Bob Kennedy dreamed up the Hackensack Children’s Fishing Contest over beers at the American Legion Hall. He turned that dream into reality for 16 summers on the shores of Birch Lake.
Because of Kennedy, once a week from June to August kids from all over the state, the country and occasionally the world would get the chance to catch a fish on the northern Minnesota lake.
Over the years, most of the 10,000-plus youngsters who cast a line hooked at least one sunfish, rock bass, bullhead, perch and, on rare occasions, a northern pike.
Much of the fun came courtesy of Kennedy’s catch-and-release policy and a liberal dose of worms and chum he dumped near the shoreline each year when the ice melted.
Kennedy died Sunday at age 62. But the fishing contest he ran for so long will go on, in honor of a man known for his good humor and bad jokes.
“He always used to tease us,” said Carol Bourquin, another of the fishing contest’s co-creators. “But Bob kept everyone busy and happy.”
A 2010 Star Tribune article described the fishing tournament as “a combination of classic Americana and situation comedy” as “Norman Rockwell meets Northern Exposure.”
Born and raised in Walker, Minn., Kennedy joined the Navy and served 20 years before retiring as a senior chief petty officer in 1989.
He returned to school and got an associate degree, worked a few odd jobs and finally settled in as pulltab gambling manager at Hackensack’s Legion Post 202.
But his first love and real job was raising money and equipment and cobbling together a quirky crew to put on the fishing contest. During each competition, Kennedy threw out corny one-liners through a portable microphone almost as fast as participants threw back fish.
A group of loyal local volunteers lent support and comic relief. Hackensack’s former mayor and town cop Mel Rateike, another of the contest’s creators, died two years ago. But a generation of children remembers him cooking and giving away free hot dogs to youngsters who were not going to be able to eat what they caught.
Another contest mainstay, Bob Duncan, is still working well into his 90s. Duncan has saved thousands of fish using wooden dowels to dig hooks out of their throats. But Duncan was dubbed Dr. Death by the kid who once watched him lose a fish, and the nickname stuck.
Kennedy made sure there were no losers among participants of the Hackensack Children’s Fishing Contest. Each week he gave awards in three age groups (0-5, 6-10 and 11-15) for shortest fish, heaviest fish, first fish caught and most fish caught. Meanwhile, all the kids learned to bait hooks and reel in fish, which volunteers helped safely unhook and release to be caught again.
“It turned out bigger than I thought it would,” Bourquin said of the contest. “We thought we would teach some kids how to fish. We got to watch them grow up.”
Kennedy is survived by his wife, Sherrie, and son Bill (Shannon) Kennedy of Hackensack and daughter Brandi (Kristopher) Bellmont of Rockville, Minn.; siblings Shaleen (Denis) Black of Walker and Mary Jo (Doug) Wolter of Thief River Falls, Minn., and seven grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his parents, Robert and Lois Kennedy.
His funeral is set for 1 p.m. Saturday at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Hackensack. In lieu of flowers, the family asks for donations to the Hackensack Children’s Fishing Contest, 516 Hwy. 371S, Hackensack, MN 56452.
Jim Spencer • 202-383-6123