Central Hall of Fame: Adversity takes Maggert on path to success

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Dennis Maggert

By Willis Patenaude, Times-Register


The 2023 Central Hall of Famer, Dennis Maggert, is a portrait in overcoming adversity and proof of the notion that persistence and hard work will eventually pay off. 


Born and raised in Elkader, Dennis experienced adversity at an early age, when his mother passed away during a hunting accident when he was just 2 years old. The loss meant he and older brother Mick had to move in with their aunt and uncle down the road, in Pony Hollow. Early on, through working on the farm, Dennis learned the value of hard work and developed habits that would follow him throughout the rest of his life. Habits he credited to his brother, who also taught him how to throw, hit and catch a baseball, which, unbeknownst to Dennis at the time, would play a significant role in his later years.


“I will always credit my work habits to farm work and thank my brother Mick for…staying with me throughout my childhood,” Dennis said.


When Dennis was a teenager, he once again experienced hardship, this time with the death of his aunt. Due to circumstances, he left the farm, moving around a bit before he found his way to the Bayless Hotel, where the Turkey River Mall is now located. At age 14, Dennis lived on his own, scrapping out a life that consisted of working at the hotel, sleeping on a couch for a few hours of sleep and going to school at the same time.


He also encountered something else: the humanity of fellow man and the residents of Elkader, many of whom would personally touch or influence Dennis’ story during his formative years and beyond. One of those individuals was Tom Hamilton, who owned the Bayless Hotel and offered Dennis a job and a room.


Included in that job was working three nights a week, from 9 p.m. until 6 a.m., at the desk and switchboard, with a few chances for quick naps. Dennis also mopped floors in the Checkerboard Cafe, stocked beer coolers six mornings a week and cleaned bathrooms in the lobby. In the summer, he did assorted jobs, like haying, cleaning barns and cement work. Basically, whatever Dennis could do to earn money, sometimes as much as five dollars a week.


“In this day and age, can you imagine anyone growing up like that, surviving and going on to become a successful teacher, coach, husband, father and grandfather?” wife Karen said in her nomination letter to Central Community Schools.


When he wasn’t working, Dennis attended Central, where numerous other individuals proved influential to his future success, though it was always Dennis who put the work in. Without effort, potential won’t get you very far. 


Some of those people were coaches, including Hamilton, Thor Fisko, Reid Dillon and Jim Gilpin, as well as Karen’s father, Robert Buckner, who was Central’s superintendent for 38 years. Merill Hyde was a coach and mentor for Dennis, who said Hyde was a “game changer” in his development as a person and athlete. Altogether, they showed Dennis he could achieve anything through hard work.


Life at the Bayless and Central came to an end in 1969, when Dennis graduated. Another Elkader local then took the time to lend a helping hand to young adults who never quit. The help came in the form of a phone call from Jack Dittmer, a Major League Baseball player from 1952 to 1957.


As a teenager, Dennis recalled walking by the showroom of the dealership Dittmer owned, marveling at the pictures of Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews and Warren Spahn in the window. Now, the local legend wanted to talk to him. 


The conversation would influence Dennis’s future. As it turns out, Dittmer had a cousin, Marty, who was the athletic director and baseball coach at Ellsworth Junior College in Iowa Falls. He discussed the possibility of Dennis attending. 


The early days of playing catch with his brother were proving their value.


While there was some emotion about leaving school and his fellow classmates, including best friends, Dennis “grabbed the opportunity immediately,” but he never forgot where he came from and who helped get him there.


“There is no doubt in my mind, had I grown up any place but Elkader, Iowa, with the support of the classmates, teachers and the community, my story could have been much different,” Dennis said.


After attending Ellsworth, Dennis accepted an offer from Eastern Montana College, now Montana State University Billings, where he played football and baseball and got degrees in special education and physical education. While the plan was to always return home, a job opportunity was too good to pass up, so he and Karen remained in Billings, where Dennis taught physical education and health for the next 25 years at Lockwood Junior High.


Undoubtedly an influence in the classroom, Dennis was also impactful in the arena of sports, always looking out for the underdog or students who needed a bit more attention and did not grow up with all the benefits of life. In them, he saw himself, and understood the necessity of paying it forward because that’s what people had done for him. 


As an adult, Dennis hung onto those values, and never forgot about the places and people who had been there. Now, it was his turn.


Dennis’s coaching career is expansive, consisting of 16 years as both the head wrestling and football coach, with two more years as head basketball coach. He was also the athletic director for Lockwood for 12 years. In addition, Dennis was the head coach of the Billings Scarlets American Legion baseball team for 21 years, winning the state championship seven times, finishing second eight times and never finishing lower than third.


As a result of that time and success, he was a finalist in 1988 for the Montana Federation Coach of the Year and winner of the Montana Legion Coach of the Year for Montana Class AA in 1989. Dennis was also inducted into the Billings American Legion Hall of Fame and the Eastern Montana Hall of Fame.


Although the individual success is notable, the most rewarding part for Dennis was never the individual awards, but the success of his players and the underdogs he looked out for and mentored. The athletes who went on to receive their own scholarships, attending Big Ten schools or universities in Montana. Being awarded is great, but for Dennis, it was never about him, but about being a role model for young kids like him. 


He’s not braggadocios—quite the opposite. He wasn’t even aware Karen had sent in the nomination letter for Central’s Hall of Fame. When he found out, it was a surprise. A surprise he was “humbled” by, openly stating, “I am sure many people are more deserving.”  


Though times have changed since Dennis graduated—the Bayless Hotel no longer exists, nor do most of the places in Elkader that Dennis fondly remembers—some things have not changed since Dennis had to make his way in the world. Chief among them is kindness, as well as understanding and a sense of community.


“Everyone needs a helping hand some timed. The old saying, ‘It takes a village,’ rings true,” said Karen, who has been by Dennis’s side for over 50 years. “Dennis had people who helped him and he truly paid it forward with his countless hours dedicated to helping young men…and the tremendous rewards in watching the success of boys growing into men.”


Dennis will deliver his hall of fame speech during Central’s homecoming celebration in the gym at 9 a.m. on Friday, Sept. 22.   

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