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Les Knutson: Wally Pribyl helped put Heron Lake on the map

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Les Knutson: Wally Pribyl helped put Heron Lake on the map
Worthington Minnesota 300 11th Street / P.O. Box 639 56187

Les Knutson

Daily Globe sports columnist 

All the pews were full last Friday morning (March 28) at Christ The King Catholic Church in Webster, S.D.

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The life of one of the town’s most beloved citizens and community leaders was being celebrated at the large church, which completed construction in 1966 — the same year that the friendly fellow being remembered had graduated from a small high school in southwestern Minnesota.

A 1966 graduate of Heron Lake High School, Walter Dodge “Wally” Pribyl died March 24 at the age of 65 after battling cancer for seven years.

Wally, along with his wife Kathy (from Wheaton, Minn.), had owned and operated the popular A & W Restaurant in Webster for 26 years, from 1980-2006. Helping out were the couple’s three boys — Steve, Todd and Sam, who also spent lots of summer weekends enjoying time with their parents at Enemy Swim Lake about 17 miles to the northeast. Water skiing, which was one of Wally’s passions, was passed on to the boys.

While in Webster — a town of approximately 1,500 people 27 miles west of Watertown — Wally served on both the school board and city council, as well as various other committees in town.

Wally and Kathy employed lots of Webster youth at the A & W, giving many teenagers their first jobs. Wally also helped coach pole vaulters at Webster High School, including his youngest son Sam, who became a multiple state champion and later earned All-American honors while exceeding 17 feet as a vaulter for the University of South Dakota (USD) in Vermillion.

Sam, in fact, is still vaulting (at age 31) and cleared 18-1 last year while training in Jonesboro, Arkansas. “Last year was my best year yet,” Sam told me Friday. “Dad was down there in October to see me vault, so that was really special.”

Vaulting in the Pribyl

backyard in the 1960s

Born as the first child (of three) to Bernie and Florence (Dodgie) Pribyl in Heron Lake on November 1, 1948, Wally grew up going to Sacred Heart Catholic School and learned how to work by helping out in the Heron Lake Pharmacy, owned and operated by his parents.

While Bernie was a pharmacist — and an excellent trumpet player — he was also a former pole vaulter and a very good one.

Vaulting for Lakefield High School, Bernie had cleared 11 feet, two inches — using a bamboo pole — back in 1933. Bernie set a new District 7 record, a mark that would last for 31 years.

No one between 1933 and 1964 ever went higher in the District 7 meet — not until Wally broke the record as a sophomore at Heron Lake High School, clearing 11-5.

Two years later, Wally improved the record to 11-8.

In between those district-record performances, Wally went higher — several times, including setting a Trojan Relays record of 12-5 in 1965 and winning the Region 2 gold medal in 1966 when he cleared the bar at 12-6 in Worthington.

Later, Wally won the Intramural Track and Field Meet pole vault title at the University of Minnesota, soaring over the bar at 13 feet.

Wally did his practicing in the Pribyl backyard — located at the corner of 4th Avenue and 13th Street. It was quite a set up. A crushed rock runway led to a large (and soft) pit, which started with old tires, topped with a bunches of old mattresses, which gave the landing area plenty of height. Lots of burlap potato sacks stuffed with foam rubber covered the mattresses, giving the vaulter a nice, “cushy” landing.

Dave Hady, Tom Pribyl (Wally’s younger brother by four years) and I used to watch “in awe” when Wally was attempting heights of 11 or 12 feet. After Wally and Bernie (his pole vaulting coach) were finished, we three guys — we were in junior high when Wally was in high school — would lower the standards down and take our attempts in the six- and seven- foot range.

That was a big thing for me, learning how to pole vault and watching Wally — both at practice and at meets. I’ll never forget riding along with Wally and his family in their station wagon to the Trojan Relays in Worthington as an eighth-grader in 1965 — one of the few beautiful days for the event during the ‘60s.

But it was quite an experience. The Pribyls took several poles along and Bernie had Wally carefully measure out his steps and do several “run-throughs,” making sure his “stride” was on.

It was in the early years of the fiberglass pole and Wally could make that red thermo-flex bend better than most, sending him skyward as he pulled himself into a handstand before turning and pushing himself over the bar.

Punter and defensive back

for the Golden Gophers

While I could go on and on about Wally’s pole vaulting, as that is what I best remember him for, it was his football days at the University of Minnesota that really “put Heron Lake on the map.”

An all-around athlete, Wally played football, basketball and baseball for the Falcons (he also ran a spectacular anchor leg on the HLHS 880-yard relay team in the ‘66 District 7 meet, after the pole vault was finished). He was Heron Lake’s starting quarterback for four seasons, played defensive back and punted.

As a “walk on” at the U, Wally impressed head coach Murray Warmath and his staff enough to become the Gophers’ backup punter as a sophomore in the fall of 1967 when he helped the Maroon and Gold go 8-2 and win a share of the Big 10 Title (tied with both Indiana and Purdue). It was the last Big 10 football championship for Minnesota.

The next season, Wally was the lead in Sid Hartman’s column in the Minneapolis Tribune when he was named as a starter in the Gopher’s defensive backfield for the U’s opener (at Memorial Stadium) versus the University of Southern California (USC), which featured All-American running back O.J. Simpson.

As a junior, Pribyl started for the Gophers that autumn day — Saturday, Sept. 21, 1968 — as both a defensive back and as a punter, wearing number 26.

Joining Pribyl as defensive starters were senior veterans Dennis Hale of Jackson (defensive back) and Del Jessen of Luverne (defensive end), as southwest Minnesota was represented by a trio of fine all-around athletes, attempting to stop Simpson and the Bruins.

Wally tackled Simpson a few times and missed him a few times, too. In a close game, USC won 29-20. Pribyl injured a shoulder in one of those tackles and was not able to return to the defensive unit for a few games, but continued as a punter. He, in fact, drew praise from Warmath for averaging 53 yards per punt (seven boots) during one of those Gopher games in ‘68.

“I always admired Wally,” summed up Hale, who was Worthington High School’s head football coach for 33 seasons. “He wasn’t the fastest or the biggest, but his desire was so great that he got the absolute most out of his abilities and earned playing time at the U, doing a good job for us both as a defensive back and as a punter. Later, when he was dealing with cancer, Wally was so positive and upbeat about his situation, determined to battle all the way.”

Obviously, Wally took great pride in his football career with the Gophers — which was followed by Tom (an All-State running back/linebacker for HLHS during the Falcons’ undefeated 1969 season).

And with several Tribune articles, including Sid Hartman’s column and pieces in Cullum’s Column by Dick Cullum, written about him — Wally did, indeed, put Heron Lake on the map.

The first of three Falcons

turned Gophers, Wally

was a local inspiration

Pribyl’s successful attainment of his dream of playing football for the Maroon and Gold (he never changed colors, as the Heron Lake Falcons were also Maroon and Gold) served as an inspiration.

Tom (a 1970 graduate of HLHS) started several games as a defensive back for the Gophers before his career was cut short due to a knee injury and Craig Carlson (a 1972 HLHS graduate) made the basketball squad at the U of M during the last year of Bill Musselman’s coaching career (‘74-75) and first year of Jim Dutcher’s long tenure (‘75-76).

“I remember some people laughing at the thought of Wally wanting to play Big Ten football for the Gophers,” recalled Dane Knutson, a high school teammate (1965 HLHS) of Wally’s and my older brother. “At that time we hadn’t had much success in athletics for a number of years. We were average to below average at best. Most people just couldn’t believe a kid from Heron Lake could make it that level. When Wally proved them all wrong, I think it changed the attitudes of a lot of people, including the kids because Heron Lake started winning in everything soon after. Wally Pribyl was an inspiration.”

True. I know that he was an inspiration to me as I dreamed of some day pole vaulting as high as he did. While never quite reaching that goal, I did become a successful vaulter for the Windom Eagles (we moved to a different farm, putting us in the Windom school district) and, in fact, bettered the Pribyl’s District 7 record in 1969 at Jackson (along with two other guys, I placed third on misses) when three of us (Bill Malady, Windom and Bob Haken, Storden) all cleared the bar at 12 feet, three-quarters of an inch.

That was my all-time best — inspired by years of watching Wally in the Pribyl backyard.

Bernie helped HLOL

pole vaulters Ambrose

and Hovland in the ‘90s

By the 1990s, Wally was well on his way to becoming a legend in Webster and I was coaching boys’ track and field for the Heron Lake-Okabena-Lakefield Silver Bullets. We had several guys who became interested in pole vaulting.

Wisely, I brought in my old coach — Bernie Pribyl — and had him work with the boys. Now in his late 70s, Bernie was still spry and he did a great job teaching the pole vault.

Two of his proteges — Justin Ambrose (1994) and Joel Hovland (1996) — each cleared the bar at 13-3 in the state track meet and brought home medals. Without question, both Justin and Joel admired and respected Bernie — who really sparked a pole vaulting movement in the area three decades earlier when he turned the Pribyl backyard into a practice facility for Wally and an inspiration for others for years to come.

Thanks, Bernie and Wally, for creating such a keen interest in pole vaulting and for inspiring so many to strive to achieve your dreams. Heron Lake (and Webster, S.D.) misses both you guys!

For readers wanting more, there is a very interesting story about Wally and his family on the following website, written by Sioux Falls Argus Leader sports writer Matt Zimmer:

http://mattyzimmer.tumblr.com/post/8065195240/wally-pribyl-remembered. 

And Dane Knutson, Wally’s friend and teammate during high school, wrote a tribute at http://knutsond.blogspot.com/2014/04/farewell-to-old-friend-and-teammate....

Jim O’Brien played

for Bob Tone at

Rice Lake, Wisconsin

Among the former Gophers attending Wally Pribyl’s funeral last Friday was defensive lineman Jim O’Brien, who came all the way from his home town of Rice Lake, Wis.

O’Brien works in the construction business in Rice Lake where he grew up and played high school basketball for Bob Tone, who coached in Heron Lake from 1952-1957.

“He was a stickler for the fundamentals,” remembers O’Brien about Tone. “He was a great coach with tremendous discipline. We worked on passing drills every day and Coach Tone made sure we did it right.”

O’Brien graduated from Rice Lake in 1967 and played with Pribyl on the U of M defense during both the 1968 and 1969 seasons.

Rice Lake, under Tone, advanced all the way to the Wisconsin state championship in basketball in 1961, losing a triple overtime thriller to Milwaukee Lincoln.

At Heron Lake, Tone taught science and physical education and was the Falcons head coach in football, basketball and baseball. His 1956 basketball team won 21 straight games and was ranked as high as seventh in the state of Minnesota, back when there was just one class.

Tone died in 2006 after serving the Rice Lake school district as a driver’s education instructor for many years after retiring from fulltime teaching and coaching.

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