NOTE: Reprint from a blog of mine in 2014.

I was browsing through old documents in my archives, and I came across this article titled “Armour ‘Mafia’ Destined For Success.” I was just at a wedding with the “mafia,” and we had a nice time. My good friend Steve Menning got married (leaving me to be the only member of the group single). I thought some of you might enjoy reading the article, and so I reprint it here after the break. Take care!

Headline: Armour ‘mafia’ destined for success

BROOKINGS, S.D. — They’ve been called the Armour Mafia.

But these three South Dakota State University graduates don’t fit the typical mob profile. Instead, Armour natives Tony Venhuizen, Jared Clark and Steve Menning make up one-third of SDSU’s spring 2005 Honors College graduates.

Their nickname comes from SDSU President Peggy Miller, Venhuizen said.

But the trio’s notorious reputation began back at Armour High School.

“Some of the teachers thought we were going to take over the high school,” said Menning, mentioning that the group had plenty of free time due to their course schedules.

Even with their spare time, all three graduated from Armour with at least one semester of college credit.

Now the SDSU grads plan to continue their education together again — at the University of South Dakota.

“We really didn’t plan that,” said Venhuizen, who graduated from State with degrees in political science and history. Both Clark and Menning earned engineering degrees, Clark in electrical, Menning in mechanical.

The trio did plan to attend an in-state school for their undergraduate education. Now all three can call State their alma mater.

Together from (nearly) the beginning

The three graduated from Armour High School in 2001. More than just classmates, they have been lifelong friends. Venhuizen and Menning were born 20 days apart.

“We had a lot of fun in school,” said Venhuizen, whose house in Armour became a popular destination because of its proximity to the swimming pool.

He said the group once made a gangster movie as part of a class project. “We went above and beyond the assignment,” he said. As juniors, the group constructed a fort complete with insulation, furniture and electricity.

As with any groups of friends, each member fills his own unique role.

“Ever since he was little, we always saw Tony as a politician,” said Clark, describing Venhuizen as outspoken and diplomatic.

“Steve’s a little more low-key,” said Venhuizen, describing Menning as easygoing and the most athletic member of the group. “He’s also probably cooler than us.”

“Jared is the brunt of most of our jokes,” Menning said.

“Jared, he always kind of knows the correct thing to do,” Venhuizen added. He said Clark knows when to wear nice shoes or send a thank-you note, for example. “He also has very high standards for everything. It’s probably going to cost us tens of thousands of dollars to have Jared around.”

A ‘thirst for knowledge’

Despite their personality differences, the three former Armour Packers took part in similar high school activities. All belonged to the National Honor Society and participated in school plays.

That trend continued into college. During their freshman and sophomore years, they all sang in the Statesmen men’s choir. Honors College served as another joint interest.

When deciding on which college to attend, all three Armour natives said they wanted to stay in state.

“I like South Dakota,” Clark said. “Many of my family have come to South Dakota State University. The Honors College was part of the reason I came here.”

Venhuizen said Robert Burns, head of the SDSU Honors College, was a “big reason I came here. I was really impressed with the atmosphere at SDSU.”

Menning and Clark planned to room together. All three lived on the Honors College floor in Pierson Hall.

“A lot of the other friends we made were pretty actively involved in (Honors College),” Venhuizen said.

“I probably wouldn’t have gotten involved in the first place if it weren’t for these two,” Menning said.

Clark said being involved in the Honors College became easier with more than one person.

All three became members of the SDSU Honors College Student Organization, which provided them opportunities to travel.

“The honors trips were wonderful,” said Clark, who participated in an England exchange program as well during his XX year.

The trips usually involved giving presentations, the group said. They cited a particular conference in Chicago that focused on the United States’ role in world policy.

“It was a very timely topic with things going on,” Clark said.

The Chicago trip offered the students a chance to tour sites such as the Sears Tower and Wrigley Field, as well as meet other honors college students from around the country, Venhuizen said. The group took another trip to New Orleans, where they toured the French Quarter.

While at SDSU Clark and Menning have shared a few classes together. As freshmen, all three took an American Government honors class from Burns.

“That’s probably the only class we’ve ever taken together,” said Venhuizen, who earned the prestigious, Congressionally-funded Truman Scholarship during his time at SDSU.

Burns said the boys exhibited a “curiosity” and a “maturity” not seen in many first year students. He said they maintained their “thirst for knowledge” throughout their college career.

“They all performed exceptionally well,” he said, describing the trio as entertaining, sincere and “thoughtful individuals.”

Clark, Menning and Venhuizen aren’t the first Armour High School alums to graduate from SDSU’s Honors College. Last year, fellow Armourite Todd VanDerWerff graduated with the same distinction.

“Steve, Jared and Tony had a good mentor in Todd,” Burns said.

The Honors College requires students to complete a separate curriculum in addition to their chosen area of study. Working with students like the Armour trio serves as the greatest reward of teaching at the University level, the professor said.

“This is the big payoff,” he said.

‘Over-achieving dropouts’

Venhuizen, who now works as the Student Regent for the Board of Regents, called Armour a “trailblazer” in allowing high school students in a smaller school to take college courses for credit.

“When we were in high school, our principal allowed us to organize it on an ad-hoc basis,” he said. “That gave us a leg up when we came to college.”

The three worked ahead in math, then in science, he said.

“By the time we were juniors and seniors, we had taken everything,” he said.

“So we were home like half the day,” said Menning, adding that the three often played darts and Nintendo during their down time.

He called the group “over-achieving dropouts.”

All speak highly of their Armour education.

“I definitely take pride in it,” Menning said.

Their high school principal Brad Preheim said the trio was successful not only because of their academic success, but because they spent time volunteering and taking an active part in their community, “not just the school.”

For example, they participated in the local theatre and helped organize homecoming, he said.

All three came from “good, supportive families” and “always made good choices,” Preheim said.

“They were very mature and they were looking to the future all along,” he said. “They kind of challenged each other.”

The 15-year principal of Armour High described Clark, Menning and Venhuizen as not only talented, but enjoyable.

“They all just had good personalities and wit,” he said. “They were very down to earth.”

The three graduated from a class of about 20 (anybody know the exact number?), many of whom had academic success, Preheim added.

While other Armour students have taken college credits, Clark, Menning and Venhuizen were among the first to do so, Preheim said. He allowed the boys to pursue the option because they had proven themselves trustworthy.

To earn college credit, students have used a combination of distance education, Internet courses and even summer projects, he said.

Destination: South Dakota

The “mafia” has no plans to break up anytime soon. The trio plans to live in the same house in Vermillion next fall.

And despite the group’s different career paths, each member said he would like to end up in the same place — his home state.

“I like South Dakota,” said Clark, who has worked for the Independent Inventor Institute for about two years. The in-state non-profit organization deals with patent law, which Clark plans to study at USD law school. In the future, Clark said he plans to continue his work with patent law and combine his interests in engineering with economic development.

Menning has worked for Daktronics for more than two years as a mechanical design assistant. He now does some of his own designing. “I like mechanical engineering,” he said. He plans to pursue an MBA degree and said he hopes to work in management or have his own business someday.

“I want to be governor,” said Venhuizen, who plans to continue his work for the Board of Regents when he enters law school. He said he sees the governorship as an opportunity to make a positive difference in people’s lives every day.

The folks back home haven’t forgotten about their successful college students either.

“I think they’re all pretty supportive,” said Menning.

Clark agreed, saying, “The community’s like one big family.”