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Big man on campus

Nearly three-quarters of a century ago, a young man from a small school walked through the doors at Cooke Hall on the University of Minnesota campus and looked out at an enormous gymnasium filled with people.

That young man, now 91, was Rodney Maguire who hailed from the tiny community of Walnut Grove. Maguire had qualified for the state wrestling tournament in 1944 as a junior.

Rodney Maguire, 91, of Walnut Grove, with a team photo of the basketball team he played on back in 1944-1945. He no longer has photos of his wrestling days. Photo by Scott Thoma

He had never seen such a large gymnasium, nor had he ever heard so much noise coming out of one building, and fear suddenly struck him.

“There were mats everywhere, and there were so many people yelling that I was almost too scared to wrestle,” laughed Maguire.

Wrestling was introduced as a sport in Walnut Grove in 1937 and was one of only 38 schools in the state that had a wrestling team at that time.

By the time Maguire joined the team as a sophomore in the ‘42-’43 season, the sport was still relatively new in town, and few people attended the matches. And because of a lack of interest, it was difficult for the Loggers to find a coach.

“The coach before that had left, and no one wanted the job, so the local minister (the Rev. Frank Wilson) became the coach,” said Dan Peterson, a Walnut Grove sports historian. “Wrestling wasn’t real popular back then. It wasn’t covered much by the newspaper. In fact, the Walnut Grove team would go around to other towns and have exhibition matches in an attempt to get other schools interested.”

NOTE: In 1948, three years after Maguire graduated, the Walnut Grove team was again looking for a coach. Only this time, no one stepped forward so one of the senior wrestlers on the team, Hubert Haensel, assumed the role of player/coach that season.

Walnut Grove’s wrestling program then gained popularity during Maguire’s junior year (1944) when he and two of his teammates qualified for the state tournament after winning region titles in Litchfield. The others were Raymond Goettig and Rodney Nackerud.

“I lost my first match at state,” Maguire said, who then quickly pointed out, “but I didn’t get pinned, though.”

In order to make a return trip to state the next year, Maguire would need to shed a few pounds. He had wrestled at 145 pounds his junior yearbut grew several inches and added nearly 15 pounds.

“I had to lose about 10 to 12 pounds because I weighed the same (160 pounds) as this big Norwegian (Nackerud) on our team, and I couldn’t beat him,” Maguire noted. “No one could beat him. He hardly ever lost.”

So, Maguire ate less and ran more in order to shed some pounds, leaving him much weaker than before.

“You wouldn’t think it wasn’t that hard to lose the weight, but it sure was,” recalled Maguire. “I wasn’t able to each much at all.”

The weight loss paid off for Maguire, though. He defeated a wrestler from Milroy at the regional tournament to earn his second straight trip to state.

But a funny thing happened in the next match in the region final.

“I didn’t see the next match, but I saw (Nackerud) with his head down in the locker room afterwards,” Maguire told. “He had lost. I couldn’t believe it.”

So Maguire ended up as the lone grappler from Walnut Grove to compete at the one-class state meet his senior year in 1945.

Basketball photo of Rodney Maguire in 1944-15, the year he made the state wrestling tournament. Contributed photo

“I was so long (tall) that it was hard for the shorter guys to wrestle me,” said Maguire, when asked what made him a good wrestler. “I was about 6-foot-4 then; I’ve shrunk a lot since then and I’m probably barely 6-foot tall now.”

There were just 21 students in Maguire’s 1945 senior class.

“There are only two of us still alive,” he said.

Maguire also was a member of the Loggers’ basketball team at the same time he was on the wrestling team and practices were often held at the same time.

“We didn’t have very many kids so some of us played two sports at the same time,” he explained. “We would practice on the wrestling mats on one end of the gym and then go to the other end and shoot baskets.”

Maguire said his basketball playing time was limited because when he got into a game, he didn’t shoot.

“I was afraid to miss,” he said with a chuckle. “At practice one day, I was making quite a few shots and the coach told me I needed to do that in a game. But I still didn’t shoot very often when I got into a game.”

Maguire was also a pitcher on the baseball team.

“I remember pitching a no-hitter against Lamberton one year,” he said proudly.

After graduating from high school, Maguire spent 18 months in the Army. He was assigned to Korea and became a corporal.

Maguire then returned to Walnut Grove to help his parents on the farm. He still lives on the same farm just south of Walnut Grove that his parents and grandparents lived on.

Maguire’s wife, Kathleen, passed away four years ago.

Just as Maguire was telling about his days as an avid deer hunter, a young buck strolled through his property and across his driveway.

“Look, look,” he said, excitedly, pointing out the window. “You don’t see bucks come through here very often, but a lot of does and fawns will come through.”

On weekdays, Maguire goes to a local senior living facility to have lunch and visit with friends. He also enjoys watching football on TV, especially the Vikings and the Gophers.

“I really like watching sports,” he said.

And nearly 75 years ago, he loved participating in them.

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