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Former Grand Forks restaurant owner, teacher and coach Ken Towers dies at age 81

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Ken Towers snacks on chips and salsa at the Italian Moon, a restaurant he has owned and managed for nearly 41 years. After four decades, Towers will retire and sell the Moon. Photo by Kile Brewer/Grand Forks Herald

Ken Towers, who has long been an influential member of the Grand Forks community as a teacher, coach, booster and restaurant owner, died Friday at the age of 81.

Towers was the first coach of the Grand Forks Red River boys basketball team, leading the program through the golden era of basketball in the city. He brought the Roughriders to three consecutive state championship games, winning the title in 1969.

He later became a big supporter of UND athletics and owned the Italian Moon restaurant for 41 years.

"I think he was so supportive of high school kids, the university and pretty much every activity that involves all of us in Grand Forks," said Tom Gabrielson, who served as Towers' assistant basketball coach at Red River. "He was just a really, really good person for Grand Forks.

"It's just a sad deal."

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Towers' life is full of accolades. He was a member of Red River's first Hall of Fame Class. He's a member of the North Dakota High School Coaches' Association Hall of Fame. He also received numerous business awards from the Grand Forks Chamber of Commerce.

"He was a very intense and hard worker with everything he did, whether it was coaching, teaching or selling pizzas," Gabrielson said.

Life with basketball

Towers was a terrific athlete himself.

He played prep basketball Alsen High School and was a key member of a team that launched a 79-game winning streak, which still stands today as the longest in North Dakota boys basketball history. It started in 1956 and lasted until 1959.

The winning streak "becomes more meaningful to us as the years go by," Towers told the Herald in 2007. "Right now, I'd be surprised if that record is ever broken."

He became Red River's basketball coach in 1967 and coached until 1976. The Roughriders made the state championship game during the first three seasons, led by Reed Monson, who played college basketball at Tennessee and professionally in France.

"He taught me a lot about coaching," Gabrielson said. "He was a very good coach. During that era, we played for the state championship three years in a row. Of course, we had good athletes. We had Reed Monson, as an example. A lot of people would have liked to have that."

Towers was inducted into the North Dakota Coaches' Association Hall of Fame in 1987.

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In the community

Towers' influence in Grand Forks went far beyond the basketball court, though.

He owned and operated the Italian Moon from 1974 until he sold it during his 41st year in 2014.

โ€œMy favorite memory is all the wonderful people Iโ€™ve met here,โ€ Towers told the Herald when he sold the Moon. โ€œIf I sat in an office cubicle for a career, how many people would I have met?โ€

Towers became a big supporter of UND's athletic programs and was first-ever recipient of the UND Booster of the Year award in 1990.

"He has a genuine interest in the program that's not self-serving," former UND hockey coach Gino Gasparini said after Towers earned the honor. "It runs back many, many, many years. He has a great insight into athletics and coaching."

In 1987, Towers received the Small Business Person of the Year award from the Grand Forks Chamber of Commerce, and in 1998, he won the Henry Havig Community Leadership Award from the Chamber.

Towers also was instrumental in the community's support of the Grand Forks Air Force Base. In 1996, Towers received an outstanding citizen leader award from the Air Force's Air Mobility Command, and in 1997 he was selected as a lifetime honorary member of the Association of Air Force Missileers. He also is an honorary commander of the 321st Security Forces Squadron at the Grand Forks base.

Shortly after Pat Owens was elected mayor, she appointed Towers to her community cabinet.

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"What can I say about Ken Towers?" former Chamber president Bob Gustafson told the Herald in 1998. "He's a champion for all champions in Grand Forks. He's a leader by example and he cares deeply about his family, his employees and his community.

"He is just somebody that everyone looks up to. Everywhere you turn, he's had the leadership. And not just leading to get recognition for it, but to get the job done."

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Ken Towers sits in the renovated booths at the Italian Moon, a restaurant he has owned and managed for nearly 41 years. After four decades, Towers will retire and sell the Moon. Photo by Kile Brewer/Grand Forks Herald

Schlossman has covered college hockey for the Grand Forks Herald since 2005. He has been recognized by the Associated Press Sports Editors as the top beat writer for the Herald's circulation division four times and the North Dakota sportswriter of the year once. He resides in Grand Forks. Reach him at bschlossman@gfherald.com.
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