Skip to main content

SHELBY SHARES: Coach guides small town through big changes

Twenty years ago, there was only one Latino family in the small southwestern Minn. town of St. James. Today, 30 percent of the population and 50 percent of the students in the district are Latino. That’s a challenge. Wrestling coach Gene Hildebrandt never blinked.
  • Author:
  • Updated:
    Original:

St. James, Minn. -- The flat farmland of Watonwan County stretches to the horizon. It is fertile earth. Things grow here. Lives and futures take root and flourish. St. James, the county seat, has a remarkable story to tell about how one man has tended and nurtured two generations of his community’s young men. I want to tell you about Coach Gene Hildebrandt.

You should know, first, this is not a sports story. Twenty years ago, there was only one Latino family in this town of about 5,000 people. Today, 30% of the population and 50% of the students in the district are Latino. That’s a challenge. Coach Hildebrandt never blinked.

Coach Hildebrandt is in the Minnesota High School Wrestling Coaches Hall of Fame. He won his first state championship in 1989 when English was the native tongue. He would win more along the way, but Coach is going to be remembered for much more than his winning seasons. He will be remembered for how he has treated people.

This season, Latino kids filled ten of the 14 weight-classes on his squad. In other places, racism would not allow such a thing. Coach Hildebrandt told me, “my grandfather came over here as an immigrant from Germany. He was an orphan. I always think about what it would be like coming to this country unwelcomed. I might have more empathy for these kids than the average Joe. I just believe in hard work, and treating everyone the same.”

He isn’t kidding about hard work. Some of his kids have gone on to college, and some have gone to the Marines, the Seals and Army Rangers. “They come back,” he says, “and tell me, ‘bootcamp was a breeze compared to your training sessions.’” Hard work, discipline and self control is all the coach asks of his grapplers.

Richard Soto is a junior wrestler for Coach Hildebrandt. He says, “This program helped me get out of trouble. Not big trouble, but I was always late to class. I didn’t care much about grades. But, Coach told me if I didn’t get good grades, I couldn’t wrestle. I had to step it up.”

Victor Torres wrestles as a heavyweight. “I never had my Dad around,” says Victor. “He left when I was four. Coach Hildebrandt is a father figure for me. And, like a father, you trust him and listen to him.” Victor is going to college. He’s doing that because of the Hildebrandt’s guiding hand, and because of his mother. “My mom crossed the border,” he says. “She finished high school in Mexico. But, now she works 11 hours a day just to get by. She stresses college. She doesn’t want us to do what she has had to do.”

Isaac Carreon sits on the bleachers with me at track practice at St. James High School. Isaac tells me, “Coach just kept pushing me when I wasn’t that good. He just kept telling me to stick with it and work hard. He said, ‘We need you.’”

Sometimes, that’s all a kid needs to hear from an adult.

Coach Hildebrandt later tells me, “I don’t view people differently. So, if I’m treating a kid just like the one down the road, I hope that rubs off on people. You live by your actions, not just your words. I hope it rubs off.”

It has rubbed off. The community of St. James has noticed.

Don’t get me wrong, Coach Hildebrandt isn’t perfect. Just ask his wife. “I co-signed a loan for a kid once. I caught holy heck. I know you aren’t supposed to do that.”

I asked him what the loan was for…a car?

“No,” Coach answers. “It was for his college tuition. And, he paid back every cent.”

Forgiven.

There is another kid you should hear from. His name is Daniel Leyva. At a banquet not long ago, Daniel wrote a speech. Daniel told the crowd that he was always in trouble when he was younger. He learned that fighting was the way to survive. Then he met Coach Hildebrandt. Coach channeled that energy, put Daniel in anger management sessions, and turned him into one heck of a wrestler. Daniel wrote, “Mr. Hildebrandt never gave up on me.” He said that coach was behind the changes he made in his life. “If I am anyone right now,” he said, “it’s because of him.”

There is fear in St. James. Folks here are worried that Coach Gene Hildebrandt is going to retire. I have good news for St. James, and for anyone who treasures real leaders – game changers. Coach tells me, “these kids are juniors. I’m going to stick with them. I’m not quitting.

(My thanks to Lee Carlson, St. James English teacher and coach for contacting Shelby Shares and telling me about Coach Hildebrandt.)

Next Up

University of minnesota sign

U of M gives some students 50% off meals for September after complaints

Students have complained about an array of issues surrounding dining halls.

image

Gallery: Sprawling estate near Superior National Forest listed for $2.9M

The property has been in the same family for over 60 years.

Screen Shot 2022-09-27 at 2.51.49 PM

Surgery clinic proposed to replace 111-year-old farmhouse in Eagan

A developer is proposing to transform the remnant farm property.

Hurricane Ian

Why Hurricane Ian could be catastrophic in Florida

Hurricanes are the atmosphere’s biggest show of force and energy, and Hurricane Ian is no exception.

image

Suspect arrested after man and dog shot on St. Paul's East Side

The shooting happened around 12:45 p.m. Tuesday.

MissingBemidjiTeenBCA

Bemidji police appeal to find missing teenager

Tahlia Poitra was last seen Wednesday.

PacoAndLime

Crisp & Green owner launches new chain, with 12 MN locations planned

Steele Brands already owns and operates Crisp & Green and Stalk & Spade.

0

New vendor to open at Rosedale Center food hall

POTLUCK Food Hall offers a rotating collection of local restaurants and food retailers.

MadelynHowardMugMonroeCo

Woman charged in drunk driving incident that killed Minnetonka HS alum

Nate Stratton, 20, died from his injuries on Sept. 18.

Related

SHELBY SHARES: Driven to extremes ... Climate change evidence is becoming more obvious

Back in the day, I told people to look at the data trends – not out the window – for evidence of global warming. But that's changing. As an editorial in this month's New Scientist magazine suggests, "From killer heatwaves to destructive floods, the effects of global warming are becoming ever more obvious – and we ain't seen nothing yet."

Shelby Shares: Fishing opener serious business

BringMeTheNews.com's Don Shelby travels to Waconia for the Governor's Fishing Opener. Sure, it's fun -- but the real angle is that fishing is serious business for the state of Minnesota.

SHELBY SHARES: Brett Kelley follows in 'old man's' footsteps

Brett Kelley flat-lined after an infection attacked his heart. But that would not derail the young man's goals of becoming a distinguished soldier and a lawyer like his father, high-profile Minnesota attorney Doug Kelley.

SHELBY SHARES: Turkeys, avionics and renewable energy in Starbuck, Minn.

Randy Hagen is a farmboy. He raises turkey hatchlings for some of the biggest turkey producers around. He also likes flying. So, how is it possible that this guy from western Minnesota has come up with one of the most notable renewable energy products we've seen in a long time?

SHELBY SHARES: Entrepreneurs compete for cash, prestige at Minnesota Cup

About 1,000 inventors and innovators entered the eighth annual Minnesota Cup competition this year, each with a bright idea that they hoped would awe the judges – and maybe change the world. Only six made the finals.

SHELBY SHARES: Is this the next big ... thing?

Ron Whitehouse of Plymouth, Minn., has a track record for seeing the future for certain products. Now he's got a new idea for a sustainable building material made of polylactic acid and plant materials, including leaves and nut shells.

SHELBY SHARES: Local program teaches nation's scientists how to talk to the rest of us

Scientists are realizing that they need to better communicate the complex details of their work to ordinary people, including policy setters and lawmakers who make vitally important decisions based on their research and data. A program at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul is teaching scientists an unfamiliar language – plain English.