Oct. 23, 2006

Friends remember Dick Traen: 'he was the best'

By Ryan Gueningsman
Managing Editor

There is no photo of Dick “R.T.” Traen accompanying this article about his life and legacy in the community of Delano – instead, it is bordered by a photo of the ivy he spent hours weaving at Delano’s ballfield.

Traen passed away at his home Sunday, Oct. 15.

R.T. didn’t like having his photo taken, many of his friends recalled; in fact, he avoided it as much as possible.

However, R.T. did like teaching children the ins and outs of a science book.

He liked teaching some of those same kids the fundamentals of the game of baseball.

And he liked sharing a story with just about whomever would listen to him.

“Dick was one of those guys who was so unique that he kind of put a smile on your face every time you saw him,” said long-time co-worker and friend Jerry Litfin. “He was a great storyteller.”

Traen coached Litfin when Litfin was in high school, and the two have known each other since 1965 in some aspect or another.

Litfin went off to college, and eventually came back to a teaching job at Delano High School to teach health and physical education. They coached high school baseball together for almost 20 years.

“As a baseball coach, there is absolutely nobody better,” Litfin remembered, especially noting Traen’s ability to take teams that didn’t seem to belong on the field, and find a way to score runs with kids who couldn’t hit.

“He was a fundamentalist,” Litfin said. “He believed in doing things from the ground floor up.”

Litfin said it sometimes disappointed Traen, when he would talk about the way some kids play these days, and he didn’t see the fundamental things he spent so much time focusing on.

In addition to coaching high school ball, Traen also served as president of the North Star Amateur Baseball League. During his stint as North Star League president, the league flourished, expanding from seven to 15 teams.

Prior to that, he was involved in another sport and another league, the Wright County Basketball League. Traen was that league’s president for 25 years.

At Delano High School, he coached baseball for 33 years, winning 359 games. The 359 victories is more than any other Wright County Conference baseball coach, past or present. 

“He is known throughout the state for his contributions to high school and amateur baseball, a sport to which he devoted a lifetime,” commented former Delano High School Principal Ted May.

R.T. was of those guys who was way bigger than baseball, Litfin said.

“Baseball was certainly his love, but he and I served on the park board together,” Litfin said.

Delano City Administrator Phil Kern said there are records Traen served on the park board from 1981 to 1991, but said that he was probably serving on it since the 1970s. Kern said Traen also was on the city’s storm water task force in 2002 and 2003.

“He was one of those guys who had a fingerprint on everything,” Litfin said, noting that Traen loved to hunt and fish, along with doing his driver’s education training, and helping maintain the local ballfield.

“If you drive down the main street where the ball park is, and you see those ash trees that line that street . . . when the elms started to die, Dick was an integral part of bringing those ash trees in,” Litfin said.

He also recalled Traen spending many hours after practices weaving the ivy on the fences of the ballpark.

“After practice, he’d be down there weaving ivy through that fence to make it look like it does today,” Litfin said. “Subtle little things like that – such a huge part that people don’t realize.”

Traen graduated from Rockford High School. From there, he attended St. Thomas, later graduating from St. Cloud State University.

He returned close to home and obtained a job teaching at Delano High School.

From August 1960 to July 1993, Traen served in different capacities, including athletic director, coach, teaching biology and science, driver’s education, health, physical education, and was an in-school suspension supervisor,

“He was absolutely the jack of all trades,” Litfin said.

“Dick influenced a couple generations of Delano students in the classroom and on the athletic field,” May said. “He was a person of good humor, hard discipline, tough competition, and scientific thinking. The school and the community are better because of his strong individuality. Dick held well-considered opinions, which he wasn’t afraid to express, but he never lost the respect of others.”

Litfin agreed, saying there “wasn’t one person he didn’t touch.”

“When we got the phone call Sunday morning (that Traen had passed), my wife had a baby shower going on at our house and had 25 women there,” Litfin said.

“One of them had him in class in 1962 as a teacher, so she started telling stories about one thing or another with Dick, and it was just like it turned into Dick Traen day.

“Pretty soon it was a 45-minute Dick Traen session. You could stop in the Legion, St. Pete’s, St. Joe’s, and it’d be the same thing. One story leads to another, that’s just the way he was.”

Another thing Litfin recalled was the roadkill.

“Every time there was a roadkill, I think in the seven-county metro area, I think it ended up on his desk,” Litfin said with a laugh. “He could take things like that, though, and make them great learning tools.”

“He had an interest in ecology and conservation before they were popular subjects, and our students benefited from his foresight,” May said.

“He was just so much fun,” Litfin said. “You couldn’t leave him without a smile.”

Something that left Litfin, along with thousands of others, with a smile, was an infamous concert in the 1970s.

“We had a rock concert in Delano in the early 1970s as a fundraiser for town team baseball,” Litfin recalled. “We had this half-a-dozen or so players, and had rock bands lined up. We must of had thousands of people show up in Delano, and my wife and I had this little pan that Dick had brought down with an electric heater for us to make hot dogs.”

“Every long-haired hippie in the entire seven-county metro showed up in Delano that day,” Litfin said with a laugh. “It was so much fun. That was another thing Dick did. It made lots of money, but it was not quite what we expected.”

Litfin also recalled a time when his sister, Nancy, went to pick up Dick’s niece, Sue, from Dick’s house.

“They were really good friends, and his niece lived with them for awhile,” Litfin recalled. “This was 40 years ago, but my sister stopped to pick up his niece at their house. Nancy walks up to the door, and Dick happens to be there, and says ‘Come on in,’ and said Sue was ‘in the back getting ready.’”

He said, a couple of times, Dick would yell over his shoulder for Sue to “hurry up because Nancy was waiting.”

Well, 15 to 20 minutes pass, and still no Sue.

“Finally, a half hour passes, and Nancy looks at Dick and says ‘Sue’s not here, is she?’”

“Dick looks at her and says ‘No, she isn’t, I just wanted to see how long you’d stay!” Litfin recalled with a laugh.

There are many other stories, including ones some people felt were “not suitable for print,” like long drives to South Dakota or Lake Minnetonka, or a trip to the bridge on Farmington Avenue.

There was also the baseball trick play involving the screen behind first base at Delano.

What Traen would do was to have his pitcher, on a pick-off attempt, throw it way past the first baseman, and against the screen.

The runner then would head to second, as the ball bounced back to the first baseman, who threw it to second to get the runner.

Traen also enjoyed stumping Delano Middle School Principal Dick Rominski, who is also a baseball trivia buff, or coming up with fake questions.

“He’s one of those characters from the past,” Rominski said. “They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.”

After R.T. retired from Delano Schools in the early 1990s, Traen was spending some time in the hospital after bypass surgery, Rominski recalled.

“I pretended I was from the Star Tribune (by phone), and was a reporter doing a story on him being one of the greatest coaches of all time,” Rominski said. “I get all done, and he starts asking me what edition of the paper it will be in. I told him ‘probably next week’s,’ but by the time next week came around, he knew he’d been had.”

“I told him to ask Jerry Litfin about it,” Rominski recalled with a smile, adding that he was not sure if Traen ever had figured out it was Rominski.

“Another thing I always admired about Dick was his perseverance,” Litfin said. “He had tough times, like everybody does, and he was always able to fight his way through it and come out on top.”

Litfin recalled the surgery, as well, and said it was one of those things where he recovered slowly.

“Every little issue became a big issue,” he said. Even with his ailing health, Litfin said R.T. always had time to throw out one of his famous nicknames for people, and always talked about his “first wife Carol.”

“I’ve been asked more than once already if Dick was married before,” Litfin said with a smile. “Every time Dick introduced Carol, he would say ‘this is my first wife, Carol.”

Carol was Dick’s first, and only, wife. The two had four children: Tom, who lives in Rockford; Todd, who resides in Delano; Tracy, who lives in Montrose, and Terri, who lives in the metro area.

Terri Traen is a name that is well-known throughout the Twin Cities, as she has been a popular on-air personality with the KQRS Morning Show for some time.

Following R.T.’s death, Terri’s co-hosts expressed their sympathies to the Traen family many times throughout the broadcasts.

The first time this reporter spoke with R.T., we talked about Terri a bit, and he joked about her working for WCCO instead.

Litfin said R.T. could be considered an “expert on many different things, but that he never saw himself that way, even going so far as to bring “experts” in to discuss specific fundamentals of the game of baseball with his kids.

“It was always his ability to give back, and boy, he taught that well,” Litfin said.

“He never put himself on a pedestal as being the best, but take it from me,” Litfin said, “he was.”

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