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Cloquet native survives 10 days in Nevada desert

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As a kid in the 1940s, growing up on the corner of 14th and Selmser in Cloquet and attending Garfield School, Jim Klemovich was part of the Cub Scout pack led by Mrs. Fahlstrom.

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Lessons learned from those meetings of Cub Scouts, and later Boy Scouts, might have played a role in helping Klemovich survive 10 days stranded in the remote Nevada desert before being rescued Tuesday.

A friend and business partner who was with Klemovich, on a trip to inspect a gold mine, did not survive the ordeal.

Friends in the Northland said they were, of course, worried when they heard that Klemovich, 76, had gone missing March 18 -- especially because he's diabetic and has had other health issues. But when they got the good news that he had been rescued, it wasn't necessarily a surprise.

"He's a genius. He's very, very intelligent," said lifelong friend Sonny Alaspa of Cloquet. "If anybody could do it, he could do it."

Klemovich, a 1953 Cloquet High School graduate who lives in Littleton, Colo., and Laszlo Szabo, 75, had gone to visit the mine when their car became stuck on a lonely road with no cell phone service, Klemovich's wife, Joanne, said Thursday.

"He had all the permits; he was completely legal," said Alaspa, who last spoke with Jim Klemovich just a few days before he left for Nevada. "He was going to start selling stock. This was the final (trip)."

Klemovich and Szabo tried unsuccessfully to dislodge the car, and lit flares and started fires in hopes somebody would see them in northwestern Nevada's Pershing County, an area where fewer than 7,000 people are spread over 6,000 square miles.

They used a towel in the Lincoln Town Car to strain ditch water and melted snow into water bottles. After four or five days, Szabo left the car in an attempt to get help. Joanne Klemovich said she began to worry when several days passed without a phone call from her husband.

"I figured maybe they'd had an accident and they were stranded," she said. "I thought maybe they were in a mine shaft. All kinds of things were going through my head."

Joanne Klemovich said she was expecting the worst when authorities called Tuesday night to say her husband had been found by military personnel who were holding training exercises in the area.

"I thought it was bad news, but it was very good news," she said by telephone from the couple's home in Littleton, Colo. "I didn't know what to even do or say."

In addition to living with diabetes, Jim Klemovich wears a pacemaker and has had triple bypass heart surgery, his wife said.

He told her he didn't panic while he sat for days waiting for Szabo's return, she said. He kept a journal, noting how much water he drank and what he did each day. And he wrote a letter each day for her.

When the military personnel rescued Klemovich on Tuesday, they found Szabo, of Lovelock, Nev., dead about a mile and a half away. An autopsy was planned.

Klemovich, who years ago moved west to California and then Colorado, has three sisters living in Minnesota. One of them, Pat Merfeld of Ely, said she happened to be on vacation in Nevada earlier this week but at that time had no idea of the search going on for her brother elsewhere in the state.

"If I had turned on the TV, I might have seen" his picture, she said. "I would have been in shock. I would have had a hard time believing it."

Merfeld learned her brother was missing on Tuesday, just a few hours before another call came saying that he had been found.

Drinking regularly probably was a big factor in Klemovich's survival despite the diabetes that could have sent his blood sugar dangerously out of whack, said Rita Kalyani, who teaches endocrinology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore.

During a fast, she said, the body can draw glucose from the liver or from fat stores to keep levels from dropping too low. But having enough water is essential to flush out excess glucose and prevent levels from rising too high. Alaspa said Klemovich is very attentive to his health.

Merfeld, Klemovich's sister, said a survivor's mentality may run in the family. When their father was in his 80s he suffered a stroke while alone at home in Cloquet and survived several days before he was discovered, she said. He lived for several years after that.

Joanne Klemovich said her husband didn't talk much Tuesday about his friend who died, and said she didn't know whether Szabo, who also went by the name Lester, had any close relatives.

"He's hurting about it," she told the Denver Post in a story published Friday. "He didn't want Lester to leave the car. Lester wanted to go try and get help."

Jim Klemovich was treated and released from a Fallon, Nev., hospital. Joanne Klemovich told the Denver Post that she planned to fly to Nevada and drive Jim home.

After leaving Cloquet, Klemovich was heavily involved in auto racing for a number of years, then got involved in real estate and most recently had taken an interest in mining.

"He's always into something really big," Alaspa said. "He doesn't care about the money; he just likes the challenge to make the money."

That drive might have played a role in Klemovich's survival.

"With his age and health issues, (things) were against him," said Alaspa's wife, Lori, who also has known Klemovich for years. "But knowing Jim, he's such a strong-willed person. If anyone's going to pull through, it's Jim."

Andrew Krueger is a writer for the Duluth News Tribune. The Bemidji Pioneer and the News Tribune are Forum Communications Co. newspapers. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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