Former Red River coach Tom Gabrielsen still makes a positive impact
Tom Gabrielsen coached high school sports at Grand Forks Red River for almost three decades. He could accept the inevitable losses that come with coaching.
But Gabrielsen never learned to like losing.
"I was always competitive. I wasn't very fond of losing,'' the former Grand Forks Red River golf and boys basketball coach said, laughing at himself and shaking his head. "I probably didn't sleep very well when my teams lost.
"There's no question now, though—the friendships I had were more important. And I think I probably would have said that when I was still coaching.''
Those coaching days ended more than two decades ago. Now the 81-year-old is facing another, more serious, battle. In November, Gabrielsen was diagnosed with lymphoma.
Since Gabrielsen learned of the cancer, the relationships with former athletes have become even more endearing to him. As word spread of the cancer, Gabrielsen said he's heard more frequently from former students and coaches, offering words of support.
"I'll get Facebook message from kids. 'We're praying for you.' 'We're pulling for you.' I appreciate that. So many good kids,'' Gabrielsen said.
Recently, two of his former star golfers, Todd Schaefer and Jeff Skinner, took Gabrielsen out to lunch. "That was pretty special,'' Gabrielsen said.
"About two weeks ago, I got a letter from a guy who played on my junior high football team back in 1967 when I was coaching in Carrington. He remembered that I made him stand up in front of the whole team and said to the team, 'This is a real football player.' I don't remember what it was about. But he wanted to thank me. He said he felt so good about it. He never forgot it.''
Gabrielsen said treatments for his cancer are going well. "I'm on a first-name basis with all the nurses and doctors at the cancer center,'' he said. "I think I'm doing well.''
Gabrielsen had a lot more wins than losses in his many seasons of coaching since he arrived at Red River in the fall of 1968, the second year of the school's existence.
He was an assistant basketball coach for several years, including the state championship team in 1969, before taking over as head coach from 1976-81. He won two conference titles in that time.
As head boys golf coach from 1968 through 1997, his teams won 15 conference and six state championships. His one season as girls golf coach resulted in a state title in 1979.
Gabrielsen has been chosen to three sports halls of fame—the North Dakota High School Coaches Association, North Dakota Golf Association and Grand Forks Red River High School.
He retired in 1997. But Gabrielsen still is at Red River almost every morning, working for the past several years as supervisor of the commons area. He's outlasted all the teachers and administrators who were there when he joined the staff.
And, for all his success as a coach, he's now interacting with a different generation.
"Some of the kids maybe know that Gabe was a big-time, great coach at Red River,'' Red River principal Kris Arason said. "But these kids know him as Gabe, just a nice guy. For a lot of the kids, he is the one adult they have a relationship with in the building.
"Gabe's biggest strength is his ability to interact with kids. He's always smiling, talking to them, asking how they're doing, how their life is going. He makes a positive influence on a lot of kids. He gets a smile on a lot of kids' faces.''
Gabrielsen hasn't coached basketball for many years. But he and his wife, Marge, are regulars at Red River's boys and girls home games.
"I enjoy watching the kids,'' Gabrielsen said. "You just hope they're out there having fun.''