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Tribune photo by Rand Middleton Mike Max and daughter Cassidy, 10, pause prior to Senior Awards Night on Sunday at Willmar High School.

Willmar notebook: A few words from Mike Max

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West Central Tribune
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Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

You can say this about Mike Max: He connects with the audience.

For 40 minutes Sunday evening in the high school theater, he kept athletes, parents, coaches and staff off-balance, like a crafty veteran pitching junk, sinkers and fastballs.

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Pacing the stage, he sounded part preacher, advice columnist, football coach in a halftime locker room, commencement speaker, politician and throughout, just one of us. He told jokes (not all new) and spoke of tragedies.

He celebrated the Cardinal athletes, of course, but also mentioned Litchfield, Benson and Morris, where his dad was a quarterback for the Tigers in the mid-1950s.

And, of course, he talked of Gaylord, his hometown. Starred and captained three sports. Painted barns in the summer with an older brother. Told us of a seventh-grade brother run over and pinned under the tractor’s rear tires. For 20 minutes, he kept us hanging whether his kid brother survived as the ambulance sped to Minneapolis, trailed by frightened family members.

Attending with the popular WCCO Sports personality was his daughter Cassidy, who beamed when I asked her age. “I’m 10, but I will be 11 in June.” She has a younger brother named Colten, she added.

“I brought my daughter along today because she’s a gymnast and I wanted her to experience what it means to make a commitment, and what an awards banquet looks like. I wanted to see how special it is and to know that she can be like this one day. This is what greatness looks like.”

Don’t beat yourself up over failure, he warned. “I hope sports teaches you what you can control. Be satisfied when you gave it your best shot.”

And to parents, just three words: “Encourage, encourage, encourage,” because “The world will offer enough discouragement.”

Mike went on to Hamline where he played both basketball and baseball. He wanted to be a sportscaster but was told he didn’t have what it takes.

“But nobody asked me how hard are you willing to work?”

He wrapped it up with an old chestnut but after this whirlwind commentary by an athletic broadcaster who looks like he could hit .300 in town ball, it seemed appropriate: “Tough times never last but tough people always do.”

Oh, yes, his younger brother? Miraculously, he survived, and after many operations made a full recovery. The month he graduated, he quarterbacked the Outstate Football team to victory over the Metro. One of his coaches, said Mike Max (another connection here), was “Deryl Ramey, a legend here in Willmar.”

Supreme superintendent

Speaking of Deryl Ramey, he was a junior three-sport star at Atwater High School when Lowell Melby spent his only year there (1960-61) as superintendent. Ramey would go on play center for the Minnesota Gophers football team and Melby would go on to become, at first, the assistant superintendent at Willmar (’61-64) and super (’64-86). In 1978, Ramey was hired to replace Bill Hansen, even more legendary, as the Cardinals’ football coach.

Last Saturday, friends filled the Vinje Church great room to celebrate Lowell’s 90th birthday (actually Jan. 21).

It was one of these reunions of longtime friends, colleagues and loved ones more often experienced at funerals. But Lowell and his wife Patty (united in marriage in 1951) remain very much in the present.

Lowell stills plays golf, which he took up in the early ’50s at the club in Long Prairie, near Clarissa where he was head administrator. He’s straight of stature, sharp of mind and full of cheer.

The couple’s three children — Barbara, Karen and David — all Willmar grads, each celebrated their father in words or song (David). And then Lowell spoke.

Now, what words would you or I speak to a crowd on our 90th birthday, or any birthday? Would we speak of work, our travels, our children, our pets, our accomplishments or failures?

This man, without pretense, spoke of what has moved him through his life: namely, the Gettysburg Address, the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. We might have been listening to a Supreme Court Justice.

Lowell, it should be pointed out, cornered P.E. teacher Elaine Engle on a downtown street in 1974 and instructed her to form a girls golf team, which a decade later won the school’s first state championship.

The Central Lakes Conference took shape in 1975. Willmar High School had simply grown too large for the West Central league. With principal Cliff Schlosser and athletic director Russ Adamson, Lowell attended the many meetings in St. Cloud. The CLC debuted in the fall of 1977 with eight teams.

Later, in conversation, Lowell spoke fondly of former assistant principle, P.E. teacher and coach Ed Otto (soon to be 87), now living back in his native North Dakota, in Grafton, where a daughter lives.

Both Ed and Lowell came from small towns on opposite sides of the Red River (Lowell grew up in Ulen) and were educators in smaller Minnesota towns before spending the majority of their careers in Willmar.

I asked Lowell, looking back as an administrator, what makes him most proud: “Working with the staff. Not just the teachers, everyone.  We were one big, respectful family.”

Admittedly, things were a little less complicated. For one, financial stresses were fewer.

“We never had to make any cuts until 1980 when we had to take $800,000 out of the budget,” he remembered. “We had this big meeting in the COB auditorium. Everyone had good ideas what to do, as long as it didn’t affect them.”

On the fly

n Alex Means, younger brother of Willmar fourth grade teacher Eric Means, has signed with the Carolina Panthers. A 6-foot-5, 240-pound outside linebacker was perhaps the Air Force Academy’s top defender in 2013. The deal went down Monday according to a posting on NFL Draft Diamonds. Alex spent his early years in Montevideo but moved to Mankato where he starred for the Mankato East Cougars. On his twitter page, Alex said: “I’m honored, humbled, and proud to say I’m heading to [Panthers] minicamp … thanks to my amazing family and awesome agent.!!”

n Thomas Siefert, senior runner, has signed to compete in both cross country and track and field at Augustana.

n Willmar Boxing Club fighter Fernando Zavala, 16, was a winner at the State Junior Olympic  bouts on Saturday. His brother Eloy, 18, hadn’t expected to fight again this season and had not trained for two weeks. He nonetheless he took advantage of an unexpected opportunity but wasn’t sharp and lost to “a very good” opponent, said manager Kirk Davis. Fernando and Diamond Tello, who was unopposed, both advance to the J.O. Regional in Nebraska.

n The Ridgewater softball team missed out on the NJCAA Division-III Regionals by one win. Dakota College at Bottineau (N.D.) goes instead, after winning a playoff that included NDSCS and Century College. Only three teams from both the MCAC South advanced this year but it will be back to four next year, said Ridgewater College A.D. Todd Thorstad. The Warriors had the fourth best record in the South.

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Rand Middleton
Tribune photographer/videographer. Began working in radio and at weekly newspaper in Munising, Michigan, in 1972. Started parttime at West Central Daily Tribune Sept. 1974. Fulltime news/sports beginning Feb. 1979. Married to Tribune news clerk Donna (Miller) Middleton, formerly of Kerkhoven. 2 grown children. 
(320) 214-4334
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