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The "Original" Section J

08/20/2015 10:48 AM -

 

Written by Media Relations Intern Austin Hawkins

 

Section, J. Row 9. Seats 1 and 2. Throughout the course of a baseball season stadium chairs see many faces come and go, but these two seats have not. The same couple has occupied those two stadium chairs at Newman Outdoor Field for the last twenty years. Their names, Stan and Una Mae Thurlow.

 

Nearly 1,000 games from the same vantage point. Stan and Una Mae have seen arguably more RedHawks baseball than any other fan besides Doug Simunic himself. They come back year after year, enjoying summer nights the way they should be spent: at the ballpark. But they aren’t alone in this nightly routine.

 

It all started back in 1996, the inaugural season of the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks. Stan has always been a baseball aficionado, but one family friend drove the motivation behind purchasing season tickets.

 

The Thurlow’s had long been friends with a man by the name of Gary Nielsen. Nielsen long battled health problems for many years and had wanted to watch as much baseball as humanly possible. His love for baseball stemmed from a similar sport: fastpitch softball. Nielsen was extremely good at the game, and he was inducted into the North Dakota Amateur Softball Association Hall of Fame in 2005. He was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma back in 1989 right around the time North Dakota State won it’s seventh national championship in the school’s second to last season at the NCAA Division-II level. Nielsen battled the cancer for almost 16 years until August 12 of 2005 when the dreaded disease robbed the baseball world of one of it’s greatest fans.

 

Stan and Gary’s passion for baseball long pre-dated the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks. Though they did not know each other at the time, both of them enjoyed games at old Barnett Stadium. Nielsen happened to be childhood friends with longtime RedHawks Public Address Announcer Merrill Piepkorn. The pair attended elementary school together at Grace Lutheran, a parochial school in North Fargo that is no longer standing. Piepkorn and Nielsen attended Fargo-Moorhead Twins games watching greats like Roger Maris, Bob Allen, Phil Seghi and Frank Gravino at Barnett Field. Stan, meanwhile, went solo to Twins games. Thurlow lived just two blocks away from the stadium and spent his summer days at the park. In fact, Stan owns a couple of souvenir programs from the 1957-1958 seasons. He brought a program to one of the first RedHawks games back in 1996, and a man from the Forum found it to be interesting and took photographs of Thurlow with the baseball artifact. Sold for just ten cents, the programs featured a scorecard, rosters and a feature on the Forum’s sports writers, which back in the late fifties included the father of current Fargo Forum sports columnist Jeff Kolpack, Ed Kolpack. Thurlow also holds a copy of the original program from the inaugural game at Barnett Field back on July 29 of 1936. Needless to say, both men’s passion for the game was derived early on.

 

Nielsen, much like Thurlow, was a born and raised Fargo native and the pair worked together for many years. Stan was drafted and sent to Vietnam in 1966 and upon his return in 1968 he was hired at the Piggly Wiggly, formerly Sun-Mart and now Family Fare, grocery store in Moorhead. Nielsen was employed at Piggly Wiggly when Thurlow was hired and the men bonded instantly. Nielsen was drafted a short time later into the ongoing war, but upon his return to Fargo the friendship continued to grow.

 

The two men’s friendship continued to evolve centered around one common love – the game of baseball. Before the RedHawks had come to fruition, they attended many sporting events around the Fargo-Moorhead area together. There is only so much for sports entertainment in one town so the pair would hit the road together. Nielsen and Thurlow attended the final Minnesota Twins game at Metropolitan Stadium on September 30th of 1981 and watched as their beloved team fell 5-2 at the hands of the Kansas City Royals. They came right back for the first game next season and attended the inaugural game at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome on April 6, 1982, a game in which their team lost a wild one 11-7 to the Seattle Mariners. In 1990 the duo made a trek to Wrigley Field for a three-game series to watch the Cubs. One of the games there was a day game at Wrigley Field, so they caught the first game in the afternoon then proceeded to make the ninety minute drive North and took in a night game at County Stadium, former home of the Milwaukee Brewers. One of the days they found themselves struggling to locate Wrigley. Thurlow barked at Nielsen, “How the hell are we supposed to find the park?” Nielsen turned his head and calmly said, “Just follow that green Porsche.” He had recognized the man behind the wheel of the luxury sports car, Chicago Cubs color commentary man Steve Stone.

 

The dynamic duo loved all sports, not just baseball. Along with the rest of their family friends, Thurlow and Nielsen were part of a curling club for over 25 years. They attended local sporting events together and even made the haul down to the Lonestar State to catch a Cowboys-Redskins game at Texas Stadium. However, when word of the RedHawks coming to town the diehard in Nielsen came out and he approached Thurlow about the idea of purchasing tickets. The Fargo Forum was really pushing the idea of a “new era” in professional baseball in the Fargo-Moorhead area, and he pitched the idea of being part of both the old era at Barnett Stadium and part of the new era at Newman Outdoor Field. It was discussed at one of their weekly “Monday Lunch Bunches” and the Thurlow’s decided there was no way they could not get season tickets. They had to do it to continue their own love and passion for baseball, and for their good friend “Nieler”, as everybody called him.

 

Stan and Una Mae purchased nine tickets for the inaugural season and held all nine until recent years. Members of the “Original” Section J included Tom & Nancy Vesel, Myron Berglund, Tom Vacha, Marcia Lindsey and Gary Nielsen.  The nucleus of baseball fans has since shrunk to six for various reasons, and though some faces have come and gone there are a few that remain the same.  Stan and Una Mae still enjoy summer nights at Newman Outdoor Field with the likes of Steve & Joanna Martens, Donna Johnson and Paul Stalcup; all members of the “Original” Section J.

 

With over 4,000 seats to choose from, how does one just pick two stadium chairs? Well, it is safe to say Stan and Una Mae had first pick at Newman Outdoor Field. The couple was family friends with the architect of the park, Rick Engebretson, and decided they needed a better view before making a decision. With Engebretson’s guidance, the Thurlow’s walked down the steps of Newman Outdoor Field together surveying the stadium for the ideal seats. They did not want to sit in the sun, which eliminated a majority of the stadium. Sun rises in the East and sets in the West, and the first base side catches the glaring sun most days. They sat down in Section J, Row 9, and agreed they had found their preferred vantage point. Of the seats, Stan says, “We picked them out. It’s been twenty straight years. Time flies.”

 

And time certainly does fly. They’ve seen all of the legendary moments forever stuck in Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks lore. The Jesse Hoorelbeke walk-off grand slam. Five Northern League Championships. Observed the likes of Darryl Strawberry, J.D. Drew, Ila Borders and Max Scherzer emerge from the dugouts. Cheered on former and future big-leaguers such as Chris Coste, Darryl Motley, Maury Wills, Jeff Bittiger and Ozzie Canseco

 

One of Stan’s biggest memories was the league championship won back in 2003 against the Goldeyes.  The couple ventured north of the border for the first game on Friday and drove back down that night after the game to attend a funeral of a close friend in the Fargo-Moorhead area. Only like die-hard fans would, they made the trek back to Winnipeg with heavy hearts for the Saturday game where the team would clinch it’s second Northern League Championship in club history later that night. However, suspicious as to why the couple crossed the border three times in 24 hours,  border patrol tore the inside of the vehicle apart. With a stern look in her eye, Una Mae sternly stated to border officials, “Because our friend died.” Customs did not give them any problems after that.

 

The couple has certainly been along for the ride. Stan and Una Mae embarked on many road trips following their beloved team across the Midwest and beyond. They attended games at the U.S. Steel Yard in Gary, Indiana multiple times. Midway Stadium in St. Paul. The Thurlows have attended games at Wade Stadium in Duluth, where the Dukes played before the club was moved to Kansas City and renamed the T-Bones. The duo also made trips to Kansas City, Winnipeg and Schaumburg.

 

What keeps the family coming back year-after-year? Well, first and foremost, this is Stan’s game. The family owns a lake home, but they have a different preferred destination on summer nights. Not only is it a fun way to get together with friends, but to him, the game is generational. Stan went on to say, “Lots of people don’t get baseball. ‘It’s not happening fast enough. The game is to slow.’ You hear all of those critiques, but it is the right pace for us. My generation grew up with the radio. Baseball is a radio game.“

 

Nights with the RedHawks would not be as special to the Thurlow’s if they did not feel like part of the team. It’s not the zany promotions, cold drinks, or the delectable ballpark delights that keep them coming back. It’s the baseball. Each and every game, it’s as if they are sitting in the dugout next to Zach Penprase cheering him and the rest of the team on.

 

The game, the park, this team; concerns so many other people than just Stan and Una Mae. Though their son did not play baseball while attending high school at Fargo South, he plays slow pitch softball weekly during the summer. A friend they miss dearly to this day, the missing piece of the puzzle, Gary Nielsen, is a big part of why they come back. Friends like the Marten family, Donna Johnson and many others are important. Though they do not know her last name, people like Kathy the Beer Lady, who has been serving ice-cold beverages to the couple for years at Newman Outdoor Field, are central to their game day experience. With a look of gratification and fulfillment, Una Mae expressed the whole experience in one sentence saying, “It’s a family engrossed in the ball.”

 

So if you come to tonight’s game, Stan and Una Mae will probably be stationed in their two stadium chairs. If you want to stop over and say hello, just do so. Stan might be tuned in to the game, but Una Mae will be more than happy to chat. And if you choose to wait ‘til a different date that’s okay too, because you can bet they will be sitting in the same two seats for years to come. 



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