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57-year-old student gains popularity on MSUM campus

Odden leans on the snooker table he lobbied the MSUM student recreation center for to appeal to international students. Odden is active in student senate and was crowned homecoming king. (Michael Vosburg/The Forum)1 / 4
Al Odden, center, a 57-year-old student at Minnesota State University Moorhead, cheers with the Nemzek Noize, a group that cheers for the Dragons. (David Samson/The Forum)2 / 4
Al Odden, 57, was named MSUM's homecoming king last fall. He is pictured with Homecoming Queen Amanda Cashman. (Special to The Forum)3 / 4
Al Odden hands a photo of himself as Minnesota State University Moorhead homecoming king to Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., during the lawmaker's visit to the campus in November. MSUM student Heath Butrum is at center. (Dave Wallis/The Forum)4 / 4

MOORHEAD -- As a teenager, Al Odden's battle cry was, "Don't trust anyone over 30."

Now, at 57, the Minnesota State University Moorhead student's classmates are younger than his children.

And he fits right in.

Odden, who went back to school to become a middle school earth science teacher, practically lives on campus.

He spends his time leading a student senate committee, cheering for the Dragons and playing pool in the rec center.

Odden is so popular, the students elected him their homecoming king last fall.

"When I decided to come back to school, my first thought was I'll probably be like a father figure," he said. "But I'm just accepted as one of the kids, and it's so cool."

Odden, a Vietnam-era veteran and former hippie who has been in a variety of occupations across the United States, worked for Cargill in Wahpeton, N.D., before coming to MSUM.

He had major back surgery a few years ago, and his doctor told him his physical job was making it worse.

Odden realized that all of his jobs - from his drywall business to managing a Dunkin' Donuts - involved teaching in some capacity.

So he decided to change careers and pursue a teaching degree.

During his first semester at MSUM, Odden felt like an outsider. He enrolled in 18 credits but wasn't very involved on campus.

Then he started joining organizations, such as the geology club and student senate, and attending campus events. He also has acted in several projects for film studies students.

"The more things it seems like I get involved with, the more fun I have," he said.

Odden, often sporting an MSUM baseball cap, spends a lot of his time in the student union, either playing pool or hanging out in the student senate office.

As students walk by, he greets nearly everyone with a "Hey, spice girl," a hug or a joke.

Amanda Heller, a 22-year-old MSUM senior who works in the union, said Odden is popular despite the age difference.

"I don't really notice it," Heller said. "He's got a young heart."

Most of Odden's friends at MSUM are younger than his five children, who range from 25 to 34 years old.

One of Odden's daughters occasionally questions comments from his young friends on his Facebook page.

"She looks at it sometimes and says, 'Dad, what's going on?' " Odden said.

When members of the student senate nominated Odden for homecoming king last fall, he thought they were wasting a shot at the crown.

But everyone else expected him to win.

Senior Aaron Simon, who met Odden playing pool, said he told his friends to vote for Odden, but they already had.

Odden said he's touched by how accepting the students have been, especially members of the homecoming court who have become a close group.

"Somebody later told me that most of the girls started crying when I won," he said.

Odden attracted the attention, and a few jokes, from Sen. Al Franken during a recent visit to MSUM. Franken requested a signed copy of Odden's homecoming king photo.

Later in the fall, the chancellor of the university system heard about Odden and also requested a signed photo.

Odden is getting ready to do his student teaching this spring at Discovery Middle School in Fargo and will graduate in May.

"It's exciting," Odden said. "It's like everything in my life has been leading up to this."