Luverne had quite a year in 2007, both in the area of non-fiction and fiction. The city in Minnesota’s far southwest corner had a prominent role in Ken Burns’ series, The War, which came to PBS that fall in seven two-hour parts.
The series centered on four cities – Luverne, Mobile, Ala., Sacramento and Waterbury, Conn. – and their contributions in men and in at-home efforts during World War II.
The world premier for the series was held on Sept. 6, 2007 at the Palace Theater in Luverne. The interviews with Quentin Aanenson, a fighter pilot with the U.S. Army Air Corps, and the quoted essays on the war from Al McIntosh, the owner of Luverne’s Rock County Herald, were as compelling as anything offered in those 15 hours of documentary greatness.
That was also the year when John Sandford, the best-selling crime novelist, produced “Dark of the Moon.’’ It was the first of what are now seven books featuring Virgil Flowers, an investigator for the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, rather than Lucas Davenport, the hero of Sandford’s “Prey’’ series.
The city that was in the midst of the drama in that first Flowers’ novel was Bluestem – and Bluestem was based on Luverne.
This added notoriety for Luverne, the Rock County seat with 4,800 residents, was unnecessary for me to have an appreciation for the place.
That comes from living in the southwest corner in the ‘50s and early ‘60s with Luverne as the kings of District 8.
The boys-only athletics at most schools had the staples of football and cross country in the fall, basketball in the winter and baseball and track and field in the spring. Wrestling was a winter option in many places.
There was much less attention paid to enrollment when it came to scheduling. My older brother Michael played quarterback and defense for the Fulda Raiders. As concussion paranoia has struck athletics in this country, I’ve remembered a long-ago night when Michael came home from a road football game and told me this:
He had been kicked in the helmet in the second quarter and had no memory of the rest of the game – even though he had continued as the quarterback, calling and running plays.
“Was that against Luverne?’’ I asked him in a call this week.
“No, it was Windom,’’ he said. “Then, we played Luverne and Worthington, before we started playing the smaller schools in Fulda’s conference.’’
Windom. Luverne. Worthington. Gulp! A kick in the helmet was about least a Fulda Raider was going to get opening the season against that group.
For we Fulda boys, there was a bit of terror at the mere mention of Luverne. The Cardinals were intimidating enough in basketball. I would not have wanted to be within 10 sections of farm land of Luverne when it came to football.
George McKay. I was in junior high, and I remember him muscling through my brother’s Raiders on the basketball court, and then a baseball game on a cold spring afternoon in Fulda.
Michael carried the nickname “Rag’’ with his Fulda buddies – short for “Rag Arm,’’ which was their tribute to his pitching. He had the indignity of being on the mound on this afternoon when McKay put all his power into a pitch and sent it soaring way beyond left-field fence in the full-sized Fulda ballpark.
“Big George sent the baseball into the sky like it was a Sputnik,’’ Michael confirmed this week.
In basketball, Luverne’s sleek athletes came at opponents with pressure defense and crewcuts. They were relentless.
I also remember the uniforms: the purest red on the purest white. If Luverne was playing Fulda on a Tuesday night, it looked as if the Cardinals were wearing uniforms that had arrived in a new shipment on Monday.
The District 8 basketball tournament was the biggest sporting event of the year in our part of the country.
The district was loaded with outstanding athletes in the winter of 1958-59, at Luverne (of course), Pipestone and even small-school Jasper. Fulda also had the best team of my years there, and suffered what the townsfolk considered to be a shocking defeat to little Edgerton in the semifinals.
Edgerton then lost to Jasper and Butch Raymond in the District 8 final.
The next winter, 1959-60, Edgerton was on an unbeaten roll through the smaller schools in the district. They had a game with an excellent Luverne team at the end of the regular season.
I was 14, but we had a “farm kid’’ with a license, and bunch of us piled in a car and headed for Luverne to see the game. We were lucky to get inside in the jam-packed gym.
When Edgerton beat Luverne that night, everyone in District 8 knew that the Dutchmen were for real. Any team in the southwest corner that beat Luverne in anything was for real.
In 1964, Luverne was the state one-class basketball champion – joining Edgerton (1960) and Region 3’s Marshall (1963) in a five-year run of magnificence for southwest Minnesota.
And now, 50 years later, Luverne will be in St. Paul on Wednesday morning with an unbeaten team (27-0-1) in the Class A state hockey tournament.
Luverne and hockey. I’ll bet George McKay could’ve delivered quite a thump as a Bluestem blue-liner.