Normandale Community College opened in the fall of 1968 and soon became a mecca for junior college athletics. There were legendary coaches, such as brothers-in-law Ron Lievense Sr. in men's basketball and Fred Moyer in football.
What Normandale coaches had in common with most junior college coaches was surviving on minimal dollars from the school. When Normandale announced in November 1995 it would be dropping its six sports (football, volleyball, baseball, softball, men's basketball and women's basketball), the combined operating budget was $113,000.
The last athletic director, and only briefly, was Paul Blanchard. He had come back to coach baseball in 1993. And there was this story humorously touching on finances for his program:
"Our annual spring trip was to Kansas, to Labette C.C. in Parsons, Kansas," Blanchard said. "We stayed in the same discount hotel with a McDonald's next door. We had a deal, and they would fill up our cooler with Kool-Aid before we left for the ballpark.
"For the trip, we put our baseballs in that cooler. First morning there, I said to a freshman, 'Grab the cooler out of that second van, take it over to McDonald's and they'll fill it with Kool-Aid.'
"He does that. Young guy working there grabs the cooler, puts it on the floor below the counter, takes out the baseballs, puts them in a big bag, fills it up with Kool-Aid and gives the cooler and the bag back to our freshman.
"He comes back and says: 'That McDonald's has a great deal. You buy enough Kool-Aid to fill up a cooler and you get four dozen baseballs."
Blanchard permitted himself a robust laugh and then said: "That naïve freshman turned out pretty good. He's a successful lawyer in a Twin Cities firm."
Blanchard became the baseball coach at Southwest Minnesota State in the summer of 1996. This weekend the Mustangs were closing his 27th and final regular season with a three-game series vs. Minnesota Crookston. He was honored by the school before Saturday's last home game.
The Mustangs, as a No. 5 seed, will play No. 4 St. Cloud State in the eight-team Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference tournament that begins Wednesday in Bismarck, N.D.
As solid as are many of Blanchard's baseball tales, none can top this incredible reality as an athlete:
He once punted 13 times in a college football game while in the midst of taking 55 radiation treatments for Hodgkin's disease.
You probably remember that game if you were beyond the age of reason on Sept. 17, 1983: Nebraska 84, Minnesota 13, in the Metrodome.
"When Joe Salem and the coaches asked me if I was good to go, I should have told them, 'No,' " Blanchard said. "I was 20 pounds lighter from the treatments. I should have told the truth.
"We were terrible that day, and I was really terrible."
Blanchard was the Gophers punter from 1981 through 1983. He also played some baseball at the U but did not have the same swing as Dad — Johnny Blanchard, Minneapolis Central athlete extraordinaire, and the greatest third-string catcher in major league history, behind MVPs Yogi Berra and Elston Howard with the Yankees.
Johnny died in 2009. Paul's mother, Nancy, died two years ago.
The other Nancy Blanchard is his wife — known better in Minnesota athletics as Nancy Harris, of the golfing Harrises originally from Roseau, Minn.
"Dr. Bob and Phyllis are still doing well, and now they are up to seven great-grandchildren," Blanchard said. "Nancy was as competitive as you can get on the golf course, which fits right in with her dad, and with her brothers — John, Rob, Scott and Mark."
Getting involved in the growth of family was an adventure that included heartbreak for Paul and Nancy. They didn't meet as Gophers athletes — the punter and the golfing standout — but later on a blind date.
They were married in 1992 and wanted kids. Nancy had two miscarriages, and then a daughter — already named Maggie Jean — was stillborn.
Then came Jessica and Joe, "two home runs," Paul said. And another on April 19 with the arrival of Jessica's son, Weston Richter, the first grandkid.
Celebration, but the Blanchards still remember the losses. They started the Maggie Jean Foundation a couple of years ago and work through local hospitals to provide support with memorial baskets to those dealing with a lost pregnancy.
"Nancy's coaching the girls golf team at the high school [Marshall], and college baseball … I absolutely still love it,'' Blanchard said.
"We have a league that keeps getting better. I mean, Crookston, since they gave up football and have some resources, is really good, and Augustana's a power … [Minnesota State] Mankato, St. Cloud State, they're always good.
"We have a pretty good club. Our best pitchers are rested, it's double elimination, so maybe we can make a run.
"As for quitting, it was just time. Nancy and I are talking about traveling some. She's interested in taking a trip to the Robert Jones Trail."
Pause. "Where is that?" Paul asked me.
My answer was it's too close to Rome, Ga., and the Blanchards should start with Rome, Italy.