The House that Frank Built

When it comes to Jackrabbit wrestling, there's been no greater advocate for excellence than Frank Kurtenbach.

Frank Kurtenbach’s undeniable love for the sport was a motivator for his leadership gift to the Frank J. Kurtenbach Family Wrestling Center.

Yet sitting at the table in his Brookings home, he talks more about the people and opportunities at South Dakota State University when asked why he chose to give almost half of the $5.2 million needed to construct one of the nation’s top collegiate wrestling facilities.

Kurtenbach proudly describes it, “as nice as anything in the country.”

This project is going to forever change the wrestling landscape at South Dakota State University. It would not have been possible without Frank.

Damion Hahn, SDSU Wrestling Head Coach

In many respects, it’s the quintessential “paying it forward” story.

“It’s [in return] for what I got from South Dakota State University,” Kurtenbach says.

Hahn, who considers Kurtenbach a dear friend and mentor, said, “He didn’t come from a lot. He’s grateful for those who helped him.”

Coach Warren Williamson, Dave Kinney, and Kurtenbach watch with mixed emotions as the action on the wrestling mat gets intense.
Coach Warren Williamson, Dave Kinney, and Kurtenbach (L to R)

It started 65 years ago, with regular visits that legendary coach Warren Williamson paid to Frank as he was working on his family’s farm near Dimock after his high school graduation. Through an understanding with his father, Frank agreed to take two years off before starting at SDSU in the fall of 1957.

Some experiences with hail and drought convinced him he didn’t want to stay on the farm. “It gave me a lot of time to think about (what’s ahead) on the tractor,” Frank said.

He vividly recalls regular stops by Williamson during that time between high school and college, sometimes with baseball coach Erv Huether, pulling into the farmyard in a green Pontiac with fins.

When he eventually came to SDSU to play football, Frank had $200 in his pocket. He moved into the lower level of the Intramural Building, an area known as the Gym Dorm that Frank shared with 31 other student-athletes.

It was Williamson, his coach and longtime mentor, who first suggested that he try wrestling – a sport he had no experience with prior to college.

Between a football scholarship and opportunities to work on campus, Frank never had to borrow money to earn his degree. It led him first to teaching and coaching, and then to 29 years on the board of directors with Daktronics, Inc. and 20 as a vice president for the company.

Kurtenbach, fourth from the left in the back row, poses with the wrestling team.
Kurtenbach, fourth from the left in the back row, poses with the wrestling team.

He reflects on the help of people who’d find him work or cook meals for him and other students.

In the fall of 1959, Kurtenbach was uncertain about where he’d live that school year and had his belongings packed into his car. Director of Brown Hall Mel Hendrickson, also the longtime manager of the bookstore, instructed Kurtenbach to move his things into Room 328 of Brown Hall. Frank then became the Assistant Student Dorm Manager. Hendrickson’s kindness extended to meals that Mel’s wife, Alvina, would prepare for Frank and others.

It was just one example of many of people who looked out for the strapping Hutchinson County, SD farm boy.

So nearly 60 years removed from that time, a new facility – long a dream for Frank and the wrestling program – started to become a reality.

The program had existed in space within Frost Arena that was far below the standard of SDSU peers and rivals.

Kurtenbach made an initial $1 million commitment. Faced with the potential for further rising costs and the need for Board of Regents approval, he pledged another $1 million. Ultimately, his total contribution grew to $2.5 million.

Clay Carlson, Daniel Kimball, Kurtenbach, Cade DeVos, and Tanner Jordan post for photo on the mats in the new Kurtenbach Family Wrestling Center
Clay Carlson, Daniel Kimball, Kurtenbach, Cade DeVos, and Tanner Jordan

Kurtenbach is a member of the South Dakota Wrestling Coaches Hall of Fame. His love of the sport and belief that SDSU can be a national champion in wrestling were drivers in his significant financial commitment to the project. Yet, he continually comes back to the people who helped and what the university provided him.

“At the core, Frank lives a life of service,” Hahn said. “He’s someone that I want to strive to be…. pay it forward, giving back.” He added: “He’s a special person.”