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The Translator

Language whiz Mark Vavreck on volcanoes, earthquakes and sleeping under the stars

Published in 2009 Minnesota Rising Stars magazine

It was Mark Vavreck’s last day of Arctic Soldier Training, a mere week after arriving at Fort Richardson, just outside of Anchorage, Alaska. He was sleeping outside. In the snow. “The Army has to prove to us their equipment works so there’s no tent—I had an arctic sleeping bag,” he says. So what was that like? “I didn’t die,” he says with a chuckle. “It was difficult to get to sleep, as you could imagine, but when I finally did, we all woke up to an earthquake.” 

That wasn’t the only run-in he had with Mother Nature. A week after his Alaskan campout, Mount Redoubt erupted 110 miles from the Army base. “The sky turned black on the horizon—not like storm clouds; I mean black,” he says. “After it was over, there was about three inches of ash on everything.” 

As a boy, Vavreck idolized his uncle, former Minneapolis assistant city attorney Edward Vavreck. “He was a very well-liked and respected man,” explains Vavreck, who now practices consumer, personal injury and employment law with Scrimshire, Martineau, Gonko & Vavreck in Minneapolis. It was his mom, however, who encouraged him to enroll in the Army. “I visited a recruiter at the behest of my mother two weeks before my senior year in high school,” he says. He had three years of Spanish under his belt, so decided to take the Defense Language Aptitude Battery, which tests a person’s ability to learn languages. “The recruiter said everyone fails that test,” says Vavreck. But he passed.

After high school, Vavreck went on to the Defense Language Institute in California and began studying Russian. After graduating, he spent the next two years as a voice interceptor and Russian translator, as well as part of a four-man team that trained to go behind enemy lines. “But we never had to actually do so, as Russians do not have positions on Alaskan soil,” he says.

Vavreck finished his service in June 1992. By that fall he had enrolled at the University of Minnesota on the GI Bill, where he signed up for a Russian-language class. “I ended up having a conversation in Russian with the professor on the first day,” he says. “All the other students were like, ‘Oh, man, there goes the grading curve.’”

These days, Vavreck is no longer jonesing to fight the bad guys. In addition to his practice, he teaches a negotiation competition course at William Mitchell—last year his team of students placed fifth in a national competition in Los Angeles. Vavreck is clearly proud of the accomplishment, pointing out a plaque on his shelf. While he was in California, he took a photo of a beach at sunset. Pointing to it, he says, “It was just paradise.”

No arctic sleeping bags necessary.

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