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Moorhead's 'Kirby' dies at 76

Ask anyone who knew him. Ray "Kirby" Kuklenski was one tough cookie. But those who knew Kirby best saw another side to the longtime football coach and Moorhead businessman who died Monday at age 76, following a lengthy illness. "He wa...


Ask anyone who knew him.

Ray "Kirby" Kuklenski was one tough cookie.

But those who knew Kirby best saw another side to the longtime football coach and Moorhead businessman who died Monday at age 76, following a lengthy illness.

"He was probably the most aggressive person I've ever been around," said Jim Gotta, a lifelong friend and fellow coach.

"You would never guess he had a warm heart," said Gotta, who attended high school with Kuklenski on the Michigan iron range.


They later played football together at what is now Minnesota State University Moorhead, before embarking on high school coaching careers.

Gotta coached several sports at Moorhead, including football.

Kuklenski coached Minnesota high school football at Dilworth and Felton and later at Wahpeton, N.D., amassing -- over 26 years -- a 145-65-1 record.

A heart attack forced Kuklenski to leave coaching. In 1980 he purchased a Moorhead bar.

"Kirby's" became popular among the college set for booking what were then up-and-coming bands like "Soul Asylum," "The Replacements" and "The Gear Daddies."

John Kuklenski, one of Kirby's three sons, said his father's occupation may have changed but he remained forever the no-nonsense coach.

He recalled the time a highly renowned music magazine called his father about hosting a nationally known band.

"Rolling Stone called him and asked him what he thought of having this group in his bar," John said.


"He goes, 'Who are you with? What do you mean, Rolling Stone?' He wanted to know what the hell that was."

His father, John said, understood all he needed to about popular music. "He knew it brought in kids and they all had fun and he could capitalize on it."

In recent years, son Joe took over running the bar.

Kirby and his wife, Monica, also raised four other children: Rae, Kirby, Mary, and Mimi.

"I think the thing that people forget, aside from the toughness, is how much he cared," said the younger Kirby, who was given his father's nickname.

He recalled his father once taking the Dilworth football team to South Dakota for a game against much larger players.

"He was really worried and he went to Mass that morning," young-Kirby recalled. "I said, 'Dad, why did you go to Mass? Are you praying that you win?

"And he said, 'No, son. I'm just praying that nobody gets hurt in this one.' I knew then there was more to him than just the toughness."


The gruff side often showed, however.

"I can remember one time we (Wahpeton High School) were playing Fargo South ... that was the year we were state champions," young Kirby recalled.

"I should say I can't remember. But I was told the story," he said. "I had gotten knocked out right before halftime. I was on my feet. But I couldn't understand what was going on.

"My dad went over to the assistant coaches and said, 'Where's Kirby?' And the assistant coaches said, 'He's back with the doctors. He can't play.' And my dad said, 'Like hell he can't play.'

"So I went and played and I didn't wake up until about five or 10 minutes after the game. On the Saturday radio show, they said to my dad, 'Kirby, we understand your son was knocked out for most of the second half.'

"And he goes, 'Yeah. And if he can play like that all the time, I'm going to hit him with a sledgehammer before every game.'''

The elder Kuklenski practiced the same Spartan values he preached.

Once, while tacking up plastic to enclose a porch, he inhaled nails held in his mouth.


After nearly choking to death, Kirby coughed the nails out -- or at least thought he had, he told a reporter in a 1994 interview.

Nine months later, while being X-rayed for an unrelated matter, doctors found a nail nestled at the bottom of one of his lungs.

Health professionals debated how to handle the situation. Kirby went about his life.

Some time later, while varnishing wood at the bar, he gave a hearty cough and up came the nail. From that time on it was kept in a small envelope marked: "Nail from Kirby's lung."

"Pain was not a word in his vocabulary," the younger Kirby said of his father. "That was just something that came with being alive."

Readers can reach Moorhead Bureau Chief Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555

I'm a reporter and a photographer and sometimes I create videos to go with my stories.

I graduated from Minnesota State University Moorhead and in my time with The Forum I have covered a number of beats, from cops and courts to business and education.

I've also written about UFOs, ghosts, dinosaur bones and the planet Pluto.

You may reach me by phone at 701-241-5555, or by email at dolson@forumcomm.com
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