Ralph Engelstad, the North Dakota booster and entrepreneur who funded the new Grand Forks arena that bears his name, died Tuesday night. He was 72.
Engelstad, one of the most ardent supporters of the school’s Fighting Sioux nickname, had battled cancer in recent years.
The $104 million Ralph Engelstad Arena opened last October. Engelstad was a goaltender at the school from 1948 to 1950 and has long been a contributor to the school.
“Life teaches you that it is neither right nor just to forget those who have reached out and helped you along the way,” Engelstad wrote in “Fight on Sioux,” a book published by the Grand Forks Herald in 2001.
Upon announcing plans for the new arena in December 1999, Engelstad said: “Life is full of ups and downs. In business and personally, I have experienced both. But I’ve been very fortunate to land on the upper side more times than I have on the bottom. It is my desire to share a portion of my good fortune with the UND hockey team.”
Engelstad, who was reclusive and rarely granted interviews, was a well-known philanthropist in North Dakota. He was also a controversial figure, including placing himself at the center of the Fighting Sioux nickname debate.
In a December 2001 letter to UND president Charles Kupchella, Engelstad said he would pull his funding of the new arena if the school, which had formed a committee to study the Fighting Sioux nickname, dropped the nickname and logo. A day after that letter was received, the North Dakota board of higher education voted 8-0 to keep the name.
In a statement, WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod said: “We are all saddened today by the loss of Ralph Engelstad. Ralph was a good friend and strong proponent of collegiate hockey and our condolences go out to his family and the University of North Dakota community at this time of Thanksgiving.”
Engelstad began building his fortune when he purchased land north of Las Vegas, and later sold it to Howard Hughes. In 1971, using the profits from the sale, Engelstad purchased the nine-acre Flamingo-Capri Motel on the Las Vegas Strip. He went on to build the Imperial Palace in 1979, and later opened another Imperial Palace in Biloxi, Miss.
In 1989, Engelstad was fined $1.5 million by the Nevada Gaming Commission for holding two Nazi theme parties at his casino. Engelstad later said he made a mistake.
Engelstad is survived by his wife, Betty, a daughter, Kris, and two sisters, Mary Tulper and Phyllis Dooley. Funeral services are pending.
The family has asked that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Engelstad Family Foundation/Lung Cancer Research, in care of Bradshaw, Smith Co., 5851 W. Charleston, Las Vegas, NV 89102.