One evening in the early 1960s, Rodney Wallace invited Frank Sinatra over to his home on Lake Minnetonka's St. Albans Bay. The two men "ran trains" on Wallace's model railroad tracks until 6 a.m. — something railroad hobbyists would understand.
That brush with fame was memorable, but it came with the job. For 43 years, Wallace was the owner and creative mind behind the Thunderbird Motel in Bloomington, where he met thousands of Minnesotans and a few people like Sinatra.
The lifelong businessman and backer of University of Minnesota sports died March 26 of kidney failure. He was 92.
In its heyday, the Thunderbird was a local social hub and an anchor along the Interstate 494 "Strip." Wallace made the Thunderbird an unforgettable place with a staggering amount of American Indian art and artifacts.
"The Thunderbird was a huge thing in his life," Dina Dainty, his daughter-in-law, said. "He never stopped working on it or improving it, even in those last years he owned it."
Wallace loved Gopher football just as much. He was the Cannon Man at home games for 20 years, firing a small cannon when the team scored. "I'm happy when they win; I bleed a little when they lose," he told the Star Tribune in 1999.
When the University of Minnesota decided to build a new football stadium, he was the first person to donate $1 million to the effort, said his wife Julie. And the team's practice field inside the Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex is today called Rod Wallace Field.
Wallace was born in Minneapolis in 1924 with business in his bones. His parents and several uncles ran businesses and were constantly selling products. "They were successful people," Julie said. "He grew up in a family of go-getters and it really rubbed off on him."
As a child, Wallace took a trip with a friend's family to an Indian reservation. He was immediately enamored of Indian customs and traditions. The trip, said Julie, inspired a lifelong love of Indian art and culture.
Wallace built the Thunderbird in 1962 next to the old Met Center and Metropolitan Stadium. A totem pole-like structure and a towering statue of an Indian chief stood outside, while the inside was filled with art Wallace bought, much of it from Indian artists who traveled from as far away as the Arizona-Mexico border. "He developed a reputation of paying very well," Julie said.
He also routinely faced criticism that, as a white man making money off Indian culture, he was guilty of cultural appropriation. "Every six months or a year, someone goes into the hotel and gets offended by the [stuffed] animals or the Indian decorations," he said in 1994. "Very seldom are they Native American, but they take up this cause."
Wallace also donated millions to the U to provide scholarships to American Indians pursuing education degrees and to fund the remodeling of Burton Hall, the university's original library.
Wallace sold the motel in 2005 and he and Julie donated about 40 pieces of Indian art to the University of Minnesota-Duluth's Tweed Museum. The Thunderbird building was recently demolished.
Besides his wife, Wallace is survived by son Rodney Wallace Jr. (Patty); daughters Debra Riberdy (Gill), Gretchen Wallace and Bridget Harter (Scott); stepsons John Dainty (Nancy), Richard Dainty (Angela) and Joseph Dainty (Dina), and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
A funeral was held at Washburn-McReavy Edina Chapel on April 1.