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Grand Rapids hero saying goodbye

GRAND RAPIDS -- Wayne Pender's first introduction to athletic administration convinced him there wasn't much to the job. After graduating from Concordia-Moorhead in 1976, Pender interviewed for a teaching position and for head football coach at B...

GRAND RAPIDS -- Wayne Pender's first introduction to athletic administration convinced him there wasn't much to the job.

After graduating from Concordia-Moorhead in 1976, Pender interviewed for a teaching position and for head football coach at Barnum High School.

The superintendent offered him the jobs the next day, and had an added bonus: the position of athletic director was open.

"I said, 'What does that guy do?' " Pender recalled earlier this week. "The superintendent said, 'I think he just schedules a few games and orders a few supplies.' I said, 'That doesn't sound too bad.' He said, 'Don't worry, I've already ordered the basketballs for next year.' And I said, 'It sounds like half the work is already done.' "

It didn't take long for Pender to find out differently.

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"It was the first day on the job when the parents started to call and the coaches started coming in [to my office] about this and that," he said. "That's when you realize what a monster job it was."

But Pender quickly fell in love with the role of being an administrator. Thirty-two years later, the Grand Rapids activities director is in the twilight of his career. The 58-year-old is retiring June 30, leaving behind a well-organized office and a successful athletic program.

He's well-liked by his coaches and fellow ADs. Coaches appreciate his quiet demeanor and non-threatening style.

"That low-key, even-keel approach that he brings is what we've needed for a long time," said Lee Alto, the school's softball coach the past 15 years. "He has done a lot for both boys and girls athletics. He has brought a unique perspective."

Pender has come a long way from growing up on a farm near Hitterdal, Minn. Part of his perspective was formed by a tour of duty in the Vietnam War in 1969-70. Believing he was next on the draft list, Pender, who had dabbled in college and the construction industry after graduating from Hitterdal High School in 1967, enlisted in the Army in April 1969.

By November of that year, he was shipped to Vietnam. His infantry division, the First Cavalry, was one of the first to cross the border into Cambodia.

Living in the sweltering jungle was quite a different experience from living in Northwestern Minnesota.

"It really hits you when you are out in the middle of the jungle having C rations for your Christmas dinner, opening up cans of beans and weenies," he said.

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Pender was injured twice in 1970. On Valentine's Day, he was shot in Tayninh, Cambodia. The bullet tore through his right shoulder and exited by his spine, leaving him hospitalized for 45 days. But, having become so close to fellow platoon members, Pender wanted to return to his squadron.

"It's like when a kid gets injured, he wants to get back with his team," he said.

Near the end of June, Pender was shot again. This time, the bullet grazed his Adam's apple. By the time he was discharged in November 1970, he had two Purple Hearts, the Bronze Star and an Army Commendation Medal for Valor.

Perhaps more importantly, a young Upper Midwesterner was transformed at a crucial time of his life.

"It was definitely a life-changing set of circumstances and events," he said. "I was just grateful to get out of there. You'd give everything back to see everybody get out. We left a lot of people there.

"I got a little bit more sense of direction. You realize you want to do things in your life to make a difference."

Pender married in 1972. He and his wife, Renee, have two daughters, Dione and Afton, and a son, Mason.

After 15 years at Barnum, Pender spent three years at St. James High School in southern Minnesota before coming to Grand Rapids in 1994. He has overseen the expansion of girls sports at Grand Rapids, which has 27 varsity sports and several fine arts programs, while serving various positions such as president and vice president of the Minnesota State High School League board of directors and chairman of Region 7AAA. His job definitely includes more than scheduling a few games and ordering a few supplies.

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"He's a busy man, he puts in lots of hours," baseball coach Bill Kinnunen said. "Especially with a spring like this [with so many postponements], he has got to find officials and places to play. It has just got to be a nightmare. He earns his money, every penny of it."

Pender says he plans on staying in Grand Rapids and hopes retirement offers him a chance to hunt and fish more often. He has seen several athletic highs, such as state tournaments, and the lows as well, such as the death of Jarrett Brenner at halftime of an all-star basketball game.

Unfortunately, death was something Pender became accustomed to in Vietnam.

"You realize how fragile your existence is -- you can be here one minute and the next minute it's all over," he said.

RICK WEEGMAN can be reached at (218) 723-5302, (800) 456-8181 or by e-mail at rweegman@duluthnews.com .

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