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Ralph Louis Engelstad
January 28, 1930 – November 26, 2002

A little remembrance from one of your employees....

I've worked for Imperial Palace since 1986 and when I had lung cancer, I was hospitalized for surgery on my birthday in 1998 to have the right upper lobe of my lung removed. Ralph sent me the largest flower arrangement I've ever seen. He called me several times to see how I was doing. I couldn't believe an important man like he, would spend time on me, just one of his 3,000 employees!

 I remember several educational advices he had given me over the years. For example, I was getting quotes for an intercom system and tried my best to get the lowest possible quote. The figure went from over $10,000 down to $8,083! I was really happy with this transaction and went to Ralph with this with this great deal! He read the contract and looked at me and said,” Is this the best you can do?".  I said, " I talked to this contractor 'til I was blue in the face and he won't come down another cent!" Ralph replied, "Offer him $8000 even!!” Immediately I called the contractor and made the offer of $8,000 even, expecting an argument, but to my surprise he simply said..."okay". I told this to Ralph and he said to me, "If all my (3000) employees saved me $83, do you know what this would amount to?” Wow, I never realized that $83 made that much difference to the final $8,083 quote! I learned from Ralph again and again. This made my entire life change for the better.

 Of course, his passing and the privacy of his lung cancer saddened me. I heard the rumors of his sickness and this distressed me greatly and affected my work. Every time I asked his office or close friends, they assured me it was just a rumor. A memo faxed to me saying he was under the weather and would recover soon, was a relief and I was able to do my job better. I had a feeling something was wrong though, but I didn't want to believe it. Again this made me realize that Ralph was a private man and would never let anyone know if he was sick and didn't want his friends to worry about him. He'd much rather have us do a good job for him than anything else!

Another memory was my father passing while I was on a remote job. Ralph made arrangements for me to go home immediately. Before I left I was in the middle of an important project for Ralph and was giving him my Dad's address and phone number where I'd be if he needed me. He said to me, "If your Dad answers, your not going!"

I remember one Thanksgiving, during the construction in Biloxi, Ralph took us (workers from Las Vegas) to Denny’s for dinner. It was the only place open!

Working with Ralph was hard work and lots of fun!
I overheard someone telling a new employee, "This is a fun place to work". This is really the truth! We are family!

Every Thanksgiving reminds me of how much we have to be thankful for. I am thankful to have had Ralph not only as a boss, but as a true friend and father figure also. I am thankful to have a good job, family and home, all because of guidance from Ralph. Our prayers have always included Ralph and family.

Thank you Betty and Kris for sharing Ralph with so many. On behalf of my family and I, we will always love and miss Ralph.

While surfing the web I came across these links about Ralph.

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Imperial Palace, Las Vegas
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The Auto Collections
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University of Northern Dakota
Vegas Auction
Grand Forks
Twin Cities
Donation Video
Imperial Palace founder remembered fondly

November 27, 2002
JANUARY 28, 1930 – NOVEMBER 26, 2002

Veteran gaming executive, entrepreneur and humanitarian Ralph Engelstad, who built and owned the Imperial Palace Hotel and Casinos on the Las Vegas Strip and in, passed away last night at his home after a valiant battle with cancer. He was 72.

Ralph, as he preferred to be called (no formality of "Mr." for him), was perhaps best known publicly as an ingenious casino owner and operator. Privately, he was a loving family man. His strength came from his devoted wife of 48 years, Betty. Ralph also leaves behind his only daughter, Kris and husband Tim, and two grandchildren; along with two sisters, Mary Tulper and Phyllis Dooley.

Surviving members of his second "family," are the employees of both Imperial Palace properties, who always remained an important part of his life. In fact, following the September 11, 2001 disaster, while most Las Vegas resorts reduced their staffs, Ralph refused to lay off even one employee, and all continued to receive full benefits.
Everyone who knew Ralph – as well as those who didn’t have the pleasure of knowing him personally – benefited directly or indirectly from his life. Even though he was an intensely private, shy and reticent individual, Ralph was one of the largest philanthropists in America, and he shunned any recognition for his good deeds.
In 1998, he donated the General George Patton papers, valued at $1.45 million to the University of North Dakota Chester Fritz Library. In 2002, he purchased 2,000 wheelchairs for North Dakotans through the Wheelchair Foundation . He also donated the remaining funds needed to complete statuary for the celebration of the Lewis & Clark bicentennial.

This year, Ralph built and donated a $104 million hockey arena to the University of North Dakota (now recognized industry-wide as the top hockey arena in the area) and recently built and donated a $10 million hockey arena to his hometown, Thief River Falls, Minnesota. Ralph and Betty have also contributed generously to charities that benefit children, veterans, seniors and animal causes.

The Engelstad family is recognized as one of the top 10 gift givers of all time to higher education in America. In 1998, when announcing the gift of the hockey arena to the University of North Dakota, where he played hockey during college, he said, "Life is full of its ups and downs in business and personally. I have experienced both, but I have been very fortunate to land on the upper side more times than on the bottom, and it is my desire to share a portion of my good fortune with the UND Hockey Team ."

Ralph Engelstad was one of five children born to Christian and Madeline Engelstad in Thief River Falls, Minnesota and the grandson of a Norwegian immigrant who came to that area to farm. Early in his life, Ralph demonstrated that he had the drive and attitude to achieve great things.

After working his way through UND with odd jobs and some assistance from a hockey scholarship, Ralph graduated in 1954 with a degree in Business. He soon married his sweetheart, Betty Stocker, and then started his own construction company.

Through his tremendous work ethic, determination and initiative, Ralph began achieving the "American dream." He promised himself that he would become a millionaire by age 30; instead, that dream came true one year earlier while he was still a contractor in Grand Forks.

In 1959, Ralph moved to Las Vegas where his construction company secured government contracts to build FHA homes. Further demonstrating his entrepreneurial successes, he bought then barren land surrounding the North Las Vegas Air Terminal, which he later sold to Howard Hughes.

Living in the free-spirited, the sky’s-the-limit state of Nevada proved to be another motivation to Ralph’s desire to succeed. In 1971, using the profits from his land sale to Howard Hughes, Ralph purchased the nine-acre Flamingo-Capri Motel on the Las Vegas Strip. Acting as his own contractor, he built the Imperial Palace, which opened in 1979 with 650 rooms.

Today, the Imperial Palace ranks as the 2nd largest sole proprietorship hotel in the world and boasts 2,700 rooms and 2,600 employees. And with Ralph’s untimely passing, the industry has lost another of the very few individual owners of a major resort property, not only in Las Vegas, but also throughout the world.
In 1997, Ralph expanded his casino holdings by building his second Imperial Palace in Biloxi, Mississippi . The 1,086-room-property, the tallest building to date in Biloxi, has enjoyed success similar to that of the Las Vegas Strip resort.

The term "innovator" was often applied to Ralph throughout his varied career. For instance, his love of automobiles and racing led him to develop the famed Las Vegas Motor Speedway , which he later sold. He is known internationally for his tremendous car collection , showcased in first-class museums in both the Las Vegas and Biloxi hotels. And when his fleet of antique automobiles needed restoring, he employed 50 Nevada prisoners who accomplished the job while honing their skills for future classic car work.

Ralph introduced several "firsts" in the hotel/casino industry. In 1993, he opened the first medical center in a casino for employees, the Nevada Resorts Medical Center, now the UMC Medical Center. He introduced the first drive-through Race & Sports Book in 1989, and was the first to offer airline baggage check-in service at the hotel in 2000 (unfortunately, this popular Las Vegas service was discontinued after 9/11/01).
Perhaps one of Ralph’s greatest contributions as a humanitarian was his devotion to the handicapped. He has received many State and National awards for hiring the disabled, and approximately 13 percent of his Imperial Palace employees have some form of disability.

In recognition of his unending contributions to the handicapped, Ralph was named "Employer of the Year" by the Nevada Governor’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities in 1987 and 1989. In 1991, he received the prestigious "National Employer of the Year" award from the President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities.

Among other awards, he was also recognized as "Employer of the Year" by the Southwest Business, Industry and Rehabilitation Association and received the "Humanitarian of the Year Award" from the International Gaming & Business Exposition.

His latest recognition came just several months ago when he was inducted into the North Dakota Entrepreneur Hall of Fame and honored for his entrepreneurial success in the construction, casino, entertainment and antique auto industries.

Throughout his memorable career, Ralph had two mottos for living that reflected his ambition and drive: "The harder I work, the luckier I get."….and "No dream comes true until you wake up and go to work."

Ralph Engelstad – husband, father, grandfather, brother, father figure to thousands of loyal employees, philanthropist, developer, entrepreneur and innovator – the world is a better place because you were here. We will all miss you.
Your family, friends, business associates and employees

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the
Engelstad Family Foundation/Lung Cancer Research
c/o Bradshaw, Smith Co.
5851 West Charleston
Las Vegas, NV 89102

Thursday, November 28, 2002
Las Vegas Review-Journal

Gaming executive Engelstad dies at 72

Controversial owner of Imperial Palace known for generosity


Ralph Engelstad
Lived in Las Vegas since 1959

Following a 20-month battle with lung cancer, gaming executive Ralph Engelstad died Tuesday at his Las Vegas home. He was 72.

Regarded as both a generous philanthropist and lightning rod for controversy, Engelstad was best known as developer and owner of the Imperial Palace hotel-casino properties in Las Vegas and Biloxi, Miss.

A local resident since 1959, Engelstad earned numerous awards for giving millions of dollars to various charitable causes. However, his alleged interest in Nazi memorabilia and support of an athletic program whose name some deemed offensive to American Indians helped make Engelstad infamous as well.

In the 1970s, Engelstad's company converted a small motel site into the Imperial Palace, which at 2,700 rooms trails only The Venetian as the largest sole proprietorship hotel in the world.

Engelstad's wife of 48 years, Betty, issued a statement Wednesday that said her husband's businesses would continue normal operations.

"Before his passing, Ralph took all necessary steps to ensure the continuity of his businesses, including the Imperial Palace," she said. "(I), with the advice and assistance of Ralph's longtime attorney, Owen Nitz, and accountant, Jeff Cooper, will oversee the hotel and casino's continuing operations under the able management of (general manager) Ed Crispell and all the many other very loyal department heads and employees."

Casino industry expert and UNLV professor Bill Thompson said people will monitor events at the Imperial Palace closely over the next months.

"The problem for Vegas is succession," Thompson said. "I hope (Engelstad) had the type of management team that can carry on without him to give direction. If (his heirs) sell, it'll bring a big price."

Those close to Engelstad are looking ahead, but his name conjures unpleasant memories for many Americans.

In February 1989, Engelstad was fined $1.5 million by the Nevada Gaming Commission after it found that his actions damaged the reputation and image of the state's gaming industry.

In both 1986 and 1988, the commission said Engelstad hosted parties at the Imperial Palace that celebrated Adolf Hitler on the April 20 anniversary of the Nazi leader's birth. State authorities also claimed Engelstad amassed a multimillion-dollar collection of Nazi-era war memorabilia including artifacts, propaganda, posters and weapons.

Political leaders, tourism officials and members of the city's Jewish community, then consisting of about 35,000 people, demanded an apology. Still, Nitz said Wednesday that Engelstad's pro-Nazi reputation was unfounded.

"Those accusations are false," said Nitz, who represented Engelstad for more than 40 years and said Engelstad agreed to apologize and pay the fine only to put the incident behind him.

"The controversy was not Ralph at all. He was a construction guy, had always been a contractor and was used to construction-yard humor. Quite frankly, what came out as an accusation (of Nazism) was absolutely untrue," Nitz said.

"(Engelstad) was merely a student of history ... who had no interest in Nazism or Hitler or anybody else, other than the fact that he'd bought a lot of cars that were made in Germany before the war because he saw an opportunity to make a great deal of money with them."

Engelstad's collection of more than 350 rare and antique automobiles remains a popular Strip tourist attraction.

Crispell also spoke out for his longtime employer Wednesday. "We want Ralph to be remembered for the good he did," said Crispell, who worked for Engelstad since 1986.

Years after the Nazi debacle, Engelstad again drew criticism over a 1998 pledge to pay for a $104 million hockey arena at his alma mater, the University of North Dakota. American Indian groups said Engelstad forced the university to maintain its athletic teams' Fighting Sioux nickname and symbols as a condition of his financial support.

Published reports said American Indian students, faculty and alumni at the university felt the name was racist, and university President Charles Kupchella reportedly considered a change in names.

However, Engelstad told the state's Board of Higher Education that he would withdraw his financial support for the arena if the name was changed, and the board voted to keep the Fighting Sioux title, reports said.

Ralph Engelstad Arena opened in October 2001.

On Wednesday, Kupchella called Engelstad the university's "most generous benefactor" and praised his contributions to the university.

"He envisioned the university as a world-class institution, and he was going to do his part to assist in sustaining that vision. The magnificent Ralph Engelstad Arena testifies to that goal and to his commitment," Kupchella said.

Controversy surrounding the Fighting Sioux issue lingered even after Engelstad's death. On Wednesday, the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald published an article outlining a dispute in which Engelstad wrote a letter to university professor Sharon Carson in which he claimed he would "fire (her) ass" if he ran the university.

Carson had been critical of the school's decision to keep the Fighting Sioux name, the Herald said.

Closer to home, several prominent Nevadans spoke favorably of Engelstad on Wednesday.

Michael Gaughan, managing partner and chairman of Coast Resorts, said he will miss Engelstad.

"He danced to the beat of a different drummer, and he was one of the most honorable guys in town," Gaughan said. "(In) over 35 years of doing business with Ralph, once he said he'd do something, he'd never back down.

"Ralph was a very, very quiet guy. He donated a lot of money to charities but never let them thank him. He was very involved in town but never wanted any publicity over what he gave away."

Richard Bryan, a former U.S. senator and Nevada governor, praised Engelstad's business skills.

"It harkens back to an era when an individual could invest in a minor property and transform it into a major operation," Bryan said. "Engelstad was a self-made man in Las Vegas who transformed a motel property into a significant hotel complex. It's unlikely we'll see the likes of that again."

One of five children raised by Christian and Madeline Engelstad, Ralph Louis Engelstad was born Jan. 28, 1930, in Thief River Falls, Minn. Through a combination of odd jobs and a hockey scholarship, he financed his college education and earned a business degree in 1954.

Soon after college, Engelstad launched a construction company in Grand Forks. Although the business quickly made him a millionaire, a secured government housing contract and the desert's warm weather prompted him to move to Las Vegas in 1959.

"I don't like cold weather. Don't like it at all," Engelstad told the Review-Journal in 1982.

In 1965, Engelstad purchased Thunderbird Field (now the North Las Vegas Air Terminal) and later acquired some nearby vacant property. In 1967 and 1968, he sold the properties to billionaire developer Howard Hughes for a reported $2.5 million.

Using his profits from the Hughes deal, Engelstad later bought and sold the Klondike Hotel. In 1971, he bought a 9-acre site on Las Vegas Boulevard South that formerly housed the Flamingo-Capri Motel. After demolishing that property, Engelstad's construction company built the Imperial Palace, which opened in 1979 with 650 hotel rooms.

By the time of Engelstad's death, the Imperial Palace had expanded significantly and employed nearly 2,600 people.

In 1997, a second Imperial Palace property opened in Biloxi with 1,086 rooms.

Engelstad also joined with Sahara owner Bill Bennett to build a 1,500-acre Las Vegas Motor Speedway complex in 1996. They sold the property to Concord, N.C.-based Speedway Motorsports in 1998.

Chris Powell, president and general manager of the race track, said those at Speedway Motorsports are indebted to Engelstad. "It was Mr. Engelstad's vision that contributed in large part to the decision to build this wonderful facility," Powell said.

Along with his wife, Engelstad is survived by a daughter, Kris, and her husband, Tim; two sisters, Mary Tulper and Phyllis Dooley; and two grandchildren.

His funeral is scheduled for 10 a.m. Tuesday at Our Lady of Las Vegas Catholic Church, 3050 Alta Drive, east of Valley View Boulevard.

Engelstad will be interred at Palm Memorial Gardens, 7600 S. Eastern Ave.

Donations may be mailed to the Engelstad Family Foundation for Lung Cancer Research, 5851 W. Charleston Blvd., Las Vegas, NV 89102.

Gaming Wire writer Rod Smith contributed to this report.

Ralph Engelstad

Ralph Engelstad, 72, died Tuesday.

He was born Jan. 28, 1930, in Thief River Falls, Minn. The owner of the Imperial Palace Hotel & Casino, he was a 43-year resident of Las Vegas.

He is survived by his wife, Betty; and daughter, Kris Ann, both of Las Vegas; sisters, Phyllis Dooley of Las Vegas and Mary Tulper of Colorado; and two grandchildren.

Services will be at 10 a.m. Tuesday at Our Lady of Las Vegas Catholic Church followed by burial at Palm Valley View Memorial Park. The family requests memorial donations be made to the Engelstad Family Foundation/Lung Cancer Research, in care of Bradshaw Smith & Co. LLP, 5851 W. Charleston Blvd., Las Vegas, NV 89146. Palm Mortuary-Eastern handled arrangements.


 Posted on Thu, Nov. 28, 2002  
Ralph Engelstad remembered as generous man
Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) University of North Dakota benefactor Ralph Engelstad was remembered by colleagues Wednesday as a man whose kind deeds often were overshadowed by controversy.

Engelstad, who built his fortune in the casino business in Nevada and Mississippi, died Tuesday night at his Las Vegas home after a battle with lung cancer. He was 72.

"It's a difficult day because it's not often you have people who become successful and then reach back and remember where they came from," said Chris Semrau, marketing director for Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks. "The impact that one person can make on the city and state and university ... it's a pretty special thing."

Engelstad became embroiled in controversy over the years, particularly by hosting parties to celebrate Hitler's birthday and for staunchly defending UND's "Fighting Sioux" nickname. Semrau said he hopes Engelstad, a native of Thief River Falls, Minn., will be remembered for the good things he did.

"He's been able to do things that nobody else has," Semrau said. "He's not even originally from North Dakota, but North Dakota will reap his benefits for a long time."

Gov. John Hoeven said Engelstad has been "extremely generous" to the state.

"I'm very sorry to hear of his passing," Hoeven said. "My condolences go out to his entire family."

Engelstad financed the $100 million hockey arena on the UND campus that bears his name, and was the school's biggest financial donor. He made several other gifts through the years, including some papers of Gen. George Patton valued at nearly $1.5 million. He donated the papers to the UND Chester Fritz Library.

Tim O'Keefe, executive vice president of the UND Alumni Association and Foundation, said many of Engelstad's contributions went unknown to the general public.

"I think that Ralph's legacy will play itself out in a variety of ways," O'Keefe said. "What he did privately and what he did quietly is what he is all about. He is someone who was extraordinarily loyal."

UND President Charles Kupchella said Engelstad was UND's "most generous benefactor."

"He had an enormous pride in this institution and always credited the university for making a difference in his life," Kupchella said. "He envisioned the university as a world-class institution, and he was going to do his part to assist in sustaining that vision. The magnificent Ralph Engelstad Arena testifies to that goal and to his commitment."

Semrau said the main lobby of the arena will be open 24 hours a day until Tuesday for people to visit and pay their respects. A statue of Engelstad adorns the lobby, and Semrau said late Wednesday morning that people already were bringing flowers to lay at the foot of the statue.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem called Engelstad a generous man.

"This is a very sad day," Stenehjem said. "He is someone who always had the interest of the state of North Dakota, and especially the university, at heart."

Engelstad was a goaltender on the UND hockey team in the late 1940s and has continued to support the Sioux program.

"He will ... be remembered in our hearts for his determination, fire and competitiveness as a hockey player and as a fan who attended many important games over the years," said UND athletic director Roger Thomas.

Former longtime coach John "Gino" Gasparini said Engelstad was "a wonderful person to everybody who's ever been associated with him. He was extremely good to me personally during my tenure."
Posted on Thu, Nov. 28, 2002  
Rest in peace, Ralph Engelstad

UND alumnus and benefactor Ralph Engelstad has died, today's Herald reports.

The Herald's editorial board notes this fact with sadness. Engelstad's staggering generosity was legendary, and it extended far beyond his famous gifts to UND. Schools and communities throughout the region benefited from his gifts; he was a Las Vegas billionaire who never forgot his Red River Valley roots.

And, of course, he was more than that, too - much more. In the final analysis, Ralph Engelstad was a complicated and multifaceted man. Friday's editorial will explore his rich legacy in more detail. In the meantime, may we join with the region in extending our deep sympathy to Engelstad's family and friends.

Posted on Thu, Nov. 28, 2002  
A man of contrasts
Local friends remember 'Ralph'
By Ryan Bakken
Herald Staff Writer

Ralph Engelstad was:

A private man who led a public life.

An uncomplicated man whose days were complicated.

A generous man who wouldn't give an inch on certain issues.

A man whose actions attracted a spotlight he despised.

And an ultra-rich man who pinched pennies.

Friends and business associates here say those traits were among many that made the UND benefactor a study in contrasts.

Engelstad, who died Tuesday night at 72, is largely remembered for building UND a $104 million hockey arena that bears his name and for being an unyielding defender of the Fighting Sioux nickname and logo.

But he was much, much more than that.

Private man

His death from lung cancer provided a classic example of how much he valued his privacy. Not even close friend Tom Clifford, the Ralph Engelstad Arena Inc. board chairman who visited him five weeks ago in Las Vegas, knew of his illness.

"He said he had trouble with his vocal cords," Clifford said. "The only hint of what he had came in January, when he went from smoking three packs a day to quitting cold turkey.

"He just said, 'A guy has to do what a guy has to do.' But he didn't elaborate. He was always very cryptic. And, while we might have suspected something more was wrong, everyone avoided the subject, because Ralph was a very private guy."

He shared only what he wanted to share. Radio personality Scott Hennen remembers the two-day whirlwind tour of hockey arenas before Engelstad announced a $100 million gift in December 1999.

"No one on that trip knew what we were getting before Ralph stepped to the microphone," Hennen said. "We didn't know if we were getting a remodel job or a new arena. And no one knew the amount he was thinking about. No one dared ask."

Engelstad's discomfort in the spotlight was obvious during the gift announcement and at the arena's opening ceremony a year ago. But he was a great conversationalist in private. When REA marketing director Chris Semrau was UND student body president, he spent 90 minutes with Engelstad in his office and then a subsequent flight in his private jet to Minneapolis. There was never an awkward moment, Semrau said.

"I learned so much about so many things in those few hours," Semrau said. "Ralph was a very wise man and a very good man."

Before he became executive vice president of the UND Alumni Association and Foundation, Tim O'Keefe knew Engelstad from gatherings of UND hockey letterwinners at the Imperial Palace, Engelstad's Las Vegas casino.

He was more comfortable in that setting than any other, O'Keefe said. "He just wanted to be one of the guys with the guys," he said. "But he was uncomfortable if the attention turned to him. If it did, he'd leave."

Talking business

Clifford said his most recent trip to Las Vegas was to talk business. On the agenda was discussing the best way to transfer the arena's ownership from Engelstad to a foundation or some other entity. Nothing was decided.

Clifford said Engelstad's estate will go into a foundation trust, with board members determining how it will be distributed. Asked about UND's chances of being a beneficiary again, Clifford said, "I think the window could be open."

O'Keefe said it's time to grieve and pay tribute, not to think of any potential gifts.

"If we never see another nickel from Ralph, I doubt that we'll ever see anyone else at UND reach the level of benevolence he has," O'Keefe said. "That benevolence goes far beyond the hockey gift."

Humanitarian, benefactor

While his multimillion dollar gifts brought him the most attention, what impressed friends was that so many gifts were given anonymously. He shrank from fanfare.

"He was not a man who wanted a pat on the back for his goodness, and that speaks volumes," Semrau said.

Arena designer Jim Kobetsky was visiting Las Vegas when Engelstad was involved in a fender-bender accident with a young woman, who was at fault. The woman was shaken up, so Engelstad went to the back seat of his vehicle for a gift bottle of perfume to calm her.

"He had a whole case of perfume in the back because he was always giving gifts," Kobetsky said. "He's a lot more generous than people know."

Local residents know of his gifts of 2,000 wheelchairs and donations to the likes of the Sons of Norway, Sacred Heart Church, Nordic Initiative, the Larimore Good Samaritan Center and other groups. In addition to his awards for hiring the disabled, he also received acclaim for not laying off employees after 9/11, as other casinos did when tourism waned.

"Ralph's generosity is not only measured in monetary value, but in humanitarian ways as well," said Todd Berning, general manager of REA. "Add on his work with charities and the disabled, and he's one of the largest philanthropists in America."

O'Keefe said Engelstad was humble and passionate in his beliefs, "but more than anything, he was a giver. He was about a helluva lot more than $104 million.

"He talked about how the harder he worked, the luckier he got. Well, the more he made, the harder he worked to give it away."

Hard worker

Clifford learned of the death from Engelstad's daughter Kris in an early-morning phone call. "She just said her dad wore out because work was his life."

The two slogans he always cited during his rare public presentations spoke to that work ethic. One slogan was, "The harder I work, the luckier I get." The other was, "No dream comes true until you wake up and go to work."

Said Clifford, "He lived those slogans."

Kobetsky said Engelstad worked harder, even in his 70s, than anyone he's ever met.

"He was a generous, generous guy who put his entire soul into everything he did," Kobetsky said. "He brought so much to the table and was so driven. He loved to be in on the details and push a project hard.

"He liked to call the shots and he did."

On the tour of hockey arenas, Engelstad stayed true to his construction background.

"As we got to each facility, we would lose Ralph," Hennen said. "He'd be in the bowels of the arena, looking at the piping and trusses, or in the rafters looking at the steel structure. He didn't care about the bells and whistles of each arena. What he worried about first was the construction basics."

Berning said you could reach Engelstad night or day because he was always working. He remembers when a male fan fell over a railing in the arena during homecoming weekend in 2001.

"Ralph was at his office all Saturday night and worked through it all day Sunday," Berning said. "Ralph always wanted to know what was going on.

"In almost any circumstance we could throw at him, he had experience and expertise in it. Right down to the end, with the Thief River Falls arena, he was building things and creating opportunities for people."

Value beyond $104 million

Other new college hockey facilities made UND's old Engelstad look outdated. So having the country's best arena was a strong boost to the hockey program.

But the arena's boost goes beyond hockey, beyond bringing publicity to UND and beyond the obvious economic engine of attracting more than 11,000 fans to each game, Clifford said.

"Aside from all that, its impact is its sheer excellence and magnificence," Clifford said. "It's a jewel. And it's a target of excellence for others to try to reach. It's an intangible."

No stranger to controversy

Engelstad was in the middle of his share of controversies. Shortly after his first gift of $5 million for the first arena that carried his name, he was criticized for holding Adolf Hitler birthday parties. He admitted that the parties were "stupid and insensitive."

He also threatened to hold up a major gift until former UND Athletic Director Terry Wanless left the school, then later threatened to stop construction of the new arena if UND President Charles Kupchella changed the nickname or the new logo Engelstad had helped create. And recently, he sharply criticized a UND professor who sought a boycott of Engelstad Arena.

The controversies were partly a product of Engelstad's nature.

"Ralph would be riding smoothly along and then do something insensitive," Clifford said. "That was him. He was blunt.

"Fundamentally, he was not a mean person. But if he had a grudge ..."

The controversies also evolved from Engelstad's honesty. "Ralph never broke his word," Clifford said. "And he was always straightforward. He wouldn't play games with you."

Engelstad often talked about how deals in his early business years were made with handshakes, not lawyers. So when he was negotiating with Kobetsky over his contract to build the new Engelstad, Kobetsky threw him a curve.

"I said, 'Let's call it a deal and shake on it,' " Kobetsky said. "A big smile came over Ralph's face. That's just not the way you do business anymore.

"But Ralph shook hands and made it a deal. When we met with lawyers later, they walked in and said, 'I hear you got a deal.' That was it. Ralph's handshake was gold."

Engelstad's occasional harsh words on particular subjects were because of "Ralph's strong personality, forthrightness and refusal to participate in political correctness," O'Keefe said.

"On a lot of issues, Ralph represented the silent majority."

Careful with money

While estimates of his wealth approach $1.2 billion, Engelstad's frugality was legendary.

When he announced his $100 million gift, he wore Keds sneakers with no socks, jeans and a tattered red shirt. He never spent much money on meals, either, as he preferred Wendy's and Denny's over more elegant dining. His idea of a night out was sipping drinks in the Mai Tai Bar at his Imperial Palace.

The 280 stools that will ring the Engelstad Arena being built in Thief River Falls came from Imperial Palace blackjack tables. He enjoyed going through his warehouses to find materials that he could use in some other project.

"Trying to stretch something to the max was part of the business enjoyment for him," Kobetsky said.

Two months ago, Engelstad called Kobetsky with the final figure on the cost of the new Engelstad. "It was $104,154,000 and change," Kobetsky said. "He had it down to the penny."

Kobetsky also is the designer for the $10 million arena Engelstad is building in Thief River Falls. Two weeks ago on a visit to Las Vegas, Kobetsky heard Engelstad talk at length about the impact his hometown had on his development.

"He said that building is for the youth of Thief River Falls," Kobetsky said.

Praise from critics

Even Engelstad's sharpest critics had kind words for him Wednesday.

BRIDGES, a UND group that seeks to change the nickname and logo, issued a statement that read: "On the eve of a national holiday that is often portrayed as a gathering to give thanks, BRIDGES members will remember the good things that Mr. Engelstad has done for the children and public elementary schools in this community."

Sharon Carson, the UND professor who asked people to boycott Engelstad Arena events, prompting a scathing reply by Engelstad, said: "I am sorry to hear of his passing, and I'm sorry for the sadness this will cause his family and friends."

Wanless, the UND athletic director Engelstad wanted removed, offered praise from his office as director of athletics at Cal State-Sacramento. Wanless said he had high regard for Engelstad as a leader who was not afraid to take the heat for controversial decisions.

"The thing I respected about Ralph is that he had a vision, and he had a philosophy of life, and he never detoured from that," Wanless said. "While I didn't always agree with that, I respected it, because I respect that character in a person.

"This world needs people with that approach to life, who can make a decision, be comfortable with it and not be worried about what other people think."

Final word

Reggie Morelli, a former UND hockey player who lives in Minot, may have been Engelstad's best friend. Morelli was too choked up Wednesday to elaborate but managed to say:

"I lost a good friend, hockey lost a good friend, and so did the state and the University of North Dakota."


A tough day for UND
News of Ralph Engelstad's death shortens Sioux practice
By Virg Foss and Kevin Fee
Herald Staff Writers
Herald file photo by Eric Hylden
The first second is off the clock as the new Ralph Engelstad Arena opens.

The death of UND benefactor Ralph Engelstad on Tuesday hit the Fighting Sioux men's hockey team hard.

Engelstad, 72, a former UND goalie, died in his Nevada home after a battle with lung cancer.

Thirty minutes into Wednesday's practice, Sioux coach Dean Blais called it off.

"We not only lost a great friend but a tremendous supporter for UND," Blais said. "It's hard to put into words. I couldn't handle it and the team couldn't, either."

Blais said he cut short Wednesday's practice because he could see that his players were distracted.

"Our players all know the impact of what Ralph has done for Sioux hockey," Blais said, "and what he meant to the program. He is the program."

Blais said it was "futile" to continue with practice after he saw how his players were reacting. "They were all in the same mood I was," Blais said. "It was the worst practice I have ever been to ... . And the last thing Ralph would want here is an unfocused team."

Instead, Blais said he gathered the team and talked to them about what Ralph Engelstad meant to UND and to himself.

"I remember my first year (1994) when I replaced Gino Gasparini as coach," Blais said. "He'd send me a note here and there, telling me he was behind me. I think it was an easier gap for Ralph to swallow that I replaced Gino, because even though I had played for Minnesota, he knew I was a North Dakota guy, through and through."

Blais recalled trips across the country five years ago with Engelstad and others to look at other rinks, as Engelstad formulated his plans and design for his rink in Grand Forks.

"He knew we were falling behind in facilities to such schools such as Minnesota, Denver and Colorado College, which all had or were building new rinks," Blais said. "Ralph stepped up to the plate - and hit a home run."

Blais said he was worried when Engelstad didn't attend last weekend's UND hockey alumni weekend. The festivities featured the induction of the 1947-48 and 1958-59 teams into UND's Athletic Hall of Fame.

Engelstad played on the 1947-48 team with such players as Warroad's Cal Marvin and was a close friend of Reggie Morelli, a star on the 1958-59 team. "Those two people, he loved," Blais said. "When he didn't come back last weekend, I suspected something was wrong."

WCHA mourns

In a press release from Western Collegiate Hockey Association commissioner Bruce McLeod, the league said it mourned the loss of Engelstad.

"We are all saddened by the loss of Ralph Engelstad," McLeod said. "Ralph was a good friend and strong proponent of collegiate hockey and our condolences go out to his family and the University of North Dakota community at this time of Thanksgiving."

Cal Marvin of Warroad, Minn., was a teammate of Engelstad at UND.

"He was a good player on a great team," Marvin said, "a team that had three players go on to win medals in Olympic hockey."

A fighter

Marvin remembers Engelstad as a fierce fighter for what he believes in, specifically the retention of the Fighting Sioux nickname for UND athletic teams.

"I don't go along with the do-gooders on this one," Marvin said of those who oppose the use of the name and logo. "People were after Ralph on that. My memories of him are all positive. I was there the night he donated 2,000 wheelchairs to the state and area. He did a lot with his life, and he shared it with a lot of people in the way he wanted to."

Engelstad Arena, Marvin said, is a lasting tribute. "He gave something to UND that nobody else has got and maybe never ever will," Marvin said. "When he gave it, UND got it, the city of Grand Forks got it, the state of North Dakota got it and anybody can just get in a car and go over there and watch. How do you improve on that?"

Marvin said that Engelstad's dream always was to ensure that UND's hockey program was No. 1 in the country.

"He enhanced that dream with his donations," Marvin said.

A special guy

Gino Gasparini said Engelstad was a special friend.

"I'm basically heartbroken," said Gasparini, the former UND men's hockey coach. "He's a pretty special guy, and he's been a dear friend to a lot of people and certainly a dear friend of mine for a number of years. It's kind of a big surprise.

"I guess maybe the longer I got to know him I thought he was indestructible ... . When you enjoy people, you always expect them to be here. So this comes as a shocker.

"He had a wonderful life, a wonderful family."

Engelstad wasn't just about Sioux hockey, Gasparini said.

"He had a passion for a lot of things, Sioux hockey was just one of them," Gasparini said. "He took care of a lot of things and supported a lot of good things. He's done so much good. Maybe that's the side of the story that people should be more aware of."

"It wasn't just the arena. There's more to the man than just that."

Gasparini said he may cancel plans to attend a hockey tournament this weekend to attend Engelstad's funeral.

Liked to loosen things up for Sioux

Jay Panzer, a former UND player from Grand Forks, said Engelstad and Reggie Morelli provided a boost for the Sioux before the start of the 1997 NCAA Frozen Four final in Milwaukee.

Engelstad and Morelli, a former UND player and friend of Engelstad, put on a comedy routine in the locker room to try to loosen up Sioux players.

"Just seeing those two in there, it really enlightened the locker room," Panzer said. "They were screwing around like they were 10-year-old kids."

Sioux players reacted by saying, "That's how we need to be right now, we need to loose," Panzer said. "There was a lot of tension in the locker room at that time (before Morelli and Engelstad arrived). I think it really helped."

The Sioux went on to defeat Boston University 6-4.

Jeff Panzer, a former UND All-American who plays for Worcester of the American Hockey League, said he hasn't seen a rink as nice as the $100 million-plus one Engelstad built for the Sioux.

"There's some nice rinks but nothing like that," Jeff Panzer said.

What impressed Jeff Panzer about Engelstad was his passion for Sioux hockey.

"He was always checking in and making sure things were going well," Jeff Panzer said. "He felt that the university gave him an opportunity to be a successful businessman. He just remembered where he came from."

Will be missed

Roger Thomas, UND athletic director, said the department was saddened by the news of Engelstad's death.

"His loyalty to the University of North Dakota was a monument to the commitment he made to the university during his lifetime," Thomas said. "He always remembered those who contributed to the success he achieved.

"Certainly Ralph will be remembered for his generosity not only with UND, but numerous other organizations, causes and individuals. Yet he will also be remembered in our hearts for his determination, fire and competitiveness as a hockey player and as a fan who attended many important games over the years."

Consistent man

Tim O'Keefe, a former Sioux hockey player from Grand Forks, now is the executive vice president and CEO of the UND Alumni Association and Foundation.

"If there's one word I would use to describe Ralph, it would be 'consistent,'" O'Keefe said. "His passions were always there, and he was an easy lightning rod for people who had opposite views."

More than his lasting memorial of Engelstad Arena, the true story of Engelstad will be revealed as stories of his life emerge, O'Keefe said.

"He was always a giver, he never asked for anything in return. Whether it was a $104 million arena or the donation of 2,000 wheelchairs, when somebody was down and out, he was there to help, and he never asked for anything in return. In time, people will truly recognize him for the man he was."

O'Keefe said Engelstad remained a private man right to the end.

"We knew he was ill, and everybody speculated what it was," O'Keefe said, "but nobody here knew it was cancer until we saw the statement that was released."

A boost to women

Shantel Rivard, the UND women's head hockey coach, said she never met Engelstad in person.

Rivard and her first-year women's program, though, practice and play in the House that Ralph built, the $100 million-plus arena that bears his name.

"It's amazing the facility he built here and to have it available for the women's program," Rivard said. "Most schools have to sell their facilities - or try to hide them - when they go out recruiting. Our facilities sell themselves."

Though the seven-time NCAA champion men's team is the marquee program in Engelstad Arena, Rivard said everything is first class for the women, too, thanks to Engelstad's foresight.

"It's definitely too bad that he died," she said. "I hear they are going to retire his number at UND."

Engelstad, a former Sioux goalie, wore jersey No. 23.

Posted on Thu, Nov. 28, 2002  
UND benefactor Ralph Engelstad dies
Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. Las Vegas casino owner and University of North Dakota benefactor Ralph Engelstad has died at his Nevada home after a battle with lung cancer. He was 72.

Engelstad died Tuesday night, said Chris Semrau, marketing director for Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks. He is survived by his wife, Betty; daughter, Kris; two grandchildren; and two sisters.

Engelstad, who graduated from UND in 1954 with a bachelor's degree in commerce, was a goaltender on the school's hockey team from 1948-50. He owned casinos in Las Vegas and Biloxi, Miss., and had a number of real estate holdings. Forbes magazine listed him in the 1990s as being among the nation's richest people.

He financed the $100 million hockey arena on the UND campus that bears his name.

Engelstad was UND's biggest financial supporter, and he was a staunch advocate of keeping the school's controversial "Fighting Sioux" nickname.

The Thief River Falls, Minn., native also donated $10 million for a new high school hockey arena that is under construction in his hometown.

Gov. John Hoeven was part of last year's dedication ceremonies for the new UND hockey arena. He said it was a proud day for Engelstad, even if it did not show in his demeanor.

"He was really low key," Hoeven said. "With all the stuff going on, he was almost hard to find. He just blended in. He really didn't make himself a focal point."

Former UND President Tom Clifford said Engelstad's death was sudden.

"He had been a little under the weather the last couple of weeks," Clifford said. "We certainly didn't expect him to die, and we feel very saddened by it."

"I talked to his daughter this morning and she said, 'Dad just wore out. He worked all the time,'" Clifford said.

Earl Strinden, former director of the UND Alumni Foundation and Association, said Engelstad was a workaholic who did not seek publicity.

"He was a man who stood out above the crowd," Strinden said. "And he was misunderstood by so many."

Engelstad was involved in controversy through the years.

In 1994, he threatened to hold up a major gift to UND until Terry Wanless, the school's athletic director, left the school. Engelstad was annoyed about Wanless' role in the resignation of John "Gino" Gasparini, UND's longtime hockey coach.

Wanless announced in August 1998 that he was resigning effective July 1, 1999. Four months later, Engelstad announced his $100 million gift to UND. University officials said at the time that Wanless' pending departure had no bearing on the timing of the gift.

UND's old hockey arena also was named for Engelstad. Officials bestowed that honor in 1988 after Engelstad and his wife, Betty, established a $5 million UND endowment to benefit the hockey program.

That gift caused some controversy at UND following disclosures that the Imperial Palace, the Las Vegas casino Engelstad owned, had hosted parties to celebrate Hitler's birthday. Bartenders at the parties wore shirts bearing the Nazi dictator's picture and the slogan, "Adolf Hitler European Tour 1939-45."

Engelstad apologized for the parties, calling them "not only stupid, but insensitive."

The new Engelstad Arena, which opened a year ago, is decorated with 4,500 replicas of the Fighting Sioux logo, which depict an Indian in profile, wearing feathers and war paint. Some people consider the nickname and logo offensive, but Engelstad was a vocal supporter of keeping them.

While the arena was being built, Engelstad said he would stop construction if UND President Charles Kupchella decided to change the nickname and the logo. The state Board of Higher Education subsequently voted to keep both.

Engelstad recently became embroiled in a dispute with a UND professor who opposed the nickname in a letter to the editor she had published in a local newspaper. He told the professor in his letter that he would fire her if he ran the university.

Chuck Stroup, the Board of Higher Education's president, said Tuesday that the board planned no response to the letter.

Engelstad decided on a business career after turning down a contract offer from the National Hockey League's Chicago Blackhawks. He started a construction business in Grand Forks in the 1950s and in 1960 moved to Las Vegas, where he began operating a construction company.

In 1971, he bought the grounds and building of the old Flamingo Capri Motel, which he built into the Imperial Palace. It opened in 1979, and now has 2,700 rooms and 2,600 employees. He later co-developed the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Engelstad was given numerous awards, including Employer of the Year in 1987 and 1989 by the Nevada Governor's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities, the National Employer of the Year in 1991 from the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities, and Humanitarian of the Year from the International Gaming and Business Exposition.

Engelstad was inducted several months ago into the North Dakota Entrepreneur Hall of Fame. He received the UND Alumni Association's highest honor, the Sioux Award, in 1981, and was inducted into the Fighting Sioux Hall of Fame in 1987.

When Engelstad announced his $100 million gift to UND in 1998, he said, "Life is full of its up and downs in business and personally. I have experienced both, but I have been very fortunate to land on the upper side more times than on the bottom."

The Ralph Engelstad Story
 Ralph Engelstad was fresh out of Thief River Falls (Minnesota) High School in 1948, working that summer unloading rail cars. The older guy next to him turned out to be a University of North Dakota chemistry professor and future dean, the late Ben Gustafson. In the course of conversations, Ben learned Ralph had played goalie and encouraged Ralph to enroll at UND and go out for the UND hockey team.

The rest, as they say, is history. Ralph not only played as a goalie for the Fighting Sioux, but also received an offer to try out with the Chicago Blackhawks. Ralph, after two years at UND, joined a number of teammates in California playing for the San Bernardino Shamrocks and working construction. He realized the importance of completing his UND education, returned, and earned a bachelor's degree in commerce in 1954. Shortly after graduation, Ralph and Betty Stocker of East Grand Forks were married. Their daughter Kris and her husband have two children, Sean and Erin.

Ralph's work ethic and initiative were established early in his life. Another of his experiences in construction was assembling steel buildings sold by Agsco, where his father, Chris, was a salesman. The work was usually on farms and Ralph and his co-workers often slept in their cars and worked from sun-up to dark.

Ralph started Engelstad Construction in Grand Forks in the 1950s, and the buildings he constructed are still standing and serving well. In the 1960s he looked for opportunities to expand his horizons. His choice: Las Vegas, Nevada -- the relatively small gambling city in the desert, but with a very active housing market and good prospects for population growth.

Ralph, willing to take a risk, became owner of real estate in north Las Vegas known as the Thunderbird airport. In 1967, the late Howard Hughes wanted this land and Ralph was willing to sell. This gave Ralph the capital to acquire a small hotel and piece of land a short distance from the Flamingo Hotel and across the street from Caesar's Palace. His vision, however, was an entirely new hotel and casino. The Imperial Palace opened on the site in 1979. His internationally renowned auto collection opened three years later. The Imperial Palace, expanded to over 2,600 rooms, was once the largest privately owned hotel in the world.

Ralph Engelstad, who Earl Strinden, former UND Alumni Association Executive Vice President, called "the most outstanding and successful entrepreneur to graduate from UND in its entire history," continued to build his empire. It included numerous non-gambling enterprises and ownership of property throughout the nation. He was the major principal in building the NASCAR race track near Las Vegas which accommodated 109,000 fans and parking for 65,000 vehicles. He also built the Imperial Palace Hotel and Casino in Biloxi, Mississippi.

The legends about Ralph Engelstad are many. When Ralph decided to start his own construction company, he approahced two local banks for a $2,500 loan. He was turned down. The late Al Holmquist, President of Valley Bank, made the loan. Ralph never forgot; and for as long as Valley Bank was an independent bank, it held sizeable deposits for Ralph. In appreciation, Ralph some years later gifted Holmquist a new Cadillac. John Cook, who succeeded Holmquist as bank president, became a close and trusted friend.

What is the secret to his success? His standard answers to this question are, "The harder I work, the luckier I get," and "no dream comes true until you wak up and go to work."

Posted on Thu, Nov. 28, 2002 story:PUB_DESC
UND benefactor, Fighting Sioux fan, succumbs to lung cancer at age 72

Herald Staff Writer
Duane Stavig pauses as he sweeps the floor near a statue of Ralph Engelstad in the Ralph Engelestad Arena on Wednesday. A single rose lay at the feet of the statue in remembrance of Engelstad who died late Tuesday in Las Vegas.
Duane Stavig pauses as he sweeps the floor near a statue of Ralph Engelstad in the Ralph Engelestad Arena on Wednesday. A single rose lay at the feet of the statue in remembrance of Engelstad who died late Tuesday in Las Vegas.

Ralph Engelstad, the Thief River Falls altar boy and high school hockey goalie who grew up to build the $104 million hockey arena at UND and became one of America's biggest givers, died Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2002, in his Las Vegas home, from cancer.

He was 72 and had battled cancer for some time, characteristically keeping it a secret even from close friends and relatives.

"It knocked our socks off," said cousin Don Engelstad of Thief River Falls, who grew up with Engelstad. "We were out there in October and he was thin and we knew there was something wrong, but he wouldn't say anything to us about it, of course. He came down every night and spent time with us."

Engelstad was the quintessential self-made man, an American success story, say those who knew him his whole life. His Las Vegas-based business empire made him one of the nation's richest men by the 1990s, Forbes magazine reported. In the past two decades, he began giving much of it away, making him one of the nation's largest philanthropists.

His gift of the $104 million hockey arena named after him at UND - widely considered the grandest in college hockey - is one of the largest single gifts to a public university. It also led to the controversy over Engelstad's love for - and insistence on the display and use of - UND's 70-year-old Fighting Sioux nickname and accompanying Indian head logo.

Engelstad just a year ago announced he was building a $10 million hockey arena in his hometown of Thief River Falls; it's nearing completion.

He and his wife, Betty, have given away millions more over the years, including to the first Engelstad hockey arena at UND - called the Winter Sports Center when it was built 30 years ago.

Humble beginnings

Despite his glittering, Vegas-based business success, Engelstad never forgot where he came from.

That was Thief River Falls, where he was born Jan. 28, 1930, to Chris and Madelyn (Thill) Engelstad.

His name would have been Ralph Paulson. But his great-grandfather Evan Paulson changed it to Engelstad before emigrating to America.

"There were too many Paulsons," said Arnold Engelstad, a cousin of Ralph's who grew up with him in Thief River Falls.

The new Norwegian name means something like "field of angels" in English and, though never used by Evan, his son Peder took it up. Peder Engelstad followed his father to America in 1882, but all the land around Hillsboro was taken up by then, so he homesteaded near Thief River Falls on two quarter-sections of land. Peder and his wife, Mathilde (Kjos), had 13 children, including Christian, Ralph's father.

That means there are about 30 first cousins now in the Engelstad clan, of Ralph' generation, all grandchildren of Peder and Mathilde.

The pioneer village in Thief River Falls celebrating Norwegian immigrant history is named after Peder Engelstad.

Christian married a Catholic woman, Madelyn Thill, of Germanic and Irish ancestry.

So Ralph Engelstad grew up Catholic, attending St. Bernard's school for his first eight grades, taught by nuns, and serving at altar under the stern eye of the Rev. Alexander Merth.

Brian Walker was 5 when Engelstad, also 5, and his family moved down the block on Arnold Avenue to build a new home. "I remember running around in their basement, before the house was built," Walker said. "We were good buddies."

Both boys went to St. Bernard's and served at the altar.

"We played hockey big time, on an outdoor rink all the time, or in the street. They would flood the rink in the fall of the year, and we played hockey all the doggone time," Walker said.

Hard worker

While early into hockey, and late a Las Vegas casino owner, Ralph Engelstad was never a wild kid.

"Nothing like that," Walker said. "His mom made sure of that. She was a pretty straight-laced gal. A nice lady."

A big part of his life was socializing with his big family, and the meeting place usually was the Peder Engelstad homestead.

Engelstad's grandfather had built a big dairy operation and delivered milk door-to-door.

"It was a large farm, so there were people around all the time," Arnold Engelstad said, a cousin older by about two years.

Cousin Don Engelstad grew up in town with Ralph, and his father also had married a Catholic woman, so they were in school together. They were the "town kids," when the Engelstad clan got together.

"His mother was a strict mother, as was mine," Don said. "When we would go out to the farm, we didn't get to play in the hayloft like all the farm kids. Our mothers didn't want us to get dirty."

But he was always doing something, usually work-related.

"He was just a great guy, and very innovative," Walker said. "I remember he built a desk for his bedroom when he was just a kid, and I wondered how in the dickens did he ever do that? He could do anything with everything."

Everyone who knew Engelstad growing up noticed how hardworking he was, how driven and how successful.

There seemed to be no big accidents or missteps in Engelstad's life, said cousin Arnold, who was about three years older.

"Everything he ever did worked out," Arnold said. "One of his mottos was, 'The harder I work, the luckier I get.'"

Grandfather Peder was only about 5 feet 3 inches tall, and grandmother Mathilde was only about 4 feet 10 inches, said Arnold Engelstad. Ralph was about 5 feet 8 inches.

"There were lots of short Engelstads," Arnold Engelstad said.

As important as family was to Ralph Engelstad, Arnold doesn't see any clear pattern of where Engelstad's drive came from.

"He was an individualist. I don't know, maybe it was because he was short."

Born leader

Brian Walker got his first job through his boyhood friend and classmate.

Engelstad already was working for Agsco, where his father, Chris, was a salesman. In his high school years, Ralph worked summers on crews erecting steel farm buildings.

"Ralph asked me, 'Do you want to work for this outfit?' So we went to work," Walker said. "We were 17, 18 at the time."

They poured concrete slabs for the floors, put up the steel rims and bolted the half-circles of steel into tough, weather-proof structures that still dot the area.

"There's one, a double-Quonset, here in Thief River. Every time I drive by on Pennington Avenue in Thief River I look over and remember, that was one of the first ones we put up."

Walker joined the Marines for four years. Engelstad told him he was drafted but didn't pass the physical because of bad knees, Walker said.

Engelstad enrolled at UND, at the advice of a professor who was working summers at Agsco, too. It seemed a great way to play hockey.

After two years, he took time off to work more and play minor league hockey in California.

He came back to UND and graduated in 1954 with a degree in commerce.

That same year, he married Betty Stocker of East Grand Forks and began his business career. He turned down a contract offer from the Chicago Blackhawks to play professional hockey.

Using a $2,500 loan from Valley Bank in Grand Forks, Engelstad built up a construction company, including contracting with Agsco, where he had been an employee.

Bold prediction

Russ Brown, son of Agsco's founder and four years younger than Engelstad, worked on one of Engelstad's building crews.

"He was just very steady and wanted to get the job done on time and get it done right," Brown said Wednesday. "He was just always a very high-energy guy."

Brown was about 21 and Engelstad was 26 as they worked out at building sites.

"He told me he was going to be a millionaire by the time he was 35," Brown said. "And I believed him. He was that kind of guy."

Actually, by the time he was 29, in 1959, Engelstad achieved millionaire status, according to his public relations firm.

That also was the year he moved to Las Vegas.

He began building federally financed housing under the HUD program and bought land around a small airport outside Las Vegas. A few years later, tycoon Howard Hughes bought that property from Engelstad, giving the North Dakota entrepreneur his first big chunk of capital.

He used it to buy a tiny motel/casino on The Strip, called the Flamingo Capri, in 1971. Operating as his own contractor, Engelstad began building the massive Imperial Palace, which opened in 1979. Until recently the largest independently owned hotel/casino in the world, according to news reports, the Imperial Palace in Vegas has 2,700 rooms, 2,500 employees and 10 restaurants.

In 1997, he opened a second Imperial Palace in Biloxi, Miss.

His worth then was in the hundreds of millions of dollars, approaching the billion-dollar mark.

Back to UND

In the late 1980s, he and Betty began making large gifts to UND, especially a $5 million one to the hockey program that put his name on the hockey arena.

But that led to controversy over parties held at the Imperial Palace to celebrate Hitler's birthday. Engelstad later apologized, saying the parties were "not only stupid, but insensitive."

In the late 1990s, Engelstad's strong support for the UND Fighting Sioux nickname and logo ran into growing minority opposition to the name. He said he'd withhold donations if President Ken Baker and athletic director Terry Wanless remained. They both later left UND.

A few months later, Engelstad began building the new hockey arena, using his own construction firm, as he did with his first casino 30 years ago.

He took care to have about 4,500 depictions of the Sioux logo in the new building. When UND President Charles Kupchella began his tenure by starting discussions of whether to keep the nickname and logo, Engelstad wrote a letter to the state board of higher education, blasting Kupchella. Engelstad said if the name was changed, he would stop construction and walk away from the deal and building and "eat" a $35-million loss.

After receiving Engelstad's letter, the Board quickly voted to require UND to keep the nickname and logo.

Just this week, news of a sharp exchange of letters between Engelstad and a UND professor, Sharon Carson, highlighted the name controversy again.

The letters were written in October: Engelstad responded to a newspaper commentary in the Herald by Carson urging people to boycott events at Engelstad arena. Engelstad said he would fire Carson if he was in charge of UND. Carson wrote back, sending copies to several UND and state education officials, saying Engelstad was out of line for threatening her employment.

Quiet gifts

But Wednesday, the controversy that at times was raised around Engelstad was in the background, and people who knew him for decades said he too often wasn't understood.

"There are so many things people don't know what good he did," Don Engelstad said. "All they know is the negative. But he was private and what he did good he wouldn't tell anybody."

He made large donations to the Good Samaritan home in Larimore, N.D., for example.

In 2002, Engelstad bought 2,000 wheelchairs for North Dakotans, and gave money to complete statues for the state's celebration of the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition. An amateur history buff, Engelstad had an extensive collection of World War II memorabilia, including automobiles from U.S. and German leaders. That led to some of the Hitler-themed parties.

In 1998, he donated the papers of Gen. George S. Patton to UND, a gift valued at $1.5 million, his public relations firm said.

"Ralph was an entrepreneur before the word was ever invented," said Russ Brown, who was on the board that gave Engelstad the North Dakota Entrepreneur of the Year award in August.

Engelstad's friends say his "second family" were his employees.

When the Engelstad arena opened a year ago, Engelstad flew about 150 employees of his casino to the event in Grand Forks.

Brown said Engelstad's genius was not only building things, but handling people.

"Ralph was always a hands on guy, and he had a knack for building. He also had a tremendous leadership ability, whether it was running a cement crew for Agsco or operating the Imperial Palace."

That's why his casino was one of the few in Vegas that was not unionized, Brown said.

"Even though he had thousands of employees, he treated them so well, that he didn't have to have any union."

Engelstad received many federal and state awards - including the Presidential "National Employer of the Year," for employing disabled people.

After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks cut tourism business, other casinos cut back on staff, but Engelstad kept everyone on his payroll at the two Imperial Palaces, said his employees.

Engelstad's success and millions never changed him, say those who knew him well."He was the same old Ralph. He would stop in when he was in Grand Forks out at Agsco, just to pay a visit. And if you saw him walk in and didn't know who he was, you would have thought he was just one of the guys off the street."

And Engelstad never stopped his working ways.

"I understand that right up to the end - and this was typical of Ralph - he was still thinking about different deals, and doing things, so he was still in full motion," Brown said. "He set goals and achieved them and then kept setting new goals."

Engelstad is survived by his wife of 48 years, Betty; daughter, Kris (Tim) McGarry, and their two children, also of Las Vegas; two sisters, Mary Tulper and Phyllis Dooley.

Preceding him in death were brother, Richard, who died in Las Vegas in 1987 at age 41.

Imperial Palace founder remembered fondly


Pallbearers carry the casket of Imperial Palace founder Ralph Engelstad into Our Lady of Las Vegas Catholic Church Tuesday.
Photo by John Gurzinski.
Hundreds of the late Ralph Engelstad's friends and family members turned out Tuesday to pay their final respects to the Imperial Palace founder.

Engelstad, who died at his Las Vegas home on Nov. 26 after a 20-month battle with lung cancer, was 72.

The three men who delivered eulogies at the 80-minute ceremony at a memorial service at Our Lady of Las Vegas Catholic Church emphasized Engelstad's generosity and his common touch.

Imperial Palace general manager Ed Crispell, who worked for Engelstad since 1986, said his longtime boss was not only a great businessman and deal maker, but a caring man as well.

Citing Engelstad's long-standing help to shut-in senior citizens in Las Vegas, Crispell said the philanthropist's generosity was deep and wide-ranging.

"Little children all over the world, the handicapped, animal shelters, veterans, high school sports teams," all benefited, he said.

"Ralph had a wonderful life and he was loved by his wife and family," Crispell said. "He was also loved by his second family at the Imperial Palace."

Longtime friend Reggie Morelli said Engelstad was a good friend.

"Ralph was just about the best guy you could ask to spend 20 years with," Morelli said.

Former college hockey teammate Tom Clifford remembered Engelstad's sense of humor and generosity.

"He was always very interested in the common man," Clifford said. "He was passionate about the people who worked for him. He was a visionary, and his vision brought a lot of hopes to light."

Engelstad grew up in Thief River Falls, Minn., and graduated from the University of North Dakota in 1954, where he was a talented hockey goalie. Engelstad moved to Las Vegas in 1959, using the profits from his construction company and real estate investments to buy a Strip motel on the site of what is now the Imperial Palace.

Engelstad built and opened the new property in 1979, and the property now has 2,700 hotel rooms and 2,600 employees, the second-largest sole proprietorship hotel in the world.

Engelstad opened an Imperial Palace resort in Biloxi, Miss., in 1997, and, along with Sahara owner Bill Bennett, developed and sold the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

He is survived by Betty Engelstad, his wife of 48 years; daughter Kris Engelstad McGarry, who read a poem at Tuesday's service, son-in-law Tim McGarry, two grandchildren and two sisters.

Morelli acknowledged Engelstad's readiness to face controversy, a reference to his battles to keep his college's Fighting Sioux nickname and a late '80s controversy over parties he held commemorating the death of Adolf Hitler, for which he was fined $1.5 million by the Nevada Gaming Commission.

"He fought (controversy) off," Morelli said. "If he didn't, he'd have been an ordinary plain-Jane Norwegian."

Posted on Wed, Dec. 04, 2002  
ENGELSTAD FUNERAL: Ralph remembered

LAS VEGAS - More than 700 people gathered Tuesday for the funeral of casino entrepreneur and UND benefactor Ralph Engelstad, who died last week of lung cancer.

Admirers and employees attended the hour-long service in Our Lady of Las Vegas Catholic Church.

Engelstad, 72, was remembered as a decent person who gave freely to charities and a savvy businessman who got his way. He might not have pleased everyone with his actions, one friend said, his achievements and determination deserve respect.

"No matter what our experiences with Ralph, he was a man of conviction," former UND president Tom Clifford said. "He had a passion for detail. He worked 14 hours a day. He followed those goals tirelessly. He accomplished them."

Engelstad amassed a fortune through the Imperial Palace hotel-casino, which he built on the old Flamingo Capri Motel site in 1979. He also developed another Imperial Palace in Biloxi, Miss., and built the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, which he later sold.

Ed Crispell, general manager at the Las Vegas Imperial Palace, said in his eulogy that Engelstad was a man of few words. He said Engelstad had his own abbreviated lexicon that enabled him to get to the point quickly.

"Most of the words are not to be spoken in this building," said Crispell, drawing laughs from the audience that included Engelstad's wife, Betty, daughter, Kris, and her two children.

Crispell said Engelstad was at his best when money was at stake.

"Watching Ralph make a deal was like watching a chef prepare an epicurean delight," Crispell said. "He had a brilliant mind, and it showed in all his endeavors."

Engelstad used his largess to finance projects in his hometown of Thief River Falls. He donated $200,000 to renovate a railroad depot into a new city hall.

The biggest recipient of his wealth was the UND, where he was a goaltender on the school's hockey team from 1948-50 and graduated in 1954. He financed the campus $104 million hockey arena that bears his name.

Clifford said he visited the arena after Engelstad's death and found that people had left cards and flowers.

Clifford said Engelstad admired blue-collar workers, the people who built his dreams.

"He was one of them," Clifford said. "He never forgot the people who worked for him."

Engelstad also had his embarrassing moments following disclosures that the Las Vegas Imperial Palace had hosted parties celebrating Hitler's birthday. Bartenders at the parties wore shirts bearing the likeness of the Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler.

"The controversy," friend Reggie Morelli said. "He fought it off. We are not going to forget this man."

A tribute to Engelstad is scheduled in the arena in Grand Forks on Saturday. Officials said video advertising during the UND-St. Cloud State hockey game will be replaced by video clips highlighting Engelstad's career.

The school also will retire the number on Engelstad's jersey when he was a Fighting Sioux goalie.

On another note our Director of Corporate Security, Carmine Sandomenico, died the following Saturday of an heart attack. He was a good friend and was well liked throughout the hotel and also will be missed by many. The timing shocked all of us at the Imperial Palace of these two deaths being so close together. I was thinking, Ralph probably wanted Carmine with him up in heaven.

Carmine Sandomenico

Carmine R. Sandomenico, 64, died Sunday in a Las Vegas hospital.

He was born Nov. 9, 1938, in New York City. A director of corporate security for a hotel-casino and a retired police detective, he was a 23-year resident of Las Vegas.

He is survived by his wife, Joan; daughter, Dina Sandomenico-Mattson; mother, Mildred; sister, Hope McKenna; all of Las Vegas; brother, Frank of Sparks; and four grandchildren.

Visitation will be from 7 to 9 p.m. today at St. Joseph Husband of Mary Catholic Church, where services will be at 10 a.m. Wednesday. Palm Mortuary-Jones handled arrangements.