News travels fast on social media these days, and on Monday night as I tooled around on my laptop aimlessly, I noticed this photo on my facebook timeline.
Anyone who’s driven Highway 12 through Webster knows the A&W restaurant on the corner.
For almost 30 years, it was owned by Wally Pribyl and family, and Wally — who my family has known for 25 years — had been battling cancer of late.
Fearing the worst, I messaged my buddy Lee Schoenbeck, the former state congressman who grew up in Webster, and Lee quickly called to confirm that Wally had died Monday. I believe he was 65.
To current readers of the Argus Leader, Wally may only ring a bell, if at all, because of his son, Sam, who rose to prominence a few years back as an All-American pole vaulter at USD.
But he was also a pretty accomplished athlete in his day, playing punter and defensive back for the Golden Gophers in the late 60s. He was on the last Minnesota team to win the Big 10 football championship, in 1967.
He often told a story about his attempt to tackle OJ Simpson in a game against USC. Though I heard the story many times, I can’t quite remember how it ended, with Wally making the stop or getting run over.
Lee started to tell me the story on Monday, and when I told him I already knew it he confirmed that the story ended with Wally missing the tackle.
Still. OJ Simpson.
I knew the Pribyl family because my own family purchased a cabin on Enemy Swim Lake in 1988, across a dirt path from the cabin owned by the Pribyls.
Wally and his wife, Kathy, had three sons, Steve, Todd and Sam. Steve was a few years older than me, but Todd and I were in the same grade, and Sam and my younger brother Mitch were just a year apart. We were at the lake nearly every weekend in the summers in the late 80s and early to mid-90s, and as you might imagine, us boys spent a lot of time together.
We played football in the empty lot next door (it was apparent even then that Sam was the best athlete amongst all of us), whiffle ball on the beaches, and me and Todd in particular spent hours and hours fishing, almost never catching anything.
I drank my first beer with Todd. It was an Old Milwaukee. It was horrid. I’m pretty sure he stole it from Wally. Or Wally’s dad.
I remember one time when Todd and I were probably 14, we took a 16-foot fishing boat that belonged to his grandma out on the lake on a harshly windy day — by ourselves. Sam came along, but I don’t think my brother did.
The waves were as high as I’d ever seen them on Enemy Swim. Todd and I took turns driving, but neither of us could really steer the boat because the water was so rough. I was afraid we’d get stranded or even capsize.
It was scary. Sam started to cry (sorry, Sam).
I tried not to panic, but I remember Todd looking at me and saying ‘put your life jacket on’. It’s one thing when an overprotective parent tells you to put your life jacket on — when your 14-year-old buddy tells you, then you know things are a little out of control.
Somehow, eventually, Todd got us back safely. Sam was still sniffling and I remember Todd slugging him in the shoulder and ordering him not tell anyone.
Then he looked at me and said, ‘Never tell my dad about this.’
It wasn’t a surprise that Todd safely navigated us back to shore, or that he hadn’t seemed particularly nervous or scared during what remains the scariest boat ride of my entire life.
The Pribyl boys always had sort of a daredevilish streak within them, which obviously manifested itself in Sam’s high-flying track career.
Shortly after our family had moved in across the road, Wally had brazenly volunteered — insisted, you might say — that he would teach my brother and I to water ski.
Wally was an expert on the skis, popping up effortlessly and zipping around the lake well into his 50s. The dude was a pro.
But neither Mitch nor I really had that wildman gene that the Pribyl boys did, and we never showed much interest. To this day I’ve only been on waterskis a couple of times, and I can remember the one time I agreed to take a lesson from Wally that he was visibly let down by my lack of enthusiasm and distaste for getting water sprayed up my nose.
All the Pribyl boys worked for their dad at the A&W, which seemed to me to be a rite of passage for just about everyone who grew up in Webster.
"It’s staggering," Schoenbeck said to me last night, "how many people Wally gave their first job at the A&W. Everybody knows Wally and the A&W."
A few years ago I was assigned to do a profile story on Brock Lesnar, the pro wrestler turned failed Minnesota Viking turned MMA heavyweight champion.
I requested an interview through Lesnar’s agent, and when Lesnar called me one night from his cell phone while driving in his car, I could tell he wasn’t enthusiastic about doing the interview.
But Lesnar grew up in Webster, and I knew instinctively that there was pretty much no way that he didn’t know Wally.
So to try to warm him up a little bit, I mentioned to Lesnar that I’d actually spent quite a lot of time in Webster as a kid.
"Oh yeah?," he yawned, probably not believing me.
I told him that I’d spent a couple weeks one summer working at the A&W for Wally Pribyl. That wasn’t actually true — though Wally had made offers, I think the closest I ever came to actually working there was helping Steve carry some buckets of ice from the back door to a truck one time, but Brock Lesnar didn’t have to know that.
"Good ol’ Wally," he said. "That son of a bitch."
Trust me, he said it with an endearing tone, and I could hear him smiling over the phone. He quickly let his guard down and gave an engaging 45-minute interview.
My favorite Wally story, though, comes from about 15 years ago. Late on a Sunday night, our home phone rang (land line days), and I answered it.
"Is this Matt?" a woman’s voice asked.
"Hi, Matt, this is Kathy Pribyl, is your dad home?"
That seemed weird. What could she want? On a Sunday night?
I gave the phone to my dad, and after he listened for a minute his eyes opened wide as he spit out a couple of “OKs” and “Uh, all rights”.
When he hung up the phone, he laughed.
Turns out Wally had been working on his pickup (I think it was a pickup) in front of the cabin, when he went to go get a tool or something. But he left the truck in gear. It slowly backed down the front yard, across the dirt path and into our yard, and into the side of our house, smashing through a tool shed and the front door, coming to a stop in the middle of the kitchen.
Wally had been too embarrassed to make the call himself, so Kathy delivered the news. Wally had it fixed right away and paid for everything — it might’ve even been fixed by the next time we were back up there, I can’t quite remember. But it was a hilarious story that I would tell girlfriends after introducing them to Wally when I’d run into him at the lake in later years.
I didn’t see the Pribyls much after growing up. They were rarely at the lake on weekends anymore, and I only make it up there a couple times a summer myself. I bet I haven’t seen Todd for 15 years, Steve for almost 20.
I did run into Wally at one of Sam’s track meets that I was covering at the DakotaDome several years back, where he wasted no time in explaining the intricacies of Sam’s vaulting to me, in great detail.
He went on for awhile before I said, ‘Wally, I’m not gonna quote you in my story, OK?’ He laughed. Sam laughed harder.
Every now and then I’d still see him at the lake, usually fixing something, never wearing a shirt. I’d always at least take a few minutes to chat.
He was a great story-teller and a guy who loved doing things for other people. That’s the kind of person people miss.
I always thought it’d be fun to sit him down for an interview for this blog, let him tell some of his old Gopher football stories or anything else from his years in Webster, and now that he’s gone I wish I’d done it.
I’m sure it would’ve been entertaining.
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