Elsie was city's all-time youth coach
It might be said of Ellsworth "Elsie" Klemmetson, though childless, he raised a thousand sons.
The bachelor's association with sports in Willmar began in 1955 and didn't end until Sunday at 1 a.m., when he died at age of 79. On Friday, he had looked forward to attending the college volleyball match on Saturday. But overnight, he was overcome by an infection.
The housepainter by trade showed the pride he took in his avocation by maintaining a meticulous log of his early teams.
The Hedlund Drug fifth- and sixth-grade basketball team's starting lineup, by position, is revealed in flawless type below this title line: "1955 Pee Wee League Playoff Champions -- Arthur Whittemore, Barry Guptill, Tim Swanson, Doug Spartz, and Curtis Kostad." A small gold medal is taped to the black page above the roster.
The summer of 2009 was Elsie's last in the VFW Post 1639 dugout keeping the scorebook. He complained his eyesight no longer allowed him to see clearly the plays that went to the outfield. This summer he attended games sitting in the bleachers.
Elsie served in the army in Germany soon after graduating from Willmar in 1949. He once told me he felt lost back home in Willmar, but soon he found meaning coaching youth teams.
The early years included The Eagles in the Babe Ruth League and the Southeast Trojan fifth-grade hoops team.
He built his reputation with the unconquerable Willmar Police youth baseball team, which he coached to 19 Babe Ruth city championships in 25 years.
He told me several times that he started the VFW baseball program at the request of the post in 1969. However, a scrapbook photo shows him as the coach, along with James Collier, at the 1960 State VFW Tournament in Ely, in which Willmar won the consolation championship.
Elsie grew up with a younger brother, Byron, in the country north of Bemidji. It was an isolated childhood on a dead-end road.
Byron said his older brother by three years made him play a primitive form of baseball on the farm yard. "He was one team and I was the other and he always won," said Byron, smiling at the recollection. "I never liked sports much after that."
The Klemmetson family moved to Blomkest in 1945 and to a home on Willmar's east side the next year.
Elsie's 1977 VFW team was 23-0, but lost to St. Paul Harding in the state championship game. The roster included future major leaguer Mike Kingery, recruited from Atwater. Elsie was about winning and he scouted the nearby towns to encourage promising 14-16-year-olds to try out for Post 1639.
Curt Eischens, a Willmar athlete on the '77 team, once told me: "Elsie had a saying, 'The smaller the town, the better the ballplayer.' "
At practice, former players and assistant coaches describe him as strong, firm and always consistent with a "passion for teaching" the fundamentals.
"Elsie's strength was putting everybody into a spot where he could be successful," said Kingery, who was a left-handed pitcher. "I'm grateful that I, and Mark Neu, had an opportunity to play for him."
Brad Dean, the Willmar Cardinals head baseball coach, credits Klemmetson for giving him his first shot.
"I knew Elsie because we were both coaching elementary teams at Lincoln and I asked him if there were any opportunities with the VFW team," said Dean this week.
Elsie was always looking for capable assistants, especially someone a little older than the usual college students. He needed someone to take the pressure off chaperoning 15 high-energy teens at weekend tournaments and squelching the loud music on the bus rides.
"It was a strange deal," remembered Dean. "I expected to be an assistant and he just turned the field operation over to me. He kept the scorebook and managed the business end. He picked the team but let me make out the lineup."
In 1986, Bill Taunton nabbed Dean to coach the American Legion team. Elsie chose a capable replacement in Lee Smith, who is currently the head boys hockey coach at Eden Prairie.
Reflecting on his seasons with Klemmetson, Dean said:
"VFW was his life. No one knows what he gave up for his teams. He was not a rich man. He once told me $11,000 was the most he ever made in a year. But here he was giving out rewards to his players, like malts at the Dairy Queen. It might not seem like big money now, but it was a lot for him. I doubt we'll ever see anyone in town who gave as much as he gave."
In the limelight
Recent Willmar Cardinals selected by the Central Lakes Performers of the Week in their sport are: Girls tennis, seniors Megan Rudie and Betsy Vomacka were 7-1 in conference matches and 10-4 overall at No. 1 doubles ... Girls cross-country, freshman Tara Rudie has finished No. 1 on the Cardinals' girls team every meet this fall ... Boys Soccer: Liam Johnson, a senior forward, scored four goals to help the team win three of four matches.
The Lady Warriors' Southern Division championship clinched with sweeps over contenders Anoka-Ramsey and Rochester garner three MCAC South awards:
Hitter of the Week: Emily Roelike, a sophomore from Belgrade, made 35 kills and had four blocks ... Libero of Week Aimee Johnson, a freshman from Granite Falls, had 36 digs in her transition from outside hitter to the back row to replace an injured Brandi Bodin ... Molly Hurrle repeated as Setter of the Week with 97 assists in three wins, topped by 41 set assists with eight digs and five ace serves against the Golden Rams.