by Kathy Anderson
Neil Hoven has been in Westby so long, is so well-known, and has left such an indelible mark that everyone I talked with would claim that he should be considered a home towner. Elmo (Gulsvig, for you youngsters) was Westby School District Superintendent in 1967. He was visiting his brother, Joe, in Wanamingo, MN around Christmas time. Coach and physical education teacher Bill Terry had resigned at Westby High School and would be leaving in January to go to UW-LX. Elmo could not find a replacement for him. Maybe Westby was too small or maybe it going to be difficult to hire someone in the middle of the school year. Elmo had interviewed many candidates but no one would accept the position. Whatever the reason, he was lamenting when Joe told him there was a young man right there in Wanamingo who might just be the perfect person for the job.
Neil was a 16-letter student in high school, a 3-year defensive line starter in college, and had just graduated from Luther with a degree in education, physical education no less, with a minor in mathematics. His parents spoke Norwegian, Wanamingo was even smaller than Westby, and he needed a job. Do we call this fate or bringing home someone who should be given an honorary “native son” title?
Neil Hoven in the 1969 Westby High School Ski Annual.
Neil started teaching exactly fifty years ago at Westby High School, in January 1968, after the school year’s football season was over. His first eighteen years he taught physical education; the next sixteen he taught geometry. He started coaching football in the fall of 1968. I asked Neil what he enjoyed about coaching, why he did it. He answered that it was “the most fun in the world, being with the kids,” and that teaching, in the later years of his career, kept him “feeling and thinking young.”
Neil had started dating JoAnn, his wife, when he was a senior in high school. She lived on one end of town and he lived all the way on the other, but love knows no bounds so the four blocks between their houses would not be an obstacle. JoAnn graduated from Winona State and was hired as an elementary school teacher in Westby. They married in Wanamingo the summer of 1968 before moving to Westby that fall as newlyweds.
Neil motivated students to learn geometry by using practical examples of how the subject would be a useful life skill. He would explain his hobby of woodworking and how lines and angles were necessary for his projects. Join me next week when I share a few memories from some of Coach Hoven’s players about how he would motivate them on the football field to become a three-time Coulee Region Coach of the Year.
“He was a hell of a motivator,” were the first words from Monte Anderson when I asked him to tell me about his high school football coach, Neil Hoven. Monte said he worked harder for that man than he knew he could, yet loved every minute of it. But how did Neil get you to do it was my question.
Neil isn’t an easy interview. He is a great guy to talk with, warm, friendly, funny, but he won’t take credit for his five conference championships, he won’t talk much about his coaching statistics of 124-37, and he won’t come close to bragging about the 1978 State Championship, one state runner-up appearance and one semi-finalist appearance. He gives credit to the players, and to John Blihovde and Mark Jacobson, who were part of that fabulous WHS football coaching team. How did they motivate the boys to play so hard?
When Neil handed out jerseys, he would say “Number such-and-such; worn by so-and-so; wear it with pride.” Monte felt like that gave him ownership, not as a comparison to another player, but more like ‘this was a great football player and I know you can be one, too.’ Neil said it to every player as he assigned them their jersey.
Josh Fencl played as a junior in one of Neil’s all-time favorite games. The team was ranked to lose by as much as 28 points. Winning the game in the last minutes was a thrill that both Neil and Josh reveled in. We just did what Neil told us to do, Josh explained. “By the time I got there, he didn’t have to say a lot. We knew he would put us in the right spot.” The players knew Coach Hoven’s reputation and knew he was smart about the game. “He was a great coach and it was an honor to play for him,” Josh told me.
I am sure there are many good football stories about Coach Hoven but I think the best way to sneak a peek into the heart of this man is to tell you about an August night in 1981 when Karl and Bonnie Gilbertson lived next door to Neil and his wife, JoAnn. Bonnie was in the hospital, recovering from a c-section; Karl had to come home alone. Excited, joyful, and overwhelmed, Karl walked over to the Hoven’s to tell them about his new daughter. By then, the Hoven’s had three children and Neil could relate to the thoughts and emotions that weigh on a new father. Sitting on the porch, they shared a conversation about fatherhood, life, and the problems of the world, but Karl felt, most importantly, they spent half of two hours quietly, neither talking as they sipped a beer, sharing the stillness under the stars. “Neil didn’t have to do that, spend that time with me. But it’s something I will never forget.” Like much of what Neil did, it was a seemingly simple gesture but meant more than Karl could explain – Neil cared. How lucky that that is what Neil has shared with all of Westby.