Milaca remembers Herb Claffy

Herb Claffy arrived in Milaca with his wife Joyce in the fall of 1952.

Herb Claffy
Herb Claffy

He died Saturday, Feb. 8, at the age of 86.
He left behind a legacy of service at Milaca High School and in the Milaca community.
At Milaca High School, Claffy coached football (23 seasons), track and field (19 seasons) and baseball (two seasons). He taught a wide range of classes, including biology, science, health, physical education and driver’s education and was the school’s athletic (later activities) director for 37 years.
“Mention the name Herb or Herbie in the community, and everyone knew you were talking about Herb Claffy,” said Myron Swenson, a close friend and former Milaca basketball coach. “He did so much for the school and community.”
“He could’ve worn a hat that said ‘Mr. Milaca High School,’” said current activities director Jerry Westphal, also a former Milaca football coach. “He helped me in so many ways.
“He showed me how important it was for an activities director to attend school events – not only sports activities. He always wanted what was best for the students and always pushed them in the right direction, no matter their background. He emphasized what they could do, not what they couldn’t do.”
“Herbie was an inspiration to so many,” said Rich Perry, a former Milaca basketball coach and athletic director, who was Claffy’s golfing partner in the Milaca Men’s Golf League for many years. “He was a wonderful mentor for me as well as students and other staff.
“He did a great job of delegating things to members of the coaching staff and had confidence that you could do the job. He burned the philosophy into us that kids should participate in as many things as they could, not just sports. When you look at athletes that have gone through our school over the years, you’ll see they also took part in band, choir and other things.”
Football was Claffy’s prime sport, and he coached the Indians well, posting a career record of 132-59-5 while putting his teams at or near the top of the Rum River Conference nearly every season.
“He inspired the players to always do their best,” said Dick Stewart, a 1962 graduate whose brother Bob also played. “If you weren’t giving your best, he let you know.
“Preparation for games was important. He laid out what we had to do and we always felt that on Fridays we were ready to go.”
Doug Patnode, a 1968 graduate, also played on Claffy’s teams.
“By ninth grade, I decided I wanted to be a football coach like Mr. Claffy,” Patnode said. “He challenged you to be your best on the field and off the field.
“He impacted a whole generation of boys growing into manhood. He was a great motivator.”
Patnode went on to a 30-year stint as football coach at rival Princeton and faced his former coach across the field two times.
“Our Tigers topped Herb’s team in 1973 but his Indians came back to beat us the following year,” Patnode said. “That was his final game as football coach.”
Randy Johnson, who recently stepped down as Milaca football coach, said he was always impressed with the energy and excitement Claffy brought to games and the practice field.
“It was always a high-energy experience whenever you were around Herb,” Johnson said. “He loved football, but he showed interest in whatever activities students were involved in.
“He was always asking someone how they had performed in their most recent game, match or contest, making them feel they were important as a Milaca student athlete. As a young wrestling coach coming to Milaca, he was very supportive.”
“Herb was very important in my development as a coach,” said Randy Zimmer, former Milaca wrestling coach. “I watched how he worked and inspired coaches, parents and athletes.
“I enjoyed hearing him talk about his former athletes. He especially enjoyed telling stories about how they played their hearts out. He always promoted our school and was truly what ‘Milaca Pride’ is all about.”
Claffy was instrumental in getting girls athletics going at Milaca and was an early advocate of Title IX.
“He was such a big influence on me and other young girls,” said Brenda (Jacobsen) Holmgren, a member of Milaca’s first girls basketball team in 1973 that was honored on its 40th anniversary in December. “He showed us we could compete just like the boys.”
Holmgren went on to a 30-year award-winning coaching and officiating career at Elk River.
Claffy was later inducted into the Minnesota Coaches Association Hall of Fame, the Minnesota Football Coaches Hall of Fame and most recently was a member of the inaugural Milaca High School Hall of Fame in 2009. Milaca’s football field is named Claffy Field in his honor.
He gained legendary status for many.
“My first connection with Mr. Claffy was when I started youth baseball,” said Craig Swalboski, now sports editor at the Rochester Post-Bulletin. “I was eight or nine.
“We kids were gathered around the field waiting for him to arrive. When he drove up, we all swarmed around him like a hive of bees. It was cool that the football coach, one of the highest-profile men in town, was going to teach us young kids how to play baseball.”
When Swalboski reached high school, Claffy asked him if he’d like to be the football team’s statistician and Swalboski gladly accepted the responsibility.
“The Rum River Conference has had several legendary football coaches, and Claffy was one of them,” said Luther Dorr, former editor/sports columnist at the Princeton Union-Eagle. “We had some good conversations over the years.
“I could tell he was a real competitor and loved the Princeton-Milaca rivalry. He was a booster of Milaca athletics and kids in general and the kind of guy that a school district gets only once in a while. I’m glad I got to be friends with him.”
Claffy was a big supporter of the Milaca Scholarship Foundation.
“Herb was a major force in making our annual fundraising Ultra Golf Tournament such a big success for our Milaca students,” said Pete Hydukovich, a foundation committee member. “For years he was the person who went around to businesses seeking donations for the tournament and few, if any, would turn Herb down. It now takes many of us to do what he and the late Thora Allen did alone.”
Claffy was a longtime member of the Milaca Hansen-Hayes American Legion Post 178 where he was post commander for two years and served on the honor guard for many years.
He is survived by his wife, one son and three daughters. His funeral will be at 11 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 15, at Trinity Lutheran Church in Milaca.
(See obituary on page 5.)