LaFollette, a quintessential Dodger, dies
The ‘ideal junior high influence on the kids of Fort Dodge’ was 97
For over 60 years, Walt LaFollette lived a life not just in Fort Dodge, but of Fort Dodge.
A staunch advocate of Dodger athletics who supported events in his community with the consistency of an old street lamp, LaFollette passed away on Friday at the age of 97. He was a teacher, a coach, an administrator and a fan, but most importantly, a mentor to thousands of Fort Dodge Community School District students during their impressionable middle school days.
“Walt was just the consummate junior high influence on the kids of Fort Dodge. A stalwart,” said former FDSH teacher, coach and administrator Don Miller. “He was a (physical education) teacher, a wrestling coach, a football coach, a track coach … and everything he did was treated as the most important thing in his life. Nothing was second-class or second-rate. The kids who had him at North Junior High understood that physical fitness and activity should and always would be a priority on his watch.
“I saw Walt in two lights: to me, he was the Jack LaLanne (a world-renowned fitness guru) of Fort Dodge, Iowa, and he was basically the Dodger Denny (local athletics superfan) of our staff. And I will say this: I never talked to a person in my life who ever had a single bad word to say about Walt LaFollette. They loved him as a teacher and as a coach, but more importantly, as a human being.”
LaFollette, a native of Russell, Iowa, and a Simpson College graduate, moved to Fort Dodge with his family in 1957 at the age of 35. He spent the next 27 years as a physical education instructor, coach and eventually athletic director at North, which later became Phillips Middle School.
“Walt, (wife) Barbara and their family committed everything to this community,” said Bobby Thompson, the current Dodger wrestling coach and a former FDSH wrestling standout who “can proudly say I had him as a teacher, coach, co-coach, friend and mentor” through the years. “We talk all the time about the family aspect of being a Dodger, and what it all means. Well, Walt embodied that. All of it.
“This is a guy who rode the bus at 90, 91, 92, 93 years old to (out-of-town meets and events). He didn’t just teach and coach and then leave Fort Dodge behind. He kept living the Dodger lifestyle as long as he could. We lost a legend.”
On the personal side, LaFollette was active in swimming, fitness training and marathon races for over 50 years. Tanner Utley, Thompson’s assistant and a local financial advisor, said that he used to “come into my office at 91 years old to handle some of his financial affairs after a 45-minute workout.”
“He was just so unique in every way,” Utley said. “There was so much more to him than met the eye. Walt wasn’t a big guy, but he was strong and mentally tough … as buttoned up as he could possibly be. He was still grinding and putting in the hours well after he was on the clock.
“It’s truly been a pleasure to hear all of his old Dodger war stories over these past few years especially. We talk to the kids all the time about what it means to be from and represent this town … Walt was the epitome of that.”
Four-time Dodger state wrestling champion Brody Teske called LaFollette an “inspiration to myself and countless others.” Teske and his teammates often visited LaFollette at Friendship Haven to lend a helping hand, volunteering to assist him or just spend time “talking shop” with the man everyone called “Coach.”
“His love and passion for Dodger wrestling and all things Fort Dodge was remarkable,” said Teske, a 2018 FDSH graduate and current freshman wrestler at Penn State University. “Just the man he was, even this late in life … he fought the good fight. We’ll all miss his presence and what he stood for.”
Sam Cook, a multi-time state champ in his own right and 2016 FDSH graduate, called LaFollette an “icon.”
“Coach was a full-hearted, dedicated Dodger,” said Cook, who is wrestling at the University of Iowa. “His family, they were all 100 percent Dodgers at heart. Walt was a man every one of us respected and appreciated.”
LaFollette stayed active in local service organizations and volunteered at both Friendship Haven and through the YMCA youth programs after his retirement from the FDCSD. LaFollette was married to Barbara for 65 years — from 1947 until her death in 2012. The couple would often travel overseas, and spent many winter months in Alabama.
“You have to mention Barbara when you talk about Walt,” Thompson said. “She was accepting and understanding of the time he spent serving the young people of our town, and respected the kind of impact that had on the greater good of Fort Dodge.”
Miller said he received “countless calls, texts and e-mails” from former students after hearing the news of LaFollette’s death Friday morning.
“Kids from the (19)70s, 80s, 90s — you name it. From all corners and lifestyles in our community,” Miller said. “You know, when he was at North, I remember him telling me once, ‘I don’t want to be a head coach at the high school. This is where I belong.’ He took a great deal of pride in recruiting kids to get involved and stay active in athletics. He made sure they didn’t give up on that, and the participation numbers reflected it.
“Many high school coaches who commented through the years about how much they appreciated having guys like Walt and Jerry Einwalter down at the junior high level. Because it has to start there.”
Utley echoed those sentiments, saying “middle school is a time that often makes or breaks kids athletically and academically.”
“If they start to go down the wrong path when they’re in sixth, seventh or eighth grade, it can be hard to get them back,” Utley said. “Walt always made sure he prepared them for that next step, so that by the time they got to high school, they were physically and mentally ready.”
Thompson added, “we need more people like Walt — not just in Fort Dodge, but in this world.”
LaFollette is survived by his two sons, Gary and Dennis, and a granddaughter, Andria.
Visitation is scheduled for Tuesday from 4-7 p.m. at Gunderson Funeral Home and Cremation Services of Fort Dodge. Servicesare at 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday at the Tompkins Celebration Center at Friendship Haven. Burial will be in North Lawn Cemetery.
Memorials may be left to the Wolfpack Wrestling Club of Fort Dodge.