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.”
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.)