The Danube farm boy was an all-state, triple-threat quarterback on three undefeated Hawks' football teams in the early 1950s. He went on to become a teacher and hall-of-fame basketball coach at Appleton, Litchfield and Willmar. This is his story, as told to Rand Middleton, former West Central Tribune sports reporter and photographer.
Growing up, there were about 400 people in Danube. There were two grocery stores, two barber shops, we must have had about five restaurants, a Case dealership, Massey Harris, Minneapolis Moline and International Harvester. We had a Studebaker garage — one of the largest in the state — Leuck's Garage. He was part of our church and on Sunday, I'd say, 99 percent of the cars in the parking lot were Studebakers. Except for Ernie Black, he always drove Fords.
The Danube kids were either "Sodbusters" or "City Slickers." But I was a "Tweener." We lived just a half-mile north of the Milwaukee Road and if you cut across the field it was only
about a quarter mile to town.
Our house had three bedrooms, no bathroom and we heated with wood. I had to share the smallest bedroom with the youngest of my three sisters. When Dad went to the elevator and the service station, I'd tag along. Townfolk told me in later years that my dad would always say,
"Com' on Shorty, com' on Shorty."
I don't remember ever not being called Shorty, except by Mom. She never used it.
Social life revolved around school and church. We went to school plays, band concerts and revivals. There were Lutherans (Missouri Synod) and us Evangelicals (Christian Reform). So everything that was fun was a sin. There was no work on Sunday, except on the farm we could do chores.
Being on the farm, organized sports weren't part of my growing up until about eighth grade, though we did play pickup games. In the farm yard, I had three homemade basketball hoops. A teacher noticed that I could do a lot of situps and pushups. He went out to the farm and told dad his boy should be playing school sports.
We had good teams at Danube.The football team went unbeaten in 35 straight games from 1948 to 1954, basketball won three 212 Conference titles and baseball won District in 1953.
There were many standouts, like all-stater Junior Voelz, my cousin Dick Schroeder, Rod Black, Clarence Seehusen, Bill and Marvin Standfuss, Roger Grund, Del Roelofs, Larry Good and twins Arvin and Arvid "Red" Reetz. And later, Bob Bruggers in the early '60s. The gym is named after him.
In high school, the coaches put me at quarterback, at guard in basketball — I was 5'-9" by the time I graduated in '53 — and shortstop and pitcher in baseball.
My senior year, the Minneapolis paper named me to the all-state football team. More than myself, it was a tribute to the outstanding junior class behind me. But that led to numerous recruiting letters, from as far away as Wyoming. But I was just maybe 160 pounds and knew my chances were better with a basketball.
The coach at Luther College recruited me. Dad bought me a used Studebaker and told me not to come home until Christmas. Decorah was about five hours away, just across the Iowa border. Boy, was I lonely. I came home for Danube homecoming.
In 1957, Appleton hired me to teach social studies and coach. I stayed three years. I had played a lot of town-team baseball at Danube and Olivia and that probably helped me get the job.
The base salary was around $3,300. My 22nd birthday was still a few weeks away when I started. As head basketball coach, I believe you were paid $250, assistant football was $150 and there was no pay for baseball since it was considered a secondary sport. There was a clause in the first-year contract stating "and other duties as assigned by the superintendent." I was also the adviser for the high school prom and supervised concessions through the year. It was probably the worst prom Appleton ever had.
About the time I was hired, the Commercial Club began giving kids rides home after practice. That was big for me because we had country boys coming out of the woodwork to play sports. There were four routes each day after practice with a car going in each direction.
The farm kids included Stan Skjei, who won the first Hengstler Award in 1962 as the West Central Daily Tribune Athlete of the Year. I think we had more farm kids than town kids playing sports. Back then there were high schools in Holloway, Bellingham, Marietta, Madison, Milan and Boyd.
My goal all along was to get hired at Alexandria or Willmar. I had no interest in the Twin Cities. As it turned out, getting hired by superintendent Lowell Melbye at Willmar in 1966 was the best thing that could have happened to me.
If I had it to do over again, I wouldn't have started out as a head coach. I thought I knew a lot, but I was the only guy who thought so. Five years under Russ Adamson is when I started thinking maybe I know what coaching was about.
When Russ retired to take the A.D. (athletic director) job in 1970, I was appointed head coach. I was 35 years old. We went to state in '74, '83 and '85. I retired, thought I might get the A.D, job when Russ retired but that didn't work out. So fine; I'll just ice fish, but about 10 minutes looking down a hole and that was enough of that. I was bored.
We had a daughter still in school and she was a pretty good player. She was a senior and they
asked me if I'd be interested in coaching the girls' team. I was going to coach that one year and retire again, but I ended up coaching six years and the women took me to the state tournament twice, in '92 and '93. So that was five times; we didn't win it, but what an experience!
Looking back, coaching played such an important role in my life. I had great success with real estate but that's not anywhere near as much fun as coaching. Sure, you make more money but it's just not the same.
I could sell a half-million dollar house and get a pretty good chunk of change off that, but it's not nearly the feeling you get when 15 kids win a regional tournament — not even close. It's not just for yourself, because you are only as good as your players, the people surrounding you and the community you represent.
People like Dewey Bock and Mike Hanson, my assistant coaches for 11 and 14 years. People who don't surround themselves with good people will not be be successful.
My three heroes were my dad, my football coach Dick Brenckman at Danube and Bill Zahl, my minister in junior high. After many ministers, older ones, preaching fire and brimstone, Bill took us places, like swimming at Green Lake and toboggan parties. We found out there could be some fun things to religion, too.
My heroes taught me family first, religion next and after that you got to pick out what is important. I chose athletics. High school athletics is a fringe benefit; not an end-all. It's what you accomplish in life after sports.
It's been a good life, absolutely, and a good career. When I think of all the kids I taught, and the kids I coached, hopefully I had some influence, that they learned something that was important. I hope so.