A low turnout might have been expected. After all, it was a Friday night on a holiday weekend, so a lot of people might have 'gotten out of Dodge' and headed to the lake or their favorite vacation spot.

A low turnout might have been expected. After all, it was a Friday night on a holiday weekend, so a lot of people might have 'gotten out of Dodge' and headed to the lake or their favorite vacation spot.

However, this past Friday night was the evening of the retirement celebration of Saints Wrestling Head Coach Eugene Hildebrandta and was held at the VFW Club. For many folks in St. James that made the VFW meeting hall the place to be.

The meeting hall was nearly full. I estimate that 220 to 250 people showed up to participate in what truly was a celebration of a wonderful life.

I was told Gene might have been a little concerned as to whether people would show up, but as I came in I could see the crowd was already pretty large.

At the front of the room was Gene Hildebrandt greeting me and everyone that came with a big smile and a firm handshake. He was genuinely happy to see everyone that came.

The ceremony had a social hour with good food and then there was a series of speakers that recounted the life and the career of Gene Hildebrandt.

One of the more colorful speeches was given by former Saints state champion wrestler Juan Fernandez, who was part of the 1998 state championship team.

Juan said Coach Hildebrandt changed his life and it started with a chance encounter.

Before he was in high school Juan said he happened to be outside when Coach Hildebrandt walked by. The Coach called him over. Gene already thought he knew who Juan was and asked him, "Do you want to wrestle?"
The teenager thought this was a pretty weird question, "No, I don't want to wrestle you."

Hildebrandt said, "No, no go out for wrestling."

Juan gave him the 'sure, sure I will' brush off. He might go out for wrestling, but he was more interested in football and other things.

Hildebrandt persisted though. What followed were typical Hildebrandt techniques on how he recruited kids to go out for the sport and build the Saints wrestling program.

He badgered kids, he hectored kids, almost ordered them, walked them down to Athletic Director Les Zellmann's office to fill out the papers to go out for wrestling.

At a time in life when it's probably more typical for a young teenager not to have a sense of direction, Gene Hildebrandt gave them a direction.
Though Juan was now wrestling, it wasn't going to be a straight line for him to become part of the state championship team.

There was a time in ninth grade when he didn't like school all that much and could have easily dropped out. He missed three days of school in a row because he just didn't what to attend.

There was a knock at his home's door. It was Gene Hildebrandt who told him to get dressed and get back to school.

There was the time Juan got in a fight at school minutes after his Coach had advised him to stay out of trouble. The Coach was ticked off. The Principal gave Juan a three day suspension.

Juan thought, "All right! Three days of vacation!" But Hildebrandt was right there and said, "No! It's going to be three days of in school suspension!"

So there were more than a few bumps in the road for this young man. But in the late winter of 1998 Juan found himself on the mat wrestling with his teammates for the state championship. He fell way behind, but came back to win and that helped his team win the 1998 team championship for St. James.

"Coach really cared, he was there when I really needed a male role model."

He was a young man who was probably going to be a high school drop out, but Gene Hildebrandt helped make him a state champion.
Juan said, "He changed my life.

These were sentiments expressed by all of the speakers at the event, especially the men who wrestled for the Saints. They are sentiments that have been told to me by many people over the couple of years I've been covering Saints wrestling. Gene Hildebrandt changed people's lives - many of them.

Mark Kulseth from the '89 championship team recalled that he was being dominated wrestling older, more experienced wrestlers in the first few days he was out for wrestling.

Coach Hildebrandt kept his spirits up by saying Kulseth should stick with it because the coach could tell he had the right attitude to be a good wrestler if he stuck with the sport.

In addition to his wrestlers, the first people to speak about Coach Hildebrandt were his family members. Son Ethan, who is the all time winningest wrestler in St. James history (good coaching) said that he was never allowed to attend a summer basketball camp.

Brother Larry reported on what it was like for him and his siblings to grow up under big brother Eugene.

It was pretty obvious from the many stories he recalled that Gene Hildebrandt was hard wired to be competitive - very competitive from birth. Larry said, "Eugene taught us how to endure pain at a young age." The crowd laughed at a brother who was surley kidding.

Larry said a younger brother got this advice from Gene when he was getting into coaching. His older brother said, "Have fun, work hard, know your sport."

Other Coaches came to praise Coach Hildebrandt. Dave Dose who spent many years coaching at St. James and went on to have great success as the Glencoe-Silver Lake Head Football Coach ribbed his old friend with 'The Top Ten Reasons Geno Retired'.

An old 'enemy' also came to praise the career of Coach Hildebrandt, or perhaps he was there just wanting to be sure Gene was going to stay retired.

Long time Blue Earth Coach Jack Eustice recalled the times the two schools and coaches competed over the past decades. This was a friendship forged out of fierce competition - out of earning the respect from the person you were coaching against.

Coach Eustice couldn't help needle Hildebrandt on the low seedings the St. James Coach always seemed to give Blue Earth wrestlers at tournament time. He gave Gene a gag gift of a slip of paper that had a Blue Earth logo on it, "Because Gene had never seen one at seeding time."

The speakers talked for about two hours. Then it was time for the old Head Coach to speak. Hildebrandt spent most of his time thanking everyone else and having groups of people stand up and acknowledge them and their contributions to St. James wrestling.

At the end of his speech Coach Hildebrandt said, "I want to thank you very, very much from the bottom of my heart." The crowd rose and gave the retiring coach a standing ovation that lasted more than a minute.

He's retired as the Head Wrestling Coach, but he's still the Dean of Students at St. James High, so he's still going to be on kids to stay in school. He might also 'retire' to being the seventh grade wrestling coach.

That means he will still be cajoling kids to go out for wrestling. There are always more lives to be changed.