Carl Quiz: Dante Stephensen ’58

18 March 2014

Dante Stephenson

Dante Stephensen ’58 was nearly expelled from Carleton his first year—for keeping a coyote on campus. “I saved him from a Minneapolis animal fair,” Stephensen explains. “His living conditions were horrible, so I traded something for his release and drove him back to campus in a friend’s father’s Cadillac.” Young Dante with a CoyoteDean Casey Jarchow was not amused when he found the coyote living in a biology lab closet, and he threatened to expel Stephensen. Fortunately, President Larry Gould allowed the coyote safe haven on campus until Stephensen found him a permanent home on a Wisconsin farm.

The coyote story is one of many Stephensen can share about his adventurous life. Following Carleton, he enlisted in the National Guard and eventually joined the original team of Navy SEALs. He marched for civil rights in Atlanta in the early 1960s and worked for four railroads. Since 1982 he’s lived in an 820-square-foot railroad car (pictured above right), built for the Woolworth family in 1926.

A legend in Atlanta, Stephensen founded the nation’s longest-running live-jazz supper club, Dante’s Down the Hatch, an award-winning pirate-themed fondue restaurant that featured a rigged sailing ship and live crocodiles in an 18,000-gallon moat. Alas, a county tax hike forced him to close his doors and sell his property last July after 43 years in business. The restaurant’s contents were auctioned off and the building demolished to make room for high-rise apartments.

Before Stephensen’s next adventure (to be determined), we served him the Carl Quiz.

Famous guests: There were many: Candice Bergen, Burt Reynolds, Danny Kaye, John Travolta, Francis Ford Coppola, Bill Cosby, Morgan Freeman, Gladys Knight, Jimmy Carter, Newt Gingrich, and the list goes on.

Person living or dead who you wish had visited Dante’s: Red Skelton, my all-time favorite comedian. He never told a dirty joke.

trainPassionate about: Trains. During college, I worked summers for the railroad as a fireman, brakeman, and switchman.

First question you asked all job applicants: “What do you like about yourself?” It causes introspection. My second question was, “What don’t you like about yourself?” This reveals humility, which all successful people must have.

Greatest inspiration: My parents, both immigrants: my dad, a concert pianist from the Ukraine, and my mother, one of the nation’s earliest Montessori teachers, from Denmark.

beef cowKey to a good fondue: Meat
  Our beef came from Australia, where they produce the best beef in the world.

Secret to success: At my supper club, I would personally greet every customer. I’d start with the youngest person at each table to make kids feel important.

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  • 2017-07-20 09:33:20
    Bill Buffett '55

    I was Dante's proctor on Third Davis during his freshman year.  I remember him coming into my room and announcing that he'd just bought a coyote. Hesitant about his new guest, I asked about plans to house and feed it.  Not surprisingly, Dante had them all worked out. For a long time, I thought of him as the most colorful character I'd ever met. 

    When I was at Carleton I wrote many letters home to my parents. The letters sent my senior year included much about Dante. At one point I copied these excerpts and sent them to him. Unfortunately they were lost in a fire at his night club.

  • 2019-02-09 21:55:05
    Ronnie L. Meadows

     I was a dishwasher/bartender during the the first several years of Dante's jazz club. A shrewed and creative businessman. I've always admired his ability to replicate his concepts.

  • 2019-05-18 18:25:56

     I hope Dante is doing well! He was always so kind to me and my son.