ANOKA LETTERMAN CLUB HISTORY
The idea was not original. IN fact, it was a copy, born in the bleacher seats at a Hamline-St. Thomas basketball game in 1960. As the late Jack Campbell, former Anoka High School basketball coach and athletic director, and former Anoka County Union sports editor Jack Blesi watched college basketball, the converstaion got around to reunions and organizations. Campbell spoke of the good time former athletes of St. Paul Central High School had at a lettermen's reunion that year and wondered aloud with Blesi whether such a thing could be pulled off in Anoka.
The two agreed about two things: Anoka High School athletics had tradition that went back decades. Also, most of those who wore the letter "A" during their Anoka High School days were still loyal supporters of this athletic tradition which, indeed, deserved some form of recognition.
Blesi took it from there.
Rallying support from former Anoka High School lettermen who graduated during his era in the 1950s, including two individuals who were significant community leaders -- Charlie Sell and Wayne Wallace -- and garnering ideas and help from those athletes who played at Anoka in the 1940s, 1930s and even the mid-1920s, the Anoka A Club took shape in the form of a reunion banquet. The Minnesota Vikings' first draft choice, Tommy Mason, spoke, a dinner was served, and the former athletes who attended, shared the unique camaraderie.
There were few pretenses from the very beginning. The A Club was not going to be a political action committee or a booster club. It was, in a manner of speaking from the perspective of the 1960s, an annual club for the boys of Anoka High School sports. The main requirements were simple; you had to be male and an Anoka athletic letter-winner. That was it. No wives and no outside friends regardless of community image and influence. This was an exclusive group.
"We wanted to have a first-class group, but we didn't want to make it anything more than a once-a-year deal," explains Blesi, who now works for the Minnesota Twins. "We designed it on the premise that everybody belonged to too many organizations already. We didn't want to make the A Club burdensome. The same premise still exists as the A Club is prepared for its 32nd annual gathering June 29 (Monday night) at Greenhaven. Under the guidance of Anoka are realtor, Carl Youngquist, a 1960 Anoka High School graduate and former letterman, the A Club is still a non-political organization that has run a gamut of rich and lean times.
Approximately 150 former Anoka High School lettermen are expected at the dinner at which new Minnesota Gophers football coach, Jim Wacker will speak. They will come from various parts of the country; others from just the Anoka area. It's a nice figure, but not representative of all the school's alumni lettermen who are still living.
From that perspective, 150 is not many. In reality, it's a fraction.
"We have been out own worst enemy in promotion," explained Youngquist. "The Anoka A Club is one of the best-kept secrets in the state and it is something we as a group need to address to ensure its survival."
But there is no feeling of panic. The A Club is solid, having grown from a social organization into a fund-raising scholarship force.
Since 1967, in memory of a deceased member and former all around athlete, Everett Vevea, the A Club has awarded a scholarship to a graduating Anoka High School senior athlete. It was more of a recognition award, citing not just the best athletes of the year, but the individual whose overall contributions to Anoka High School teams were significant in the areas of leadership, citizenship, scholastic achievement and athletic ability.
The first few scholarships were only $100 -- the leftover money raised from the club's annual banquet. Over the years as the banquet/dues fee was raised and more lettermen attended the banquet, coordinators were able to greatly boost the Vevea Scholarship award from $100.
The club now has various forms of fundraisers in conjunction with the annual banquet. There is a golf tournament, silent auction and a donation plan -- Century Club -- in which members can give considerably more than the asked-for banquet/dues amount. And this past year, the family of former club member Willis Castle made a significant donation to the club in his memory.
In all, the A Club's money raising effort is quite notable, something in which Youngquist takes pride. The $2,500 awarded to senior athlete Chris Nowak earlier this month was the single largest scholarship gift presented to any Anoka graduate.
Though the A Club has a personality in itself, there are several individual personalities who made it go since 1960. Blesi is one. So is Youngquist, who has served as club chairman twice. His latest term began almost 10 years ago, after the club had struggled and was near a point of death.
There are many, many others involved behind the scenes as well. For instance, Chuck Wennerlund, the former great Anoka High School athlete, is among this group. Wennerlund, now a dean at Anoka High School, is very instrumental in searching for the scholarship winners.
Billy Bye, a former great Anoka High School and University of Minnesota athlete, is another. The traditional master of ceremonies at the banquet, Bye has priceless connections with the professional sports world and the university, which helps Youngquist and his committee each year when the search for a speaker begins. Yes, the speaker. This has been a standard for A Club gatherings. Mason was the first and Wacker, of course, will be the 32nd speaker. In between, speakers have included a variety of personalities and sports figures such as Norm Van Brocklin, Rod Carew, Bart Starr, Billy Martin, Paul Giel and Lou Holtz, whose appearance attracted the largest A Club gathering in the organizations history.
Youngquist had just taken over as the club's director at the same time the University of Minnesota was making a nation-wide search for a new football coach who would add life to the program's fading fortunes. Youngquist, who on his smaller scale was trying to pump his new life into the A Club, placed a call to Bye, who said he would provide help. The conversation was recalled:
"How about the new University of Minnesota football coach Carl?"
"Sure, ya, but will the University have a football coach by the time we have our banquet (in the spring)?" replied Youngquist. Said Youngquist, "Billy was calling to confirm that Holtz would be there."
The rest was history in 1984. More than 220 attended -- a far cry from the 45 who came to hear broadcaster Ray Scott in the mid 1970s and well above the banquet's average attendance of 120 or so.
"You don't know why the numbers fluctuate," said Blesi. "Sure, it has something to do with the organization and promotion, but we have had good people in this group, so it's hard say why."
What is known, however, at least in the mind of Youngquist, is that more new blood -- 1980s and 1990s Anoka High School athletes --is needed. The old guard will make sure the A Club is perpetuated as long as they are physically able, but some day, someone with new ideas, new enthusiasm, will have to take command. Find out how to become an A Club Member.
Youngquist said the club is trying its best to welcome the young guys by getting them acquainted with the A Club before they graduate from Anoka High School. The scholarship winners have been invited to attend since 1986 and each year different sports programs have been profiled.
But the basic tradition will not be changed. With only 16 honorary exceptions --16 individuals who were closely associated with the Anoka High School sports -- the A Club is still closed to any individual who was not an Anoka athletic letterman.
"We could have altered some rules and made it bigger by including outsiders, but that was not the intent when the A Club began and that's not the intent now," said Youngquist. "It is a unique group; a tradition."
And now 52 years old.