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Willmar Notebook: Living large in a small town

Tribune photo by Rand Middleton Rob Anderson, left, and Manny Ronneberg grew up playing sports in small towns along U.S. Highway 212. Together they approach retirement with a combined 87 years as educators.

A long time ago (but not far away), Manny Ronneberg and Rob Anderson were high school athletes.

It was the 1960s. Think Beatles, Vietnam, assassinations, Civil Rights marches, men on the moon.

Ronneberg graduated from Dawson High School in 1962. In football he was a 145-pound two-way end and played on the Blackjacks varsity baseball team four years. Soon after he graduated the school consolidated with the district a little to its southeast, the Boyd Rams.

Anderson lettered 12 times at Renville. On May 2, 1967, he was named this newspaper's top prep athlete. Bob Bruggers presented him with the trophy at the banquet at Willmar Senior High School. Five years before, Bruggers had won the same award at the end of his mythic prep career at Danube, which was Renville's biggest rival.

To a teenager this day reading about athletes in the Sixties compares, in years, to Ronneberg, in his senior year, reading about athletes in 1912; so distance to a teen in '62 it might as well have been B.C. (Before Civilization).

This is the iPhone gen, but high school sports remain the glue in many towns and villages. Kids still love to play sports because the games are all about them.

And the best games were pick-up games on empty lots or at the school yard, no adults present.

"We'd start in the morning, go home for an hour at noon and come back and then at 3 one of the moms would bring us cookies," said Anderson, retiring principal at the high school. "I hit 331 homers one summer," he crowed with a hearty laugh. "I kept track." Kids had little money. A nickel bought a Milky Way or a 6-ounce Coke. The hardware store on main street was where a kid went to test the fit of a Rawlings and Wilson glove but buying a $15 Stan Musial autographed was usually out of the question.

"We had 4 or 5 hardwares," Manny said of his home town. He lived on a small acreage farm on the edge of town; in summer he'd hire out to the bigger farmers.

Renville had three grocery stores -- Fairway Foods, IGA and Red Owl -- and 5 gas stations, plus Farmer's Coop Oil, along U.S. Highway 212.

Dawson played in the Little Sioux Conference. Madison, just to the north, was a rival. Their star was a kid named Mike Hanson, a future Cardinals head basketball coach. In summer, Hanson would join Ronneberg on the Dawson Legion and the town team.

Anderson became the Indians' starting shortstop in eighth grade, a basketball starter in ninth and a quarterback/running back for the football squad as a sophomore.

From Renville, the 212 League reached in a straight, flat line from Brownton, 42 miles to the east, to Sacred Heart, 7 miles west. In between were Stewart, Buffalo Lake, Hector, Bird Island, Danube and Renville. Olivia, a larger town, was an independent.

The players dressed at home for football road games and the bus served as the halftime locker room. Stewart didn't have lights so the team got out of school early to play an afternoon road game every other year. Punts at Danube soared into darkness above the low light standards.

Neither Manny nor Rob recalls their parents traveling to away games.

"I don't think my parents ever went to an out-of-town game," said Manny.

"Parents hardly ever traveled to road games," Rob agreed.

Of course, when it got to late February and into March, the district and region tournaments were must see if your team was in the spotlight.

The two educators stressed, unlike today, town kids didn't drive cars to school; some farm kids drove their dad's pick-up.

"We rode bike or walked," said Manny.

Rob scored 1,100 points in high school when the regular schedule was 18 games, halves were 16 minutes (not 18) and the 3-point shot was still two decades away.

"We got a new coach and he told us we should have two pairs of gym shoes, one for practice and one pair for games," remembered Rob. "Two pair of Converse high tops? They were almost $6 a pair. Where were we supposed to come up with $12?" Manny's graduation class had 48 students. Rob was No. 1 academically in a class of 46, only 9 of them girls. Manny's 50th class reunion is scheduled for September. He knows for sure at least a third of his classmates are deceased.

The head coaches from Concordia College, St. Cloud State and Gustavus Adolphus came knocking at the Anderson door eager to recruit the compact point guard.

Whitey Skoog won the Anderson family over. Rob's step father Algort thought he was "an honest fellow," and he should enroll at Gustavus.

The 5-foot-8 guard would start 3 years for Skoog. He was named co-captain as a junior and team MVP the next year. On road trips, the head coach would treat the boys to hilarious stories of his years playing with George Mikan, Vern Mikkelsen and Slater Martin on the champion Minneapolis Lakers.

Manny enrolled at St. Cloud State; he didn't consider himself college-level talent, athletically, and concentrated on getting his teaching degree in math and science.

Fresh out of college at mid-year, he was hired by Ramsey Junior High School in St. Paul.

He stayed 3½ years, but he and his wife Jeanie (Werner), a year behind him at Dawson, missed the open country. Willmar seemed like a nice town.

"I only knew it from driving through it on trips to college," he said. "Dawson was more tied to Watertown, South Dakota, in those days." Manny has another week left (teaching geometry) in a 46-year career. He coached junior high girls basketball for about 14 years and spent a similar amount of time as the high school's assistant activities director.

"I don't mind what I'm doing," he said. "But it's time to do something else. We've got 8 grandchildren in the cities." Rob couldn't escape his roots, even though he tried. Renville superintendent Norm McQuire, his principal in high school, offered him a job while still in college.

"I turned him down at Easter when he visited our house, but he came to the college and found me in a classroom," said Rob. "Whitey was with him. Norm waved a contract in my face and said 'I'm going to take you out for dinner and then you're going to sign this contract.' He'd already offered me a spot as assistant coach for football and basketball, but then he added head baseball coach and I couldn't turn him down. He knew I wanted to coach."

Anderson taught science, served as a guidance counselor and became principal of the six-year-old Renville-Sacred Heart High School consolidation in 1987; Danube merged in '88 and Belview in '90. He had some great years as head basketball coach at his alma mater; his '73, '74 and '75 teams each won the District 12 championship and logged a combined record of 66-5.

He came to Willmar as principal in 2000, retired in 2011 only to be brought back for an encore when a suitable replacement was not found. His career spans 42 years.

Rob also married his high-school sweetheart, Linda Johnson, also a year behind him in school. And just like Manny and Jeanie, the Andersons have 8 grandchildren.

At the end of our visit in the principal's office, the two educators and the newspaper man -- all three children of the Sixties -- agreed that the years have passed quickly, like scenes out a school bus window on a Friday road trip.

But 1912? That still seems like ancient history.

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. 
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