21 years after the Ralph Engelstad Arena opened its doors, the Engelstad Foundation continues to make a difference at UND and far beyond.
On Friday and Saturday nights October through March, 12,000 University of North Dakota faithful gather on the north side of campus to watch Old Time Hockey. Inside the palatial Ralph Engelstad Arena, fans cheer on some of the most elite collegiate athletes in the world. They’re part of a tradition, an experience like no other, inside a shrine to North Dakota hockey, built brick by brick by the arena’s namesake, Ralph Engelstad.
Kris Engelstad recalls attending opening night of the arena on Oct. 5, 2001, with her parents. Some time before, during the planning and building of the arena, Ralph had been diagnosed with lung cancer. Rather than make the news public, he chose to keep it within his family.
“When he walked out on that ice, he was crying, and I’ve only seen him cry twice in my life,” Kris said. “He knew standing there was the first time – and the last time – he would stand on that ice. And nobody else who was giving him a standing ovation knew it, but we knew it.”
Ralph Engelstad died on Nov. 26, 2002, leaving behind a legacy that’s become a household name for anyone associated with UND. In the past two decades, the arena now known as “the Ralph” has served as home to UND hockey, hosted weddings, and welcomed big-name concerts, boosting the region’s economy.
The Engelstad Foundation – created in 2002 by Ralph and his wife, Betty – continues to give, and give again.
In addition to the $104 million+ originally donated to build the Ralph, the Foundation has given more than $12 million in recent years for fan experience enhancements and locker room and weight room improvements at the arena, often dubbed the Palace on the Prairie or the Taj Mahal of Hockey.
“The Engelstad Foundation never takes their foot off the gas,” said Jody Hodgson, the arena’s general manager. “The impact of the Engelstad family and Engelstad Foundation on our campus, community, region, and quality of life cannot be overstated. I can’t imagine what we would do, or who we would be, without their support.”
That support isn’t limited to the facility. Myriad areas across campus benefit from the generosity of the Engelstad Foundation, ranging from academic scholarships to student-athlete mental health programs to summer school support for UND Football student-athletes.
I can’t imagine what we would do, or who we would be, without their support.Jody Hodgson General Manager
Ralph Engelstad Arena
“My dad felt that if you could help somebody have an education, then you could open the world for them,” said Kris, now Trustee and CEO of the Foundation.
Headquartered in Las Vegas, the Engelstad Foundation also has given to the Community Violence Intervention Center in Grand Forks, Sacred Heart School in East Grand Forks, and Farm Rescue in Horace, North Dakota. A generous gift in 2002 built a second, smaller Ralph Engelstad Arena in Thief River Falls, Minnesota, where Ralph grew up.
More recently, Kris points to philanthropic wins in the Las Vegas area.
Thanks to the Engelstad Foundation, 780 previously untested DNA kits on cold homicide and sexual assault cases across Nevada have now been tested. A new medical school at University of Nevada, Las Vegas has been built. The project that Kris is perhaps most proud of is Betty’s Village, a housing facility for people with disabilities, named for her mother.
As her children have grown, so has their involvement in the Engelstad Foundation. “What we do is generational, and I’m happy to say that includes my children,” Kris said. “We’re not a spend-down Foundation; we’re going to be around for perpetuity.”
Her son, Sean, is a Trustee and Investment Director, while daughter Erin serves as Chief Granting Officer.
The presence of Betty, who still serves the Board as Trustee Emeritus, looms large. Upon entering the Engelstad Foundation headquarters, there she is, pictured alongside her late husband, with the words “Do not underestimate small humble beginnings because sometimes they can turn out to be the greatest success stories.”
Kris thinks back to the flood of 1997 that devastated Grand Forks and several other communities along the Red River. Shortly after, her father announced his gift to build Ralph Engelstad Arena – still the largest philanthropic gift ever to be given to the University of North Dakota.
“He wanted to do something in his community,” Kris said. “The whole point of having it after the 100-year flood was to bring back jobs, bring back some building, and try to boost that economy. I think it was right on the tipping point of ‘Which way will this community go?’ This was a way to help that along.”
The late Earl Strinden once called Engelstad “the most outstanding and successful entrepreneur to graduate from UND in its entire history.” Known for his direct, focused, and no-nonsense approach to business, Ralph purchased the Thunderbird Private Airport in Las Vegas and co-developed the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He owned the Imperial Palace hotel and casino, one of the largest privately owned hotels in the world. With a second location in Biloxi, Mississippi, his business empire and property ownership extended across the nation.
“He’s had good fortune across the country,” Kris said. “But he always remembered where he came from.”
He came from the prairie of Northern Minnesota and grew into adulthood at the University of North Dakota. Here, as we file into the Ralph Engelstad Arena on cold winter nights, greeted by the sight of Kelly green, the smell of Bavarian almonds and the sound of the Pride of the North band, we remember him with gratitude. \\\