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The Humanitarian Legacy Left Behind

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Indigenous to Minnesota and ex-goalie for the "Fighting Sioux," self-made millionaire Ralph Engelstad may have been one of the leading philanthropists in America. Ralph was most widely known for his numerous donations to his former college and for his devotion to the handicapped.

Born January 28, 1930, he grew up in Thief River Falls, Minnesota, about 70 miles from Grand Forks. He was the grandson of a Norwegian immigrant farmer, second in line in a family of five children born to Christian and Madeline Engelstad. The son of a salesman, Ralph attended St. Bernard's Catholic School and began working when he was just twelve years old. Ralph dreamed of someday becoming a Prowler.

He played four years in goal for the Thief River Falls Lincoln Prowler hockey team, the first Lincoln High School team to ever play in the state tournament (Lundin). In his state tournament emergence as a freshman in 1945, when goalies wore no masks, he was hit between the eyes with a puck during warm-ups before the championship game, but went on to play an exceptional game, though losing 4-3 on two third period power play goals.

Hockey fascinated Ralph as he headed for the University of North Dakota (Smithwick). A star hockey player in high school, he worked his way through college unloading boxcars, with the help of a hockey scholarship and playing goalie for UND's Fighting Sioux. Not only did he play goalie for UND from 1948-1950, he also received an offer to try out with the Chicago Blackhawks. After two years at UND, he joined a few teammates in California playing for the San Bernadino Shamrocks and working construction. Realizing the importance of a formal education, he returned to UND and earned his business degree in 1954, where he played hockey as a member of the Grand Forks Amerks, a semi-pro team.

Shortly after, he married his college sweetheart Betty Stocker, and began Engelstad Construction in Grand Forks; the buildings he constructed are still standing and serving well. After making a quick fortune there (vowing to become a millionaire by age 30, he achieved his goal at 29), he moved his company to Las Vegas, to build FHA-financed housing for the federal government and began buying property with money he had made as a building contractor in Grand Forks (Westman).

Engelstad bought unrefined land around Thunderbird Field in 1965. He boosted his fortune a few years later when he sold Howard Hughes the 145 acres in North Las Vegas for more than $5 million; the land was used to build what is now the North Las Vegas Airport. He then purchased a small hotel and piece of land. He opened the Imperial Palace Hotel in 1979, which became known for room rates geared toward the middle class, celebrity impersonators, and a historic car anthology considered the third largest in the world.

Included along with the old Cadillac's, Duesenbergs, and cars of past U.S. presidents were an increasing number of autos that once belonged to leaders of the Third Reich. This compilation included Hitler's 1939 parade car and a Mercedes owned by Heinrich Himmler, the commander of the S.S. Engelstad's assortment of Nazi memorabilia grew in the mid 1980's, as he planned to display his cars in a public museum. The hotel's collection, which became known as the "war room," included Nazi knives, propaganda posters, uniforms, and swastika banners (Brownstein). During this time, he drew national attention when local reporters discovered that he had held two private parties in the war room on April 20, Hitler's birthday, in 1986 and 1988. He was fined $1.5 million by the Nevada Gaming Commission in 1989, the board citing damage to Nevada's national reputation. Within months, the aberrant artifacts were removed, and the walls of the war room were painted white. The FBI had investigated him for four years, wanting to know whether he had "political leanings toward the extreme right wing in Nazism as opposed to simply being interested from a historical basis," according to agency documents (Westman). A university panel eventually decided that Mr. Engelstad was not a Nazi sympathizer, but had simply shown "bad taste" (Brownstein).

He developed many "firsts" in the Las Vegas area. He built the celebrity Las Vegas Motor Speedway, site of NASCAR races, opened the first medical center in a casino for employees, the Nevada Resorts Medical Center, and the first drive-through Race & Sports Book in 1989. He was the first to offer airline baggage check-in service at the hotel in 2000.

He gave the equivalent of millions in dollars to countless organizations. Engelstad donated General George S. Patton's documents to the UND Charles



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