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Blast from the Past: Olson's passing brings back 1960 memories

Les Knutson

Daily Globe columnist 

VIRGINIA — Fulda native Patrick Reusse has written many fabulous columns for the Minneapolis Star and Tribune. His latest —- published in Sunday’s paper —- brings baby boomers, those 62 or older according to Reusse, back in time by recalling what he considers the two greatest sporting events in Minnesota history.

Unfortunately, it took a tragedy in the northeast area of the state to unlock Reusse’s gem of memories into one very interesting piece of journalism.

Less than two weeks ago, Richie Olson —- who was dealing with Parkinson’s Disease —- fell down the steps at his cabin home north of Virginia, an Iron Range town where Olson went to teach and coach after leaving Edgerton in 1963.

His injuries were serious, leaving him paralyzed and needing a respirator. Olson was unable to recover and he died last Thursday at age 76.

“Former Virginia coach Olson dies, holds special place in Minnesota basketball history,” ran a headline in Friday’s Duluth Tribune.

Olson, who was Virginia High School’s athletic director and an avid golfer for many years, guided the Blue Devils to an undefeated Region 7 basketball championship in his second season as their coach in 1965.

For Olson, it was his third state tournament trip in just his sixth season as a head boys’ basketball coach. Virginia lost a close game in the first round and Olson continued to have successful teams for more than a decade before retiring from coaching and devoting himself to his athletic director duties.

In his retirement, Olson returned to Virginia in the warm months, but spent his winters in either Florida or Texas.

“We spent time with Rich and Marlys in both Florida and Texas,” recalled Farmington’s Vernon Schoolmeester, who grew up in Edgerton where Olson spent the first four years of his teaching and coaching career. “We still exchanged Christmas cards and kept in touch. The Olsons were a great family, it’s too bad they had to suffer a sudden tragedy like this.”

Schoolmeester was an eighth grader when Olson, who was lured to Edgerton by Superintendent Bill Fure, inherited a fine basketball team which had gone 17-5 the previous winter and earned the 1959 District 8 runner-up trophy under the guidance of third-year head coach Ken Kielty, who had been a starting outfielder for the Minnesota Gophers’ baseball team in the early 1950s.

Fure had coached basketball himself at Chatfield in eastern Minnesota for six years, including a District 1 championship in 1949. He saw something special in Olson when he recruited him at a Bowling Alley in Bloomington where Olson was working part time while studying for his Master’s Degree at Macalester College (in St. Paul) where he had been a two-time all-MIAC basketball player and had won the conference pole vault title in 1958.

“I was impressed with Olson’s scholastic record and I liked the way he handled people at the bowling alley,” said the persistent Fure in “Edgerton: A Basketball Legend,” by Tom Tomaschek and Ken Kielty, published in 2008. “He was the kind of guy who took charge.”

So, when Kielty left to take a baseball coaching job in Minneapolis, Fure hired Olson to become Edgerton’s new basketball coach.

Much as been chronicled about Edgerton’s legendary ’59-60 season, including the team’s season-ending victory at Luverne, the stellar performance by the Flying Dutchmen to defeat an outstanding Pipestone team in the District 8 semifinals, the amazing 29-point (73-44) win over Mankato in the Region 2 semifinals and, of course, the three “magical” days at Williams Arena when Chisholm (65-54), Richfield (63-60, overtime) and perennial power Austin (72-61) were all defeated —- to the thrill of throngs of fans, who had jumped on the Edgerton bandwagon —- by Olson’s well-disciplined team.

I have written several “Blasts-From-the-Past” about that season and its impact on Minnesota high school basketball.

Reusse, perhaps, said it best in his recent column:

“Olson had a long tenure as the basketball coach at Virginia, yet his name has always been attached to the Edgerton Dutchmen, the champions of the one-class boys’ basketball tournament in 1960.

“The clarification of one-class and boys were not necessary in 1960. It was the State Tournament. Period.”

Reusse goes on to tell how the two greatest events in Minnesota sports history both happened in 1960 —- Edgerton’s championship (March 26) and the Gophers’ football victory over Iowa (Nov. 5) before 65,292 exuberant fans at Memorial Stadium.

Reusse disputes that Minnesota is 0-4 in Super Bowls. He says that the Gophers (ranked No. 3) beating Iowa (ranked No. 1) by a final score of 27-10 was the Super Bowl for Baby Boomers and we won.

Earlier, Reusse had mentioned the crowds for Edgerton’s three games at Williams Arena: 18,436 for the quarterfinals, 18,812 for the unbelievable overtime victory over Richfield and a jam-packed 19,018 for the frenzied championship.

He said it wasn’t necessarily better, just simpler.

It certainly was an unforgettable tournament. Old-time basketball fans can all rattle off the names of Bob Wiarda, Dean Verdoes, Dean Veenhof, LeRoy Graphenteen and Darrell Kreun — the 1960 starting five.

“I was just shocked when I saw the news about Rich’s death in the paper,” says longtime Pipestone coach and athletic director Bob Nangle, who lived in the same duplex as the Olsons when he was Rich’s basketball assistant and was assisted by Olson as Edgerton’s head football coach. “He worked hard and knew how to motivate kids, putting them in the right situations to be successful.”

Schoolmeester, who later became Olson’s star guard, agreed:

“He sure inspired me,” he said. “Rich was a great teacher (science and physical education), as well as a terrific coach. He taught us to do our very best and how to compete at a high level.”

Edgerton, during Olson’s four years, certainly competed at a high level.

The Flying Dutchmen had never won a District 8 title before he came, and they have not won a district or sub-section championship since he left.

But in the four seasons that Olson guided EHS, the Dutchmen claimed three District 8 championships (advanced to the semifinals in 1962), two Region 2 titles, had two undefeated regular seasons (’59-60 and ’62-63) and, of course, the undefeated (27-0) 1960 state championship.

It seems that Bill Fure made a good decision at that Bloomington Bowling Alley in the spring of 1959.