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A coach, a player and a special bond

Sixty two years after playing on the first Walnut Grove basketball team to advance to the state tournament, a player and his coach are good friends and keep in touch on a regular basis.

“We see each other several times a year,” said Wes Radke, a forward on the Walnut Grove state tournament team that went 27-3 his junior year under coach Hartley Story. “I’ll go and visit him in Elk River where he lives, or he will come to visit me in Tracy.”

Coach Hartley Story, left, coached Wes Radke for three years on the Walnut Grove varsity boys basketball team. Photo by Scott Thoma

The re-connection between player and coach occurred by coincidence about 20 years ago.

Radke’s daughter, Kandi, and her husband had purchased a townhouse in Elk River. Around that same time, Story and his wife had also purchased a townhouse in the same sub-division about three-quarters of a mile away.

“When I heard coach had moved there, I went to visit him and that’s how we reconnected,” Radke explained. “And we’ve been friends ever since.”

Story compiled an impressive 146-23 record in his seven seasons as coach of the Loggers. He was also the head boys basketball coach at Thief River Falls and Osseo.

Story came to Walnut Grove when the school was in need of an Industrial Arts teacher. A Walnut Grove administrator traveled to Mankato State to see about if any of its graduating students in the Industrial Arts program came highly regarded.

“My instructor recommended me and I was eventually hired,” said Story, 93. “I was also hired to be the wrestling coach at Walnut Grove my first year.”

After that inaugural season (1951-52), the Walnut Grove boys basketball coach that had just been hired wanted to be the wrestling coach. And Story preferred being the basketball coach.

“So, after that first year I went in and asked the superintendent if we could switch jobs and he was okay with it,” said Story. “So I became the basketball coach.

Story’s first season as head basketball coach in the 1952-53 season.

“I remember when I first came to Walnut Grove, I saw a lot of kids shooting hoops in the park all the time,” Story said. “That was a big plus for me.”

When Story graduated from high school in nearby Comfrey in 1944, he had already been drafted into the Army Air Corps.

“My last football game I played was in Walnut Grove,” he said. “After the game, my (Comfrey) teammates gave me a going away present in the gym at Walnut Grove. It was an electric razor.”

When Story became the boys basketball coach at Walnut Grove, the players on that first team he coached pooled their money and presented Story with a gift.

“They gave me an electric razor, too,” Story laughed. “And it was in the same gym where my Comfrey football players had given me a razor.”

Walnut Grove posted a 10-9 record in Story’s first season as boys basketball coach. Over his next six seasons coach of the Loggers, the team never lost more than four games; twice only losing one game.

Story felt that the one area that made a big difference in winning and losing was at the free-throw line.

“When you are a good free-throw shooting team, you can win a lot of games,” he said. “Our team shot 70 percent; which was really good back then. I would tell the kids to think about what you are doing when shooting a free throw. Stay focused and when you make a free throw, remember how you feel and the motion you used, and do that same thing again.”

The players respected Story because they had confidence in his coaching abilities.

“He was an excellent coach, said Radke, who was on the varsity for three years from 1955-58. “Coach used to schedule some of our scrimmages at places like Gustavus and at Williams Arena. He was trying to get us used to playing in big gyms because he was expected us to make it to the state tournament.”

Story didn’t want his team to scrimmage against weak opponents and dominate on the court.

The 1957 Walnut Grove boys basketball state tournament team. Assistant coach Larry Korvers is in the back row, far left. Coach Story is in the back row, far right. Radke (13) is seated in the front row, second from the right. Contributed photo

“I learned that for a team to get better, you had to play the best teams,” he said. “We had to play games against the teams in our league (the Straight 14 Conference), so I would have scrimmages against bigger and better schools so the kids would have to work harder. It made a big difference.”

And Story’s ideas seemed to work. The Loggers topped Granite Falls in the 1956-57 Region 3 semifinals 75-55, and then topped Lake Benton 58-44 in the championship game to advance to the state tournament. It was the first time in 20 years that a District 10 team had advanced to the state tourney.

“Under Coach Story’s guidance and innovative coaching techniques, the Walnut Grove Loggers became a powerhouse in southwest Minnesota representing District 10 and Region 3,” Radke stated.

Radke, a two-time all-conference selection, recalled several training methods used by Story that helped the players improve immensely.

“We would stand beside a marked area on the gym wall and jump as high as we could and use a piece of chalk to mark our progress, he said. “And he had us strengthen our wrists by using a wooden rod with a rope and a weight attached, and we rolled it up and down.”

Story also had his players jump rope before each practice, run laps around the gym or up and down the bleachers, run stop-and-go wind sprints, and shoot additional free throws after practice.

And he had one strict rule.

“No girlfriends,” Radke noted with a chuckle.

Story’s explanation for that rule was simple.

“I wanted them to keep their minds on basketball; not girls,” he laughed. “If they had a girlfriend, they would want to stay out late. I had a good relationship with my players’ parents. They made sure the boys were in by 9:30 p.m. on school nights and 10 or 10:30 on weekends.”

And when Walnut Grove did play in the one-class state tournament in “The Barn” at Williams Arena, the players weren’t in awe like some of the teams that had never played a game there.

The Loggers were honored at a pep fest before the school sent the 12 boys and two coaches (head football coach Larry Korvers was the assistant basketball coach) off to Minneapolis on a bus. Businesses in town had signs on their windows wishing the boys well. Local barber, Walt Wiggins, gave free haircuts to the players. Jess Woods, who ran the local café in town, fed the boys free burgers and fries. And Carl Peterson, who ran the local drug store, rewarded them with ice cream and sodas.

Walnut Grove transformed into a ghost town over the state tournament weekend.

“I think they shut down the town because everyone was at the tournament,” laughed Radke. “The entire community was caught up with basketball fever.”

Walnut Grove starters were Radke, Mike Anderson, Dale Anderson, Bill Nordstrom, and Jack Litfin. The Loggers defeated Pemberton 70-65 its first game at state, before succumbing to Red Wing 88-74 in the semifinals. The Loggers then fell to Fergus Falls 78-48 in the third-place game.

“There were some pretty big teams there,” recalls Radke, whose teams went 71-6 during his three years on the varsity. “We were the second smallest school in the tournament.”

Walnut Grove lost in the Region 3A semifinals to Brownton the following; Radke’s senior year. But the streak of consecutive home court wins was extended to five years and 56 straight games.

Story would coach only one more season before heading off to Thief River Falls, where he took the team to the state tournament in his first and only season there.

“I was way up north and I had a chance to coach in the Twin Cities area so I took the job at Osseo,” he said. “The superintendent and I didn’t get along, though. He was a former coach and wanted things done his way. I was head coach for six years there, but that was enough.”

Story stayed on as the freshman boys basketball coach at Osseo, while also teaching health and physical education until his retirement in 1985.

Radke and his coach hooked up several years later and have remained close friends ever since.

“It’s pretty unusual for a player and his coach to be such good friends,” laughed Story. “But we get along very well and respect one another. When Wes came here recently, I took him to the activity center for seniors and introduced him as one of the players I had the good fortune of coaching.”

Story’s wife, Adeline, who was his childhood sweetheart at Comfrey, passed away in 2008 after 68 years of marriage. They had four children. Three of their four children passed away while Adeline was still alive. His son, Kevin, also lost his wife recently.

So Hartley and his son now live together in Elk River.

“It’s been hard for both of us having lost our wives,” said Story. “When (Adeline) died, a big part of me died, too.”

The friendship of Radke and his wife Pat has helped fill a void for his former coach.

“Wes is such a good guy,” said Story. He and the other kids at Walnut Grove were so easy to coach. They loved the game. That’s why they were such a good team.”

And Radke is proud to have been coached by one of the best.

“I first met coach in seventh-grade shop class when he was my teacher,” said Radke. “If not for him, I would have quit school. And all these years later, I am proud to say that he is a good friend of mine.”

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