UND hockey player went on to donate $104 million to build a new hockey arena for his alma mater
InForum history columnist Curt Eriksmoen begins the story of Ralph Engelstad, the namesake for the North Dakota Fighting Hawks' home arena.
One of the top 10 American higher education donors was a former hockey player at the University of North Dakota. Ralph Engelstad was a backup goalie for the UND hockey team for two years (1948 to 1950) and the minimal scholarship he received has reaped dividends several thousands of times greater because of donations he has made to that institution. He, and the Engelstad Foundation, donated $104 million for the construction of a UND hockey arena and over $30 million for other college purposes. The Engelstad Foundation, created in 2002 by Ralph and Betty Engelstad, "has provided more than $300 million in grants to organizations focused on animal compassion, at-risk individuals, education, historical preservation, medical research and support, people with disabilities, and veterans," press materials from the foundation state.
Ralph Engelstad is best known for the fortune he made as the owner of the Imperial Palace casino and hotels in Las Vegas and Biloxi, Mississippi. He was one of a small handful of independent casino/hotel owners in Las Vegas. Engelstad had a very strong work ethic and he liked to say, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” He also was very committed to rewarding those institutions that helped him along the way. Although Engelstad has been highly praised for donating generously to very worthwhile projects and causes, he has been publicly criticized for an apparent lack of judgment regarding the sensitivity of various religious and ethnic groups.
Ralph Louis Engelstad was born on January 28, 1930, in Thief River Falls, Minnesota to Christian “Chris” and Madeline (Thill) Engelstad. Chris worked as a long-distance truck driver. He was a Norwegian Lutheran and Ralph was baptized in a Lutheran Church. Madeline was German Catholic and Ralph was raised as a Catholic, attending St. Bernard’s parochial elementary grade school. Ralph was a gifted athlete and, while attending Lincoln High School in Thief River Falls, he lettered in hockey all four years, as well as three years in track, and two years in football. Ralph also participated in intramural basketball for three years and was the co-captain of the hockey team.
Although he enjoyed participating in all sports, hockey was Ralph’s passion. The Thief River Falls Prowlers were one of the best high school hockey teams in western Minnesota during Ralph’s first three years on the team, but most of the players had graduated in 1947. Ralph, as co-captain and goalie needed to provide leadership on the ice for the young players. He succeeded at that, as the Prowlers ended the season winning ten games, losing five games and reaching a tie in the other two games.
By the late 1940s, the Engelstad family had moved to Grand Forks because Chris had been promoted to a sales position for AGSCO, a farm supply company that received the contract to distribute large quantities of Quonset huts that were popular buildings for storing grain and other farm purposes. These cylindrical huts were composed of corrugated metal and could easily be attached to a concrete base. After World War II, the military had nearly 150,000 of them that they no longer needed.
During the summer of 1948, following graduation from high school, Ralph was hired by his father to help unload the heavy metal siding slabs used for building the huts from railroad cars. He would then transport the siding to farms where he would help construct the huts.
While working for AGSCO that summer, Engelstad made the acquaintance of Ben Gustafson, a chemistry professor at UND who was also president of an athletic board at the university. When Engelstad told the professor that he had lettered in hockey for four years at Thief River Falls, Gustafson inquired if he was planning on attending UND in the fall. When Engelstad told him he could not afford to attend, Gustafson helped him obtain a sports scholarship and assisted him with enrollment. Later in life, Engelstad commented “I most likely would not have gotten an education,” if not for the encouragement and assistance of Gustafson.
Engelstad’s tryout for the hockey team was successful and he and Rudolph Lindbeck, another freshman, were named backup goalies to Bob Murray. Coach Donald Norman was pleased with Engelstad’s goaltending as he stopped over 87% of the shots on goal that season. Since UND finished the season with a record of 9-12-1, Norman was replaced by Fido Purpur for the 1949-1950 season. Purpur named Lindbeck as his starting goalie and Engelstad dropped out of college after his sophomore year.
Engelstad decided to join some of his teammates playing hockey for the San Bernadino Shamrocks in California while working in construction. He then realized the importance of finishing his education, prompting him to return to UND. With the assistance of Tom Clifford, dean of the school of business at UND, Engelstad was able to graduate in 1954 with a bachelor’s degree in commerce.
Prior to graduation, Engelstad married Elizabeth “Betty” Stocker on May 18, 1954. Betty was a teller for the First National Bank in Grand Forks and her bookkeeping skills would prove to be an asset to her husband in his future business ventures. It was reported in the Grand Forks Herald that “upon graduation, Engelstad was offered a contract to play professional hockey with the Chicago Blackhawks.” Instead, he went to work for AGSCO full-time as their steel foreman. In that capacity, he oversaw and managed construction crews.
Having worked part-time on construction crews for four years while in college and full-time during the summers and then managing construction crews, Engelstad decided it was time to start his own construction company. After being turned down by two banks in his request for a loan, Al Holmquist, president of Valley Bank of Gilby and Grand Forks gave Engelstad a loan of $2,500. With that money, Engelstad Construction of Grand Forks was established. Through his own contacts as well as those given to him through AGSCO, he soon developed a thriving company. By the late 1950s, he had become a millionaire but was dissatisfied because of the cold, snowy winters when his crews were not able to work.
In 1959, Engelstad Construction relocated to Nevada, where the company secured Federal Housing Administration government contracts to build homes in Las Vegas, a rapidly growing city in southwestern Nevada. In 1965, Engelstad purchased the Thunderbird Field Airport, now the North Las Vegas Air Terminal, and later acquired vacant land nearby. In 1967, he sold 145 acres, including the airport, for $2 million to billionaire Howard Hughes.
Engelstad used part of that money to purchase the Kona Kai Motel on the Las Vegas strip. In 1971, he purchased the Flamingo Capri Motel, a 180-room motel also along the strip. It was located across the street from Caesar’s Palace and Engelstad added a casino in 1972. His construction company greatly expanded and remodeled it and, in 1979, renamed it the Imperial Palace Hotel and Casino. At that time, it had 650 rooms, but Engelstad envisioned something much bigger and grander in the future.
InForum history columnist Curt Eriksmoen will continue the story of Ralph Engelstad next week.