A look back at the guy from ‘wrong side of the tracks’ who came to Pelican to teach shop, milk cows, raise foster kids and launch a wrestling program that is marking its 60th year

Disgusted like many of us, following the State of the Union address–I planned a column  about President Trump; Congressional House Speaker Nancy Pelosi; conservative talk radio windbag Rush Limbaugh; the generally dismal state of affairs confronting us…..blah, blah, blah…..

Then…I went to a couple wrestling matches down the street, at Pelican Rapids High School.  

Everything changed.  

Why on earth would I wallow in the mud of national politics when local stories are much more interesting?  

Pelican Rapids wrestling coach Harold Holt, left, with the guy who started it all six decades ago: Bob King, 87. It was King who gave Harold his nickname “Happy.” Lacking the “killer instinct” of many wrestlers, Holt “was not the guy who was going to tear anybody up,” said King. “Happy” Holt “always came off the mat smiling,” recalled King.

Stories like Bob King.

He’s the Northern Minnesota guy from the wrong side of the tracks–and the wrong side of the river–in Park Rapids, who single-handedly founded the Pelican school wrestling program 60 years ago.  

He spent a career in the Pelican school system, teaching shop and coaching, and raising 50 or so kids along the way: The Kings took in Foster kids. Dozens of them. Juvenile delinquents, for the most part. From the wrong side of the railroad tracks, most of them.  

“Well, these kids had a choice: Go to reform school, or go to the Kings…If they didn’t make it at the Kings, they were sent away.” 

As Bob tells it, the Kings would get a couple new ones each year.  

“I think the most we had was 12 at one time.” 

Twelve???

A dozen delinquents?…Under the same roof?…At the same time?  

Unfathomable, for most of us mortals.  

But Bob had secret weapons.  

A couple dozen cows, for starters. 

“We’d get the kids up at 5 or 5:30 to milk the cows. The kids who got in the most trouble had to clean the pens.” 

Another weapon, his late wife Cleo.  She didn’t take any guff from the ruffians. 

“She made them go outside and smoke their cigarettes–even if it was 20 below,” recalled Bob. Of course, that also applied to whatever other stuff they might have been smoking. Most of the King foster kids were “troublemakers,” placed out of the criminal justice system–not by social services. 

(Cleo, who died about 25 years ago, also became a faithful wrestling fan herself.  Widower Bob later married Cheryl Larson.)

King was a Park Rapids High School football player, who spent a couple years with Uncle Sam’s Army in the mid 1950’s, and returned to the northwoods to attend Bemidji State University on the GI Bill.  

That’s the abbreviated  backstory on 87-year-old Bob King. Foster parent, educator, farmer, father of three (Scott, Mike, who wrestled for him; and Sherri, who still works on the sidelines during meets). Also, foster parent to a few dozen  transient ragamuffins; and a couple hundred rag-tag wrestlers. His retirement hobby has been woodworking in his home. 

As far as wrestling, following is a scratch-the-surface rundown.

King launched the Pelican program in a school hallway, because there was nowhere else to practice. He barely kept records the first three years; and King’s penmanship was so awful, that his late assistant Dean Fox took over the books–and forbid King from touching them.  

Heck, King wasn’t much of a wrestler himself. 

He had a  little bit of mat experience at a feeble program at Park Rapids High. 

At Bemidji State, the guy coached from a U.S. Navy wrestling manual, because he didn’t know what he was doing. Plus–the  Bemdji football and wrestling coach was a complete and total jerk, said King.  “He was burned in effigy six times while I was up in Bemidji,” said King.  For those of you who didn’t grow up during the American Revolutionary War — or the 1950’s — “burning in effigy” may require some explanation. You create a likeness of the King of England, and torch it during  the Boston Tea Party. In the 1950’s, you might create a look-alike of  then vice president Richard Nixon; or maybe Elvis–if you held religious convictions that rock and roll truly was the Devil’s music.  

Or…you could burn the effigy of some numskulled college professor–which is what they did up in Bemidji. 

Point being: King wasn’t exactly an Olympic-level wrestler.

Still, he managed to build a program from a motley  crew of Pelican-ites, that went on to  nine conference titles, seven district championships, and two regional titles. 

We’ll get into the wrestling history a little deeper in an upcoming  edition of the Press–and the trio of head coaches who span the entire six decades: King, Virg Kollar, and Harold Holt. 

I could have written a column about national affairs- this week- U.S. Presidents, born with silver spoons up their you-know-what.  Or, about congresswomen who pontificate about disadvantaged and troubled youth at San Francisco wine and cheese and Perrier parties.  Or, I might  have written about big fat hot air machines like talk show right-winger Rush Limbaugh. 

So,  decided not to write about politics this week. 

Bob King’s a better story.

by Louis Hoglund, Managing Editor