The neighbor up the road
Demolition derby competitor and master mechanic remembered by many
MARSHALL — Ralph Roberts loved the roar of a good engine and the roar of a weekend crowd, especially when they happened at the exact same time and place.
Roberts was known throughout southwest, south central and west central Minnesota for a mechanical instinct useful with anything from an unexpected roadside breakdown to keeping a battered demolition derby car on the track. He died July 12, 2019, at Avera Marshall Regional Medical Center at age 75 after long term health complications.
Many regulars at the annual Lyon County Fair remember Roberts in a way that usually only happens with county fair board members, county Extension agents, 4-H families, and sometimes county employees or elected officials.
He, his wife Beverly, and children Dave, Val and Johnny have been among the fairgrounds’ neighbors since the mid 1960s.
Ralph and Beverly chose a house located on Minnesota Highway 19, a stone’s throw from what was then the Marshall city limits. It’s situated directly across the highway from the fairgrounds entrance.
The entry is also flanked by land that included the former Bud Rose floral shop, greenhouse, and vegetable field on its west side and the 13th green of the Marshall Golf Club to the east. Golfers walk or ride carts past the Bud Rose area on their way to the 14th tee, one of three outermost holes on the back nine built in the early 1970s.
Dave Roberts, a 1985 Marshall High School graduate, said he remembers the daily changes in the landscape across the highway as the former farm field changed into a golf course. His younger brother, Johnny, later earned a little spending money retrieving golf balls from the Redwood River when the course wasn’t busy.
Their home, though it was originally out-of-town by definition, is within convenient walking distance of West Side Elementary built in the early 1950s. West Side is nearing its final days as a Marshall Public Schools campus after voters approved a referendum this spring for a new upper elementary building on East Southview Drive next to Marshall Middle School on South Saratoga Street (the former Marshall High School built in 1968 on a campus considered large enough to accommodate projected population growth).
When school was out in the summer they had many of their first chances to earn money by helping out at Bud Rose. Ralph did almost the same thing when he went to his job every work day at the nearby Appleton Silo Company.
Dave said living close to his employer was the single most important factor in why Ralph and Beverly chose their home. It was more important than buying a place that had a mix of country and city. To a lesser extent, it was more important than being close to a grade school.
“My dad had to be able to walk to work because it was the only way he could support his family,” Dave said. “He couldn’t drive to work because he couldn’t get a driver’s license. He couldn’t get a license because he couldn’t read and write.”
He said one of the reasons Ralph loved demolition derbies was that they were his only chance to legally drive (back when there was no requirement for a license to drive a demolition derby car).
That limitation didn’t change until later in his life; when driving tests transitioned toward more simple wording of questions, sections of the test that included picture symbols, and most importantly reasonable modifications for people who have learning disabilities.
A driver’s license, and even more so his reputation as a hard worker and as a man with far better than average mechanical skills, opened doors for work opportunities. His last and longest stretch of employment was at Minnesota Corn Processors, starting in the 1980s when the Marshall MCP plant was being built.
Ralph began at MCP during the construction process, then transitioned into work that required more of an ability to understand mechanical systems and to maintain industrial-sized processing equipment.
“Working at the plant wasn’t that much different than working on a car,” Dave said. “He looked at it pretty much the same way. He’d sometimes leave for work and say ‘okay old girl, what are you going to do to us today?’
His skills carried over into success with demo derbies. At one point in his derby years, when organizers started to require a driver’s license, Ralph adapted by focusing on assembling the best possible derby car and having one of several relatives drive it.
“Once he got experience with derbies, he wanted to share what he knew with his family and also with anyone who wanted to learn,” Dave said. “When he taught me about cars, he started by telling me what could be salvaged and if something couldn’t he’d have me look for a replacement. When a part wore out, we usually had another one.”
Both Dave and Val eventually became derby competitors, with Val being one of the very first female drivers anywhere to compete with men. Dave’s son Nathan and Val son, Brent Breczinski, have followed in their footsteps as the family’s third generation of derby participants.
Val said her dad was known for his ability with anything mechanical, but that he was also a people person. She shared examples of how he’d go out of his way to help a stranded motorist, and to help inexperienced derby drivers to make sure they wouldn’t get hurt.
She said he and Beverly always enjoyed it when she or her brothers would have friends over, which often made their yard a gathering place for teens when weather conditions allowed for it.
“Sometimes we’d have 15 or 20 kids over,” Val said. “It was like having a really big family. We always knew our friends would be welcome.”
Two of Val’s 1986 Marshall High School classmates, Curt and Carmen (Becker) Dubbeldee, both saw Ralph as one of their adult role models while they were teenagers.
“We have great memories of their yard, and there were a lot of fun times from being part of his pit crew,” Carmen said. “To understand what it was like, someone has to consider how things were different in towns the size of Marshall in the 1980s. There wasn’t as much for teens to be afraid of, but there were definitely ways we could get into trouble.”
She added that when teenagers weren’t going somewhere in particular (like the former roller rink The Key that was located a mile to the west on Highway 19 next to the Marshall Airport), Ralph and Beverly preferred to let them gather in their yard where they knew none of them would get hurt or arrested.
Ralph’s interest in their future continued after high school and as they started Dubbeldee Repair in Fairview Township, Lyon County, outside of Marshall which they’ve successfully operated for more than a decade.
“He was a very good customer and sometimes he’d stop out just to say hi,” she said. “That’s very unusual in our business, and with almost any business. When we see someone, most of the time it’s because they need something.”
Curt and Carmen got started as business owners a year sooner by renting space from Randy Lanoue, owner of the Lanoue Paintin Place auto body, painting and salvage yard business on the same road.
Lanoue and his family are also enthusiastic demolition derby participants. Randy is known for his appearance on the national cable television show Motor Madness from the 1980s, when public interest in motor sports began to surge in a way that led to the modern popularity of Nascar and related competitions.
He said Ralph had the same kind of dedication he’s always felt for solving both small and large mechanical issues, which includes helping people of all ages and all walks of life.
It also involves being willing to pass that enthusiasm on to new generations of people who have a gift for taking things apart and putting them back together.
“Ralph was a great guy,” Lanoue said. “He believed in doing his best with everything he tried. He loved his cars, and he loved his family.”
The Roberts and Breczinski families decided in the past month that by far the best way to honor Ralph’s memory was carry on with plans for the Lyon County Fair’s 2019 demolition derby. It takes place at 7 p.m. tonight in the fairgrounds grandstand. Pits will open at 2 p.m., and competitors have a 6 p.m. line-up deadline.
Nathan said it will be his first Lyon County Fair demolition derby that won’t include telling his grandfather about the results.
He and his cousin Brent hope, however, that it will become one in a long line of many derbies enjoyed by their entire family and by a large, enthusiastic crowd of fans.
“We definitely want to keep it going,” Nathan said. “We’ll do our best. It’s getting harder to find the cars, and it’s getting harder to find the time.”