Dakota Datebook

Ralph Engelstad

Friday, November 26, 2004

It was two years ago today that UND benefactor, Ralph Engelstad, quietly passed away after a battle with lung cancer. He is primarily remembered for his sense of humor, his philanthropy, his humanitarian spirit, and his savvy business ventures.

Engelstad was born in 1930, the grandson of a Norwegian immigrant who farmed potatoes near Thief River Falls, MN. The year Engelstad graduated from high school, Ben Gustafson, a future dean at UND, encouraged him to enroll at UND and try out for its fledgling hockey team. Ralph ended up as the team’s goalie, and graduated in 1954 with a business degree. When he started Engelstad Construction, in Grand Forks, his goal was to be millionaire by age 30. He had two mottos: “The harder I work, the luckier I get,” and, “No dream comes true until you wake up and go to work.” He achieved his goal a year early, at age 29.

In 1959, Engelstad moved to Las Vegas, where he had secured government contracts to build FHA homes. There, he invested in 145 acres of barren land north of town. In 1967, he sold the land to Howard Hughes for what is now the Las Vegas Air Terminal. Engelstad used the profits to buy the Flamingo Capri Motel, which he replaced with the hugely successful Imperial Palace.

Ralph and his wife, Betty, were once listed in Business Week as among of America’s 50 most generous philanthropists. The most notable example of their financial support was their donation of the $104 million dollar Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks. Engelstad also purchased the George S. Patton Papers and donated them to the Elwyn B. Robinson Special Collections portion of the Chester Fritz Library.

Engelstad was a complicated man whose sense of compassion was contradictory. He was the first casino owner to include an on-site medical center for his Imperial Palace employees, 13% of whom had some form of disability. For his humanitarianism, Engelstad received special recognition from President George Bush Sr.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Engelstad was several times accused of bigotry. In 2000, UND officials were responding to Native American staff and students who felt degraded by the school’s mascot, the “Fighting Sioux.” Engelstad threatened to turn off the heat and pull his funding for the half-completed hockey arena unless the Sioux logo remained. His ultimatum led UND’s board of directors to unanimously vote to keep the mascot.

Ten years earlier, he had also been enmeshed in a high-profile situation in Las Vegas. Engelstad owned the third largest antique car collection in the world, including cars owned by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and three infamous Nazis, Adolph Hitler, Herman Goring and Heinrich Himmler. His interest in these cars spilled over into an extensive collection of Axis and Nazi memorabilia housed in the Imperial’s “war room.” It included swastika banners, uniforms, propaganda posters, weapons, and a portrait of Hitler reading, “To Ralphie from Adolph.”

In 1986 and 1988, Engelstad held parties in the war room on Hitler’s birthday, and the resulting scandal ended with the state of Nevada demanding 1.5 million dollars for harming the state’s reputation. Engelstad insisted the parties were tongue-in-cheek, but he paid the fine so that he could retain his gaming license.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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