle, but admit it's not much of an exaggeration.
"While most people would train their dog not to go on the bed, we went and bought a king-sized bed so he could sleep with us," Jeff said, noting that Zep weighed 7.6 pounds when they brought him home from a farm in Illinois.
"He was so little he was scared to go in the grass," Alyson said. "Now look at him."
Sitting with them in the back yard with Zep prancing up to the table occasionally to be petted or look for more snacks, Alyson and Jeff seem eminently comfortable with each other and with themselves. They joke a lot, but in a gentle way. Jeff talks more, and faster, but Alyson doesn't hesitate to speak when she has something to say.
They are well matched.
"I've always been way more laid back than he is," she said with a smile at her 100-mile-an-hour husband. "I think we do well together. I let him talk. I don't let him do all the talking.
"But his whole family is like that, so I've learned to just sit back and take it all in."
He comes from a family of talkers, who love to discuss politics, social issues and more. It's busy when they visit his house, more laid back when they visit hers.
"To be married and have a mix of that is great," Jeff said.
But they're busy, too. Alyson was in New York last week for her job at Maurice's; Jeff returned from a trip to Canada two weeks ago. Both are avid runners and started the Milltown Milers running club. They're in the midst of preparations for the second annual Sawdust 5K, which they organize. There's a new batch of wines brewing in the basement. Jeff is part of the Cloquet Parks Master Plan committee as well as the July 4 organizing committee. He just finished his first year as an assistant high school track coach in Cloquet. And they're getting ready for a new baby, due Sept. 24.
Growing up purple
When asked to name their favorite thing about growing up in Cloquet, both mention the woods.
"I like being in nature a lot," Jeff said. "As a child, I played in the woods a lot. But I also loved the amount of kids that were around [in his central Cloquet neighborhood].
"I liked my busy lifestyle, coming into town for dance and Girl Scouts, things like that," Alyson said. "But I really liked being able to go home and relax and have space in the trees."
Jeff was born and raised in Cloquet, son of Melanie and Curt Leno, sibling to Lindsay and Elissa. Alyson was born in Melrose, Minn., just before her family moved to Duluth. A few years later Mom and Dad, Rhonda and Dave Mielke, moved to Cloquet with Alyson - in first grade then - her older sister, Alyssa, and younger brother, Bob.
Alyson went to Churchill. Jeff went to Washington. Alyson lived in the country off Morris Thomas Road. Jeff lived right in the middle of town, on the 300 block of Seventh Street.
"We have that rivalry," Jeff said with a wry smile. "Where will our kids go to school? Washington or Churchill? We joke about that."
Graduating in the Class of 2002, both were very active at Cloquet High School as three-sport athletes. Alyson was on the volleyball, basketball and track teams, while Jeff did football, hockey and track. Both competed at state, too: Alyson in basketball her sophomore and junior years; Jeff in hockey his senior year.
"Basketball is better," she jibed. "We went twice and you went once."
That's another of their competitions. Will their children play basketball or hockey? It is the same season, after all.
"We joke that I've made reservations in St. Paul for the 2029 state hockey tournament [to watch their soon-to-be-born child play] but it's half a joke," Jeff said while Alyson said she votes for basketball. "But whatever our kids do, that's fine."
Except the kids have to do something. Be involved. Be part of their school, their community, just like mom and dad, and grandmas and grandpas. It's a family tradition, after all.
"I tell people that it took me a long time to realize that my blood wasn't actually purple," Jeff said. "That's what you're told growing up here. It means having pride in your community, being involved where you can."
While Jeff and Alyson knew each other in high school ¬- in fact, they used to hold each other's blocks in track and have the picture to prove it - they didn't start dating until their sophomore year in college.
By then, Alyson was studying to be a fashion buyer at UWS-Stout and Jeff was at St. Cloud University working on a biology major and a chemistry minor.
"We put a lot of miles on I-94," Jeff said. "But we knew early on that we wanted to be together, so we made it work."
She always enjoyed fashion, Alyson said.
"I remember when I was little, my mother bought me a jean shirt and jean shorts," said Alyson, now an assistant buyer with Maurice's corporate office in Duluth. "I told her, 'Mom, I can't wear that. I can't wear two jeans together.' I think I was in kindergarten."
She wore casual clothes for the interview - worn jeans, a white T-shirt-style top with a bow and a hat, all from Maurice's - and looked perfectly comfortable and feminine at the same time.
For Jeff, deciding what career to pursue took some research.
"I knew I wanted something healthcare related and it couldn't be a desk job," he said. "Being a chiropractor would allow me to obtain my doctorate degree, which was important. It would allow me to be a business owner and have a flexible schedule, so I could be a dad who makes it to the play or hockey game. And I love that it's hands on. I get to physically lay my hands on people every day and help people, help them live a better, pain-free life. I like that."
Community involvement is key
When he opened up Leno Chiropractic in the old Rudy law firm offices in the West End of Cloquet, Jeff decided the business motto would be: "Community is our cornerstone."
"We don't take that [slogan] lightly," he said. "We're serious about putting Cloquet at the forefront of what we do, whether it's organizing a 5K race or volunteering at a benefit.
"What we want to define us is quality service and community involvement," he said.
He's equally serious about helping people.
"We look at the patient as a whole," he said. "We assess soft tissue, gait, posture ... we look at people at a functional level. We feel like that gives us a few more tools to look at a patient in a different way."
He loves seeing patients outside of work as well, he said, describing how one patient brought the whole family over in Super One to meet Jeff and Alyson, because Jeff had made his lower back feel better.
"To come back to this community that defined who I am," he said, "and take that population of people and help them out - it sounds sappy, but that's what I wanted to do."
While business is going well - Jeff gives big kudos to his secretary Carrie Manty and Cloquet's only female chiropractor Dr. Regina Ansmus ¬- so is the plan to have a positive impact on their home town.
Their first Sawdust 5K run last July 4 was a success - $2,000 in proceeds went to help fund this year's July 4 community celebration - and the second one looks like it will be even bigger and better.
Longtime teacher Don Kronemann likes the way his former student is getting involved in the larger community.
"Jeff was one of my kids," said the former Washington Elementary fifth- and fourth-grade teacher. "I thought it was fantastic [when they moved home]. And Jeff has become so involved with the community, it's great, the things he's done. So many young people just do their own thing."
Giving back is rewarding, Jeff and Alyson assert, even if it means sometimes they don't get to see a lot of each other. But they are also busy enjoying all the great things about the place where they both grew up.
They run - well, at six months pregnant, Alyson said she's walking more than running these days. They found out they enjoy yard work. They make wine. They hang out with friends and family.
Jeff said there are three things they swore not to take for granted when they moved back: anything Cloquet, Jay Cooke State Park and driving over the hill into Duluth.
"You don't realize how great all three are until you're gone," he said. "I think we've done a pretty good job over the last year [not taking those for granted]. We go run at Jay Cooke. Even in the worst snow storms, I still came out with a smile on my face. We chose to live here."
Alyson tells how some of their friends from Davenport have come north to visit, then gone home and decorated their walls with photographs of Jay Cooke because they think it's one of the prettiest state parks they've ever been to.
And it's a place the Lenos appreciate, all the more because it's so close to the place they chose to call home.
"We came back because we want - as a couple and a family - to come into Cloquet and impact it wherever we can," Jeff said. "In one year, we've been involved in a lot. I'm excited by that; I'm excited about the next 20-30 years. I love this community. I can't picture myself anywhere else."
"Me, either," Alyson said. "You just feel so