The Northwestern High School Athletic Department received a $100,000 check from alumnus Ron Maki in September. The amount of the gift led school board members to do a double-take at the Oct. 11 meeting.

“Could you repeat that figure?” asked board Treasurer Adam Landwehr.

District Administrator Sara Croney did, adding that at first they wondered if it was a typo.

"That's a lot of zeroes," said board President Nancy Lind.

According to administrators, Maki's gift is the largest donation ever made to the athletic department, which has an annual supply budget of $22,500. And there were no strings attached.

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Maki, who graduated from Northwestern High School in 1967, had no preference for how the money was used.

“This gift will have a huge impact on our students,” Croney said, and could be spent on once-in-a-lifetime purchases — items the district would not otherwise be able to afford.

The district has a list of potential uses for the money, including a roughly $12,000 high jump landing mat. Other items that cost more than $25,000 would be brought before the board for approval.

Croney said 66% of Northwestern High School students participate in athletics each year.

“Education based athletics is important as it teaches students skills that may not be duplicated in the classroom such as teamwork, sportsmanship, time management, overcoming obstacles, winning with grace and losing with dignity and perseverance,” she said.

Deep roots

Maki grew up in Maple. His parents, Buster and Elvie Maki, built the cafe along U.S. Highway 2 in the 1950s. Originally called Buster’s Cafe, its name has changed over the years to the Sundown Cafe and, most recently, Aroma’s Bistro and Coffee Shop.

Although he donated the funds to athletics, Maki didn’t participate in many sports when he attended Northwestern High School. He played basketball through grade school and summer league baseball.

“By the time I got to high school, you know, it was kind of all-hands-on-deck here as far as having to work and stuff like that in the afternoons,” Maki said.

He worked on pulp wood and baled hay over the summers, as well.

A Northwestern High School yearbook photo shows Ron Maki, a 1967 graduate of the school, who recently donated $100,000 to the athletic department. 
Contributed / Ron Maki
A Northwestern High School yearbook photo shows Ron Maki, a 1967 graduate of the school, who recently donated $100,000 to the athletic department. Contributed / Ron Maki

The high school in Maple didn’t have as many sports teams to join back then, either. The options were baseball, basketball and cross-country.

“We didn’t have football at Northwestern until our senior year,” Maki said.

The NHS alum, who turns 72 this month, is retired with five grandchildren. He splits his time between Polson, Montana, in the summer and Gold Canyon, Arizona, in the winter. His work history spans everything from assembly-line work to running his own private investigation company.

“I’ve had kind of an interesting life,” Maki said.

He graduated at age 17 and spent the summer working for a carpenter building a house in South Range. Once he turned 18, Maki moved to Minneapolis and got a job spray painting cars for the Ford Motor Company. The assembly line turned out 52 vehicles per hour.

He moved back to Superior for a series of jobs at Barko Hydraulics, his brother’s body shop in Maple and the Burlington Northern Railroad before joining Crawford & Co. Insurance Adjustors in Duluth.

That spun into property adjustor work for the railroad, a job that took him to Minneapolis and then Montana. In 1990, Maki opened up his own private investigation business in Montana, a license he kept until 2005. At its height, he had offices in both Missoula and Billings and seven employees. His firm’s work was featured on a Dateline episode about an airplane crash in northern Montana and an ABC news segment on the Freeman Group.

A current picture of Ron Maki of Polson, Montana. Maki, who grew up in Maple, recently donated $100,000 to the Northwestern High School athletic department. 
Contributed / Ron Maki
A current picture of Ron Maki of Polson, Montana. Maki, who grew up in Maple, recently donated $100,000 to the Northwestern High School athletic department. Contributed / Ron Maki

In 2000, Maki opened a Batteries Plus store in Billings. He opened two more, in Missoula and Bozeman, and sold all three businesses two years ago. He's given back to his alma mater for years through the Buster and Elvie Maki Memorial Scholarship. This $100,000 donation was another way to support the school.

“I had such a good experience at Northwestern, you know, given the fact that it was such a small school,” he said.

His graduating class had about 62 students, and there were about 11 students in his eighth grade class at Maple Corner.

One teacher who made a big impression on Maki was his high school shop teacher, Don Olson.

“He was a real strong influence on a lot of my life. You know, he chewed me out one day. I was late for class, and he said ‘You know,’ he said, ‘If you were working for me, I’d fire you.’ I thought, ‘Hmmm, that ain't no good,’” Maki said. “You know what? I kind of changed my attitude a little bit after that. Better get here on time.”

The skills he learned in Olson’s class helped Maki remodel his stores and build his own home.

“Those are lifelong skills that stay with you,” he said.

He’s hoping his donation will give today’s Tigers a similar opportunity.

“I just feel very strongly about these young kids. They can learn a lot from athletics, just things that will carry them through life for a long time if they choose to pay attention,” Maki said.