In the Midst
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Michel Nelson. "The #1 Fan." In The Midst Of, Cokato Historical Society (Summer, 1997) vol. 17 no. 3. Revised.
Every football game. Every wrestling-match. Every baseball game. Every basketball game. And practically every other athletic event that Cokato high school played from the early 1940s until Paul Christenson was moved to the Willmar Presbyterian Family Foundation facility in the fall of 1985. Not only did Paul attend every home event, but he attended every away event by riding the team bus. For Paul, every loss was agony and every win was ecstasy.
Paul was born on April 15, 1925 in Cokato. His proud parents were given a baby shower where everyone spoke about what a beautiful babe he was, but later attendees traded theories on what might be wrong. Paul attended first grade in Cokato schools four years until leaving to attend the Hammer School for the Disabled in Wayzata in 1936. Upon his return, he stayed with his parents, Adolph and Alice Christenson, at 155 West 4th Street in Cokato, only a one block walk to the school. Adolph died in 1966 after a lifetime of working for the Great Northern Railway that started at the age of 14 as a section hand. Alice died in, 1987 at the age of 95 after a lifetime of caring for Paul. Her one complaint in life was that Paul bathed and changed clothes three or four time a day, creating an endless supply of laundry.
Paul’s interest in sports started early. Recalled Kenneth Eastlund in 1990: “We would work with Paul in his throwing and catching the ball and he did quite well. When it came to batting, he would really protest the third strike, so we would let him bat until he hit the ball. He would take off for first base with his slightly bowed legs really churning.”
Paul also liked professional wrestling and watched his favorite, Vern Gagne, on television every weekend. When the Twins" came to Minnesota, Paul listened to the games on his transistor radio and rooted for Harmon Killebrew. He would have someone help him write down the final score in the pocket tablet he always carried with him. When the Twins played at night; he would generally forget to turn off the radio and the batteries would be dead the next morning. His first order of business the next day was to get batteries at the Rost-McKay TV & Appliance store so he-would be "ready for the next night's game. Sometimes Paul would forget to pay for them and he’d go to the other t.v. store and have Jim Erickson install the batteries. He would then return to Rost-McKay, because Curt and Wayne kept Paul in coffee money and gave him a comfortable place to spend a good part of the day.
During football season, Paul would start getting excited by noon each Friday and would tell everyone that “We’re gonna beat those guys!” He would have an early dinner and be down at the school in time to catch the team bus. Before consolidation the team dressed at the school and rode a bus even to the home games. Not a play would miss Paul’s attention from his post on the team bench.
As soon as the game was over, one of the coach's duties was to print the score in Paul’s ever-present notebook. Paul shared the score with everyone that he talked with the next day. He knew who all of the players were and they were sure to receive a pep talk as he saw them on the street on game day. There was no such thing as a hope less game for Paul. No matter how poor or how far behind the Cokato team was, Paul always knew in his heart that Cokato would win.
A loss just turned his focus to the next game. Paul knew what Vince Lombardi didn’t. The game is the only thing. Winning was incidental.
As Paul aged, walking became more difficult and he became adept at corralling rides. His basic technique was to stand in the middle of the street, and when you stopped he would put his hands on the car and keep them there until the door opened. Divine intervention kept him from being run over.
Basketball brought other challenges. During games in Cokato there was no problem because Paul was used to the auditorium and had no trouble claiming his usual perch. Away games were another matter, especially after folding bleachers were introduced. Paul absolutely refused to climb on them due to a fear of heights. He required a floor level seat and always got one. During regional play at Hallenbeck Hall in St. Cloud, team members had to carry him in and out because he would not try the steps. His basketball highlight had to be the games against Edina and St. Cloud in Williams Arena during the 1967 Region 5 tournament.
Left to Right: Gib Peterson, Paul Christenson, Eldon Wessmen, A. Peterson, Fisk Peterson, Elmer Dokken, Kally Harkman, 1956.
Paul’s worst adventure occurred one cold winter night when Dick Fredeen’s team traveled to Paynesville. After the game, the team showered and returned to Cokato, but no one noticed that Paul was missing until they had traveled some distance. Fredeen noticed Wyman Nelson’s car and flagged him down. Nelson returned to Paynesville and found Paul in the street. He took all of two seconds to scoot into the opened door.
Baseball was probably Paul’s favorite. Not only was it the game he played as a child, but he could go to both school games and town team games. The leisurely pace of baseball was perfect for Paul because he had time to make entries in his notebook. '
Joe Harmala recalls that Paul would always ride the team bus and be in the dugout for the high school games. Following the game, Paul was never satisfied until Joe had entered the final score in his notebook. When the Cokato town team was replaced by the D-C Saints, Paul made the transition easily and always found a player to provide transportation to his dugout seat. ' .
When you are adopted by an entire, town, you need to assume certain responsibilities to treat all of your “family” equally. Paul took this seriously, and was quite ecumenical, attending the Evangelical Lutheran Church Sunday morning, the Baptist Church on Sunday night, and the Mission Church at other times. The presence of coffee and rolls guaranteed his appearance.
The most important day of the year for Paul was his birthday. His mother would prepare coffee and cake. The entire town was welcome to stop “by and wish Paul “Happy Birthday“. His final local birthday party occurred when the Presbyterian staff in Willmar brought him to the Cokato/Bakery to celebrate his 61st birthday with a town full of friends.
Paul’s legacy lives on. During the early 1970s, Minnesota decided that residents of its stated hospitals and institutions should be disbursed to small facilities in residential areas. In many cities, fear of the unknown created intense opposition to the idea. When Lee, Ila, and John Warner proposed opening facilities in Cokato, it was accepted as a completely natural thing to do. Paul always said that “It’ll be alright.”' And he was correct.