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Ben and Robin James named to North Dakota Wrestling Hall of Fame

Coaches, wrestlers, parents of wrestlers and friends, went to great lengths to keep a monumental secret from Ben and Robin James.

2/14/17 (Tue)

To be honored Saturday...Ben and Robin James of Kenmare, have been named to the North Dakota Wrestling Hall of Fame and will be formally inducted during a ceremony at the state wrestling tournament in Fargo Feb. 18. The James’ have been contributing to Kenmare and other high school wrestling programs across the state for nearly 30 years.

By Marvin Baker

Coaches, wrestlers, parents of wrestlers and friends, went to great lengths to keep a monumental secret from Ben and Robin James.

When the secret, that they are being inducted into the North Dakota Wrestling Hall of Fame was finally revealed, surprise wouldn’t begin to explain their euphoria.

“We were stunned,” Ben James said. “Nobody asked us about dates. Some knew of our background, but it was stunning when they told us.”

Ben and Robin James have been contributing to the Kenmare wrestling program for nearly 30 years and have also assisted with other programs in North Dakota.

They will be inducted into the North Dakota High School Wrestling Hall of Fame as contributors of the sport during the state wrestling tournament in Fargo, Feb. 18. The ceremony is set for about 2 p.m., immediately before the championships begin in the Fargodome.

Dave Dougherty, the executive director of the National High School Athletic Coaches Association, said coaches received information regarding their accomplishments, service and dedication to high school wrestling in North Dakota in a nomination by Kenmare head coach Danny Mogren.

More than 75 percent of the vote was in the James’ favor, thus the induction.

“The list of contributors is very exclusive and this is a great honor for Ben and Robin, and for the Kenmare wrestling program,” Dougherty said. “They are well known and respected for their dedication, service and support they have provided to the Kenmare wrestling program for the past 30 years.”

Dougherty continued, “They have been selfless in their work and were especially instrumental in keeping the program alive in some very challenging years. The time and effort they have spent helping coaches, wrestlers and the Kenmare wrestling community has had a positive impact on hundreds of lives. While Ben and Robin are best known for their work in Kenmare, they are also recognized and true supporters of the wrestling community statewide.”

For Ben and Robin, getting into wrestling in the capacity they have, is summed up in one sentence that reminds us of a time when the Kenmare wrestling program was struggling.

“The two of us were saying somebody should do something,” Robin said. “We looked at each other and said, ‘we’re somebody.’”

Ben started out as a coach and Robin got involved because she was a coach’s wife and got drawn in, she said.

She recalls when they took pee-wee wrestlers to a tournament and as she was walking back to the bus after the tournament, she saw a trail of medals all the way to the bus.

“I knew they were ours and I didn’t want to say anything,” she said. “When they started asking, I gave them back to them.”

Ben added that at times Robin has been known as the “den mother,” because she looked out so carefully for the young grapplers.

In another good memory, Robin said she and Ben have been going to the state tournament since the late 1980s and when a team goes to state, there are designated areas for fans.

In 1999, Robin wanted to do something special for Kenmare and did.

“We went to the dome and measured the seats, sewed seat covers and put them over the seats to show our spirit,” she said.

During  the tournament, Robin noticed one of the covers was missing. A woman from Des Lacs/Burlington later confessed to taking it when she brought it back, not because she was stealing it, but because she measured it and wanted to do the same for DLB.

“So I guess I set a trend,” Robin said. “Now, everybody does it.”

Ben talked about a logistical situation that he and Robin changed for the better.

“We like to stay within walking distance to the tournament, so Robin took the task on of getting rooms and also tickets,” Ben said. “That way, we’d have good viewing of the wrestling.”

Robin added that instead of complaining, they always try to do a better job.

“We just like the sport and the kids. We kind of adopted them,” Robin said. “Our team has had ups and downs and we’ve always tried to do something to motivate the kids.”

Much of that motivation comes from a “wall of fame” that Ben and Robin worked on in the Kenmare wrestling room beginning in 2006.

Essentially what they did was enlist Kip and Lynn Helmers, and Paulette and Mark Mattern and together, the six of them painted the names of all Kenmare wrestlers who have placed in state since 1969.

“At the time, if you weren’t a state champion, your place wasn’t recognized in the Kenmare gym,” Ben said. “So we went to Valley City (North Dakota High School Activities Association)  and looked through all the books and listed all the Kenmare kids who had ever placed at state.”

They set up scaffolding and got started. Robin traced the names and Ben painted them in.

“I thought this is going to take forever,” Ben said. “So we brought in reinforcements and had it done  in four days.”

The names and years wrestled were aligned so precisely, you’d think it was computer generated, but it was Robin’s knack for organization that brought the wall of fame to perfection.

“This is right up her alley,” Ben said. “She counted the letters in everybody’s name beforehand and centered them so they would look professional.”

Robin added they used pencils and Sharpies, which she called “low budget.”

But Ben added cinder blocks are abrasive on lead and felt-tipped markers, so they went through their share by the time they had completed the wall.

And, they spent their own money doing it. As Robin described, they wouldn’t dream of asking anyone else.

Now, they show up at the school on the Monday following the state tournament, during the school day, and add new names of state placers, a psychological tool to motivate the wrestlers.

“The kids can see it and be recognized,” she said. “They look forward to it and we knew they’d like it.”

In recent years, Robin’s “new love” of wrestling is taking pictures. She hadn’t taken wrestling pictures before 1999 but had to take action shots for a photography class she was taking that year.

A year later Kenmare News Publisher Terry Froseth asked her if she would take photos for the newspaper while at matches and she’s been doing it ever since.

Of course that was back when cameras were using film so it was a time consuming endeavor.

“Film made her a better photographer,” Ben said. “And because she knows the sport, she can anticipate what will happen.”

He added Robin has a lot of fun taking pictures of wrestlers from all over the state, essentially, and giving them to the parents of those wrestlers.

“They really appreciate it,” he said.

Robin added, “It’s wrestling in general and I think that’s why we got inducted. It’s more than helping out Kenmare.”

Ben’s love of the sport came with coaching and it morphed into something much bigger.

In 1991, he assisted head coach Rich Voegeli with the program and during the ‘92-’93 season, co-coached with Mark Mattern. A year later, he coached with Arlen Gartner.

After turning over the coaching duties to JJ Nelson and Nolan Spooner in 1994, Ben continued to assist and volunteer his time by helping the coaches at practice. He worked with wrestlers in the lighter weights, carrying over into the elementary program after the varsity season was finished. He has continued to do it through the 2014-’15 season.

They’ve been involved in organizing and helping with the annual Kenmare tournament in December. Ben weighed, helped and worked to keep the tournament running efficiently and smoothly. Robin works on bracketing and keeping the coaches under control.

They’ve attended Kenmare School Board meetings to advocate the program when it was in danger of being cut. They were also instrumental in forming the wrestling club called the Mighty Grapplers. Robin was the treasurer of the club until 2015 and Ben was on the board from 2006-15.

Ben and Robin have done fund raising efforts for uniforms and equipment, they are a big reason for the Little Honker Wrestling Tournament and they have always treated the wrestlers as their own, the induction bio states.

“Now, the next generation is coming,” Robin said. “The kids Ben coached have kids in pee-wees. That’s what happens when you stick around that long.”

Current Kenmare head wrestling coach Danny Mogren nominated the James’ for the Hall of Fame, because in a nutshell, they’ve kept the program alive.

“They ran the Kenmare tournament for years,” Mogren said. “Without them, it wouldn’t be possible.”

Mogren will present the award to Ben and Robin Feb. 18 in the Fargodome immediately before the championships begin, about 2 p.m.

“It’s a big honor to do it for them,” Mogren said. “They’re going into the Wrestling Hall of Fame and that’s huge. It’s a big deal.”

Ben was actually Mogren’s coach for a time. He said in his six years of wrestling, there were eight different high school coaches and Ben would always step in when needed.

“There were some gaps and we’d have been in trouble,” Mogren said. “There hasn’t been a time they haven’t been involved.”

He added, “It’s for the kids and since Ben and Robin didn’t have kids of their own, they’ve done it for the love of the sport. They’ve earned it.”

They still love it, according to Robin, and they are grateful for the support from the school and the community in general.

“Kenmare supports wrestling as well as anyone,” Ben said. “Other schools have had to fight for uniforms or mats. But this school has been very supportive and should be recognized.”

Up until two years ago, Ben wrestled with the kids in practice and calls it a demanding sport because you’re alone on the mat with another wrestler in front of a crowd.

He suggested wrestling is not like other sports where blame may be placed on someone else for not passing the ball or not striking out the batter.

“It’s unique that you have to watch weight and be aware of making weight,” Ben said. “It develops more discipline.”

When asked who they thought the best wrestlers have been coming out of Kenmare, they said there have been a lot of great wrestlers, but Steve Linderleaf comes to mind because he didn’t win a match in his seventh-grade year, but went on to be a state runner-up in his senior year.

Mogren also turned things around in a big way. Ben said he had won half his matches as a sophomore and later won a state title as a senior.

“It would be a long list to go through to find a top wrestler,” Robin said.

Ben added, “You can look at the wall and see their accomplishments.”

After the induction ceremony on Saturday, Ben and Robin are holding a social at Labby’s Grill and Bar at 1100 19th Ave. North in Fargo, beginning at 7 p.m.

“We know people in the Hall of Fame, but we never put ourselves there,” Robin said. “For all the people we’ve met each year at the state wrestling tournament, it’s a family reunion at state.” ... Read EVERY WORD on EVERY PAGE of The Kenmare News by subscribing--online or in print!