Remembering Wally

Charlie Pettersen and I met as freshmen roommates in room 254 Frontier Hall.   We stayed in the same room our sophomore year, and our friend Denny Vorgert moved to room 253.  My memory is that the three of us met Denny’s new roommate at the same time.  He was this loud, friendly kid with a big sappy grin from the hick town of Heron Lake.  We, of course, were from the “sophisticated” cities of Aitken, Cottonwood, and Bluffton.  Denny was small, not athletic and bookish. It was difficult to think of two more unlikely roommates. Yet he and Wally got along great.  I don’t think there was ever a harsh word between them. Wally quickly became a central member of a loose group of guys based in House 3.  I remember him as the only freshman in that group.  And he was so much fun to tease.  But he gave as good as he got.  Once when there was an apparent lull in the bantering, Wally wondered if people were mad at him.  Wally had a well-deserved reputation for being “thrifty”.  And from that came the prank that was retold for years.  We invented a fake cause that everyone needed to contribute a couple of bucks to.  I collected money from the group of guys, and since everyone else was ponying up, Wally did also, reluctantly.  Everyone else got their money back and we bought a small cake with Wally’s money.  Charlie cut up the cake and said, “The person who paid for this cake should have the first piece.” And he handed the cake to Wally.  The look on Wally’s face, when he realized that he had been had, was priceless.

Football:  Every afternoon Wally disappeared.  When we asked where he went, he said football practice. Well what team are you playing for?  “The Gophers”.  This was at a time when “Gophers” and “serious football” were not mutually exclusive. Here was this undersized guy who grew up playing 8 man, and walked on to a Big Ten football team and by his junior year had earned a scholarship and a starting corner slot, along with being the punter.  All of us were so very proud of him. Yet he remained the same wide-eyed guy, who would express amazement at the, um, “endowments” of the African American players.  Wally started his first game against USC and O.J. Simpson.  I still remember the play:  O.J. was on a sweep around left end, Wally squared up to meet him, and O.J. somehow leaped two yards to the side, and I think, continued for a touchdown.  It was a real accomplishment to have been deked out by the best.  I think it was later that game when Wally tore his shoulder to pieces. He was replaced by Jeff Wright, one of Minnesota’s most fabled high school athletes, having led Edina to two undefeated state basketball championships. Wally never got the corner position back, but after they sewed his shoulder back on, he remained the punter.  A couple of years later that shoulder came through for him.  In the Selective Service draft lottery he had, like, Number 3.  When he went down to take his physical they said raise your arms above your head.  He raised one and the other remained at half-mast.  The army took one look at the nasty surgical scar on his shoulder and at an equally impressive set on his knee, and said “no thanks, we’ll come for you after we use up all the women and children”.

Hockey:  Wally, like most of us in our circle grew up in a part of the state that at that time didn’t play hockey. Our first real exposure to it was at the Gopher games, which we never missed.  Wally eventually played some intramural hockey and regreted that he had missed his sport.  And he was right.  At 6’ and a hard 185 lb. and with his athleticism and love of hitting people, he would have been a beast in the rink—if he had only grown up on skates.

Wally was not shy. He could approach and chat up girls with an ease that most of us awkward young men could only envy.  I was with him the day after his first date with Kathy.  I don’t think he ever had another date.  That date lasted for more than 40 years, and yet it ended too quickly.  From that date came three boys and now their families who are   Wally and Kathy’s finest accomplishment.

Wally and I did not remain in touch for more than a few years after college—time, distance, family, and work do tend to get in the way.  College is such an intense time. It is the time of transition from teen-ager to adulthood.  It’s the first time you are  away from your family.  Dorm living is being in close proximity to such a diverse group of characters–some weird and some really great. The experience leaves such vivid memories, even after more than forty years of life have elapsed.  Thinking about Wally this week has reminded me that my memories of him are very vivid and very enjoyable.  God bless Wally and his family.

Woody Smith