Lunch & Learn Series
Prospective Parents and School Principals are invited to join us for our Lunch & Learn Series!
Wednesday, November 20
12:00 - 1:00 PM
Featuring Father Mark Pavlak
By Gerry Brown ‘58
As a former coach and Athletic Director, I was intrinsically involved in the evolution, planning, design and construction of the new Saint Thomas Academy stadium that would, unbeknownst to me, come to bear my name. We tried for years to make our case for an addition to our school’s facilities to bring us to the level of our competitors. It took Bill Makens, an unquestioned leader from the community who had funding and expertise, to champion the project. I was privileged to assist him. I learned early in the planning that the lead donor, whom I did not know initially, chose me as the stadium’s namesake. That gave me extra incentive to immerse myself in the project.
We encountered many unanticipated problems with the site and challenges from the City of Mendota Heights and residents during the project. Bill was able to overcome them all.
After presenting our initial application and site plans to the City, the Planning Commission required changes and enhancements that required revisions to our plans. This gave us time to further embellish this new addition and do early fundraising. Trustees Kelly Michel ’69, Kevin Berg ‘76 and I met with the lead donor. We wanted to get a name on the stadium early as it would help with fundraising. I had prepared a convincing argument for Skip McMahon, a revered former coach and Athletic Director. Another possibility was persuading Bill to put his family name or the name of his father, who had recently passed away, on the stadium. The donor listened quietly to our dog-and-pony show and then indicated he had already decided whose name he wanted on the stadium. He wanted it named for a man about whom he’d heard good things but did not know personally. He told us, and I was dumbstruck! I subsequently raised more than half of the total cost of the new facility personally. The donors were generous and willing, with 111 of them supplementing the primary lead gift.
There was drama at the final City Council meeting to approve the project. Before a packed house, the City Attorney argued that the local ordinances did not permit new buildings on the Saint Thomas Academy campus. Our attorney argued otherwise. We seemed to be losing when a spectator rose and asked to be heard. He was the Honorable Richard Spicer, a highly respected Dakota County District Court Judge and a local resident. Both attorneys and the Mayor, also an attorney, deferentially allowed him to speak. Judge Spicer, whose son was a student at the Academy, simply and correctly reminded all the attorneys that the stadium was not a NEW facility but actually an improvement on an existing structure, the current football field, an improvement that was legally allowed. The vote that followed grudgingly went our way.
Construction was to begin the spring of 1994 to be ready for the first game in the fall on September 6. The project start was delayed as the City closed the roads to heavy equipment until May 15.
Once construction began, we soon unearthed problems with the site. Soil borings showed the site to be too porous to support a grandstand. Thousands of yards of ground needed to be “exchanged” to a depth of 30 feet below grade. A giant power shovel dug out the grandstand site to make way for solid, inorganic fill. A line of dump trucks extended from the stadium site out six blocks to the entrance to Hwy. 494 on Dodd Road, in a continuous circular exchange of fill for gravel.
The sewer system was deemed inadequate and needing to be replaced. Of its three catch basins, two were uphill! The sewer system that surrounds the field was then replaced with 1,300 feet of new sewer pipe and 13 proper, below-ground catch basins.
The old cinder track was inadequate. It was dug out to a depth of 4 feet, hauled away and replaced by a new track 6 feet thick, with the top layer being a rubberized resilient mixture 3/8” thick and applied hot and spread, then allowed to cool for 24 hours. The basketball coach volunteered to be a security guard and slept in the press box overnight, and sure enough, he caught some local kids crawling over the fence three different times to try to vandalize the hot surface. He turned on the stadium lights and used the P.A. system to drive them away.
One Saturday nearing the end of construction, as we rushed to make the opening date, Bill and his team were completing the grandstand and press box while McGough Construction Company’s workers rushed to finish the ticket booths, concession stand and archway entrance. A union official appeared on site, questioning Bill and his workers. He then walked to the ticket booths and entrance and stretched yellow tape across them, effectively prohibiting any member of a trade union from crossing the banner. Tim McGough called and said his company was a loyal union shop and could not allow any of his workers to cross the line and work alongside Makens non-union laborers. We were two weeks from opening day, with no hope! I called a friend who was big with the unions. He arranged a meeting with the top union boss in Minnesota for 6 a.m. the next day – a Sunday. We explained our predicament as he listened quietly, like the “Godfather." He then said that he was also Catholic and understood the necessity of using “volunteers” to meet the needs and operations of Catholic education, so he would consider Makens and his workers "volunteers” on a necessary project for a Catholic school. He would take down the banners and allow union workers back onto the project. McGough’s workers magically reappeared early Monday morning.
The site was finish-graded after the grandstand and entries were built. Tom Groh ’93, a 19-year-old alumnus with a fledgling business (Minnesota Sodding Company) volunteered to donate and install 10,000 yards (two acres) of sod to the stadium site. Actual volunteers, including Headmaster John Greving, most of the Fathers’ Club and the football team worked for three days, through a rainstorm, and into the night to sod the slopes surrounding the stadium. They were sodding under the lights on Thursday, September 29, the night before the opening game.
On Friday, September 30, the City of Mendota Heights code enforcement officer arrived at the nearly complete stadium at 5 p.m. He ruled the ticket booths were too high off the ground and dangerous to enter and exit. He bannered them with yellow caution tape to prevent them from being used. He also taped off the gravel walkways as three days of rain made them too soft for use by persons in wheelchairs. He bannered the press box because the railings were inches too high or low, depending on where you measured, and needed to be moved. He taped off the visiting bleachers - made of a concrete base with steel and aluminum body - as a fire hazard because it had only one escape stairway rather than one on each end for the first game. The vendor was to return the following week to add the second stairway. At 5:30 p.m., the City official had effectively closed off most of the stadium and made it difficult to proceed with the first game. He then left. By 5:45 p.m., we had torn all the tape down. At 7 p.m., we hosted the complete Mendota Heights City Council and the Mayor in the press box for the inaugural game!
The average attendance of the home football games at rental stadiums was 950 for the previous five years, so we built the stadium with a capacity of 1,850. On September 30, 1994, we had 2,300 fans at the first game!
That night I experienced an overwhelming feeling of satisfaction that I was part of a transformational gift to my school. I also had an immense sense of gratitude toward those donors who generously pitched in to double the size of the original gift to add the necessary embellishments to make this stadium rise to the highest level of quality.
I’m proud that since that day in 1994, Cadet Football has continued a tradition of “Pride” and “Class,” traits first coined by my predecessor, former coach and headmaster Bill Ridley. I tried to conduct myself with those words as operating principles and I was pleased to see my two assistant coaches who succeeded me, Bob Slater and Dave Ziebarth, continue to implement them at a continuously high level. They carried on a new tradition of excellence in football. Coaches Sedlak and O’Brien added the concept of “Brotherhood.” The high standards of Cadet Football bring honor to all those involved - players, fans and the overall STA community.
Wednesday, November 20
12:00 - 1:00 PM
Featuring Father Mark Pavlak