LISBON — At first glance, Dawn Happel appears to be your average, everyday housewife and mother.
But the 1987 Mediapolis High School graduate is anything but average.
Happel is the mother of nine children and the wife of Dean Happel, a three-time state wrestling champion who went on to wrestle at Iowa, which is where the couple met.
Dawn Happel has home schooled her children through various stages, not because they don’t like or trust the public school system, but she wanted to watch her children grow.
Dawn Happel got the experience of a lifetime and memories that will last just as long.
And she did something along the way that only one other woman in Iowa history has done — she raised a pair of four-time state wrestling champions.
On Feb. 22, Cael Happel leaped up from the center mat at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, seconds after pinning Logan James of Underwood to win the Class 1A 138-pound state title, he thrust both hands into the air, four fingers displayed signifying his fourth state championship.
Happel not only became the 28th four-time state champion in state history, he joined his brother, Carter Happel, who was the 27th four-time state champion.
And as Cael celebrated with his father, who is an assistant coach for Lisbon, Dawn Happel sat in the stands surrounded by family and friends, a flood of emotions hitting her like a tidal wave. The son she carried inside her body for nine months, nurtured and mothered to maturity, taught him his ABC and 1,2,3s, drove around to countless tournaments, played with, laughed with, cried with and spent nearly every single day of his life with, had achieved his goal.
This was a special moment for Dawn Happel, who wasn’t quite sure how to take it all in, yet wanted to savor every last second of the historic moment.
“When you are sitting in the stands worrying about what might happen, those are hard times,” Dawn Happel said. “I wanted to treasure watching Cael for the last time in high school, but at the same time I was so nervous I just wanted to get it over. I was so nervous for Cael. If he lost, people were going to be talking about it for a long time.”
Dawn Happel grew up new Mediapolis, a town known for great athletics, great athletes and great coaches. The Swafford family lived right down the road and rode the same bus to school and back every day.
As a freshman, she played basketball for Hall of Fame coach Vernon “Bud” McLearn. Dawn (Durr) Happel became the first Mediapolis cross country runner to qualify for the state meet during her junior year. During her sophomore year, she decided to become a statistician for Hall of Fame wrestling coach Dan Cummings.
Little did she know then how much wrestling would shape her world from that point forward.
“I applied to be a mat maid at Iowa. We kept the books, ran the clock, helped at the table, all that stuff,” Dawn Happel said. “I met my future husband, Dean, in the wrestling office one day. One of my friends was dating a wrestler and I told her to have him bring Dean one night. We hit it off just fine from the start.”
After graduating and getting married, Dawn and Dean Happel settled in Lisbon, Dean’s hometown, where he works at Elite Stone Fabricating on Highway 30 and also coaches track and wrestling.
Once the children started coming along, Dawn and Dean decided to home school.
“Our oldest daughter was in fourth grade and Carter was in kindergarten when we decided to home school,” Dawn Happel said. “For a while, I had all nine kids here at home with me. Once they got older, we decided to put them back in public school, mostly because Carter wanted to go to a four-year college and I didn’t want to do the science labs and foreign language. So Carter went to school in the afternoons for those classes and I fill in the other classes.”
Carter started in wrestling, followed by Cael and Quincy. The family would travel most weekends to wrestling tournaments on the AAU circuit. Back in those days, Carter and Quincy usually found far more success on the mat than did Cael, which further drove Cael to keep working harder and harder.
“I remember one tournament Quincy and Carter both won, and Cael got second. The next year Quincy and Carter won again and Cael got fourth. If someone told me back then that Cael would be a four-time state champion and Quincy wouldn’t place his first two years, I would have told them they were crazy,” Dawn Happel said. “I didn’t think Cael would win four straight on the heels of Carter winning four straight. I think Quincy has struggled being in the shadow of both of them. We tell him, ‘Just be the best you can be.’ But Quincy is a very good runner. That is kind of his thing and he is very good at it.”
Raising nine kids while also homeschooling them has kept Dawn Happel busy, from making meals to doing laundry to cleaning house to preparing and teaching lessons, she is busy most of the day. Yet she still finds time to get to her children’s extra-curricular activities. After spending the previous weekend in Des Moines watching Cael and Quincy wrestle in the state tournament, Dawn Happel spent last weekend at a volleyball tournament. It’s all par for the course for a busy mom.
Dawn Happel wouldn’t trade a single second of any of it for any amount of money.
“We’ve made so many good memories together,” Dawn Happel said. “We will be sitting around talking and someone will say, ‘Hey, do you remember when we did this?’ or, ‘Hey, do you remember the time?’ Those are precious memories that I will forever treasure.”
No matter what their kids did, Dawn and Dean Happel always treated them equally. Winning four state wrestling championships might make you a better wrestler than others, but not necessarily a better person. Character isn’t judged in wins and losses, but rather how one reacts to them. And there was plenty of love to spread around equally, no matter the circumstances.
“Carter and Cael are just two of nine,” Dawn Happel said. “Honestly, they just blend in with the rest of the family. We didn't do anything different for them than we did for any of our other kids. They know that wrestling is for the wrestling room and meets. Home is home. We tell them a little tip that separates them — good wrestlers are a dime a dozen, but good wrestlers with good grades are not.”
While Dawn and Dean now have a grandchild and Carter is busy wrestling at Iowa and Cael is preparing to head to Cedar Falls to wrestle for the University of Northern Iowa, there is still plenty of work to be done, plenty of memories to create and plenty of love to share.
For Dawn Happel, it all started back in Mediapolis. Her father still lives in Mediapolis, although with all the activities of their nine children, she admits they don’t get down to visit him as much as they would like.
For Dawn Happel, her heart may be in Lisbon, but her roots are firmly planted in the life lessons learned growing up in a school that is well know for its academics and well as athletics.
She wouldn't trade any of it for the world.
“I love Mediapolis,” Dawn Happel said. “I remember hanging out in the school parking lot on weekends and driving a loop around town. It seemed like all the kids with big trucks with the tires jacked up all lived in Mediapolis. Everyone just hung out and we had a good time. Those are some great memories, times I will never forget.”