Obe Saari, Lakeside legendObe Saari, of the town of Lakeside, went to his sauna Saturday, just like he does every Saturday night, in his enclave near the shores of the great Gitchee Gumme. The Finnish steam bath is where Saari reminisces about the days of his youth, his good friends and his time as a Northwestern Tiger.
By: Don Leighton and Mike Granlund, The Daily Telegram
The following is another “Have Fun or Get Out of the Way” column by Don Leighton and Mike Granlund and their alter egos, Lance Boyle and Billy Pirkola.
Obe Saari, of the town of Lakeside, went to his sauna Saturday, just like he does every Saturday night, in his enclave near the shores of the great Gitchee Gumme. The Finnish steam bath is where Saari reminisces about the days of his youth, his good friends and his time as a Northwestern Tiger.
Obe Saari grew up in Lakeside, about eight miles north of Poplar. Working hard on the family farm, he learned life’s lessons well from his parents, Arnold and Aleda Saari. Obe’s father was active in the community and served on the town board of Lakeside and school board of Maple for many years. He was involved in building the Lakeside school and playground and set the backstop around 1955. That backstop stood until the property was sold in 2000. Arnold was also recognized as one of the area’s premier well repair men, specializing in Duplex pumps. Aleda and Arnold were anchors of the community for years, and in time, Obe would follow in their footsteps.
Obe Saari became interested in sports at a young age. When he grew to be bigger than the other kids, it was obvious he was going to be a special talent in athletics. Life was simpler then, and Saari honed his skills in the hay barn and the old North Middle River School, shooting baskets. On the hay fields he practiced with a ball and a bat.
Saari often competed with older kids. Don Saari, Jerry Erickson, Jerry Nykanen, Jack Pank, Horton Strom, “Little” Russell Saari (little at that time), Alan Olson and Chuck Jarvi were among the kids forming the neighborhood squads. They did not need a governing board, a $100 entry fee or an immaculate facility to have fun; they created their settings and rules as they went.
Entering high school, Saari ’s coaches were excited to have him play ball. In baseball, he was a 6-foot-4 left-hander with a roundhouse curve and competitive spirit. In basketball he was 25 years ahead of his time — a big guy who shoots from the outside.
As a junior in 1964-65, Saari started for a Northwestern team that was a classic. The team’s record wasn’t perfect, but what a team to watch! Big Rick Khalar, the stoic enforcer type, patrolled the lane. Obe Saari, the effervescent lefty, roamed the perimeter. Lanky Brian Carlson, the steady bomber, ran the baseline. And Dave Johnson and Dave Arnold, two interchangeable dynamos, controlled the tempo of the game from the guard positions. Solid players like Jim Weinandt, Mike Denny and freshman Bill Weinandt were not able to crack that starting lineup.
In Saari ’s senior year, he led the Tigers to a shocking late season Michigan-Wisconsin conference win over an unbeaten Ironwood Red Devil team. Ironically we were both in attendance that night, oblivious to the fact that 42 years later we would reminisce about the game.
Saari also played on Northwestern’s first football team as a senior, when the Tigers played a limited four-game schedule but established a building block for the Tiger successes of the future. Saari and the other seniors almost didn’t get to play football. Since it was the first year of the sport and a building year, the administration decided only the underclassmen would be allowed to play. After one practice, Coach Guelle went to the administration and said they didn’t have enough players to practice, so they let the seniors play and 19 came out for football. Saari holds the distinction of catching the first pass on a fake punt, thrown by Pat Nolan.
It was also the first year for cross country at Northwestern; not really a team, but a one-man team. Dave Arnold was the team. When your parents tell you they walked a mile to school, uphill both ways, tell them that was nothing. Dave Arnold ran to school, seven miles both ways. He ended up qualifying for the WIAA State Cross Country Meet that year.
The sports program was emerging back then at Northwestern, and Obe Saari was a big part of it. We didn’t see Saari ’s name in the trophy case at Northwestern, but he certainly is one of the sports legends of the school.
In college, Saari earned a bachelor’s degree, played some baseball at UW-Superior under coach John Thompson and was on a championship intramural basketball team called “Toivo & Sons” with Don Nykanen, Duane Ahola, Jerry Erickson, Studey Johnson, Dennis Johnson and others.
Saari had a big decision to make his senior year of college; the new baseball coach, Vince McMahon wasn’t using him very much and the last weekend doubleheader of the year fell on the same weekend as graduation. Since Coach McMahon apparently did not appreciate his playing, he opted to walk up the aisle and receive his college diploma from UWS.
Weeks later, playing town team baseball for the Poplar team against the Duluth Cubs — a contingent of mostly UWS players — he came into a game in relief of “flame-throwing” right-hander Gary Reiten. Saari stuck to his curve ball and totally baffled the Cubs’ hitters, preserving the win for his team. After the game when the two teams shook hands, Saari reached out and there was the hand of the opposing coach. It was Vince McMahon. McMahon admitted right there that he should have played Saari more.
Saari continued playing Vacationland League Baseball for Poplar, playing with legends such as Pat Moreland; Ron Pearson; Henry Sedin; Brant, Jim and Danny Hannula; Dave Rossmeisel; Cal Ruska; Mick Killoren; Bruce and Butch Paulsen; Bill Weinandt; Dave Nelson and others.
Saari taught school for a time and then turned to the construction business, from which he retired in 2004. Saari and his wife, Sue, have two sons, Dan and Mark. (Give Dan a high five when you go to the China Inn next time.) Saari still lives in the area, two miles from the “home place,” and has a million stories. It was the name Obe Saari that gave us our first double take, but it is Obe Saari the man who has given us lasting memories.
Boyleing in the Pirkolater
• The WIAA is considering allowing high school basketball teams to play 22 games beginning in the 2009-10 season. The current limit is 20 games. The WIAA is also considering allowing eight teams into the state basketball tournament instead of the four now allowed in Division 2, 3 and 4. Division 1 would remain at eight.
• Zack Smith, the visually-impaired Northwestern High School track runner recently featured in a Daily Telegram story is a cousin of Noah and Isaiah Dahlman of Braham, Minn. Isaiah Dahlman, who is 6-foot-6, was Mr. Basketball in Minnesota in 2006 and plays for the Michigan State Spartans. Noah Dahman, also 6-foot-6, graduated from Braham in 2007 and plays Division I basketball for the Wofford Terriers in South Carolina. Braham was a three-time Minnesota AA State Basketball Champion during the duo’s playing days. Both had also been standouts on the Howard Pulley Panthers AAU team (Yes, the same team Steven Tecker of NHS now plays for).
• As if racing needed anything more to make it exciting, female drivers have become the norm on the different racing circuits. Danica Patrick winning an Indy Car race has made her the most popular female driver, but maybe the best is National Hot Rod Association’s Ashley Force. When she defeated John Force last month, she moved onto first place in the funny car standings of the NHRA. John Force is her father. The Indy 500 featured two female drivers, both exiting due to racing mishaps that resulted from a guy being at fault.
We really think the trend is a long-range plot by NASCAR, Indy, NHRA and others that will eventually meld advertising and racing together. Examples would be talking on your Sprint Cell phone at 200 mph, putting on Mary Kay Beauty makeup in turn four and baking Betty Crocker cookies on a pan under the hood of the Jimmy John’s-Goodyear Tire-McGladrey Hendrickson-Raybestos Chevy Lumina. Every one knows women are better than men at these tasks!
“Have Fun or Get Out of the Way” runs semiweekly in The Daily Telegram. Opinions and story ideas can be e-mailed to email@example.com.