By Emilie Brouse
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Mel Nygaard, Athletic Equipment Manager at the Gillette Rec Center, has been a Bemidji resident since 1985 and worked on the Bemidji State University campus for 14 years. He came to Bemidji from his hometown of Minot, ND, to coach football at BSU. He coached the team from 1994- 2010, and loved every minute of it. Mel also spent ten years as a general maintenance worker (GMW) in buildings all over the BSU campus. It was here that he began to bond with the students of Bemidji State.
Before he came to work at “The Cage” (the nickname given to the athletic equipment room at the Rec Center), Mel coached curling, basketball, golf, and baseball at Bemidji Middle School where he was fondly known as “Coach Grandpa”. He also founded the youth curling program of Bemidji. He received pay only once in his coaching career. “The only time I ever got paid, I spent it on a pizza party for the kids,” said Mel. He believes he “really got paid all the time by every one of those kids.” The only reason he ended his time as a coach was to be on time to work at the cage. His appreciation for and connection with youth is clear to see here and all around the rec center every day. Every student who knows him can agree— Mel is an awesome person to connect with.
Mel’s door is always open. Students come to the cage just to hang out because Mel makes their day better simply by being a part of it. Jolynne Denman, a sophomore at BSU, is one of these students. In an interview at the cage, she said, “Mel helped me transition to college life. He helped me learn all about how things are run at the rec. He’s a good listening ear and a great person to connect with.” Denman calls Mel her “East Side Dad,” because her hometown, Cloquet, is west of Bemidji and Mel is her local father figure. “He looks out for the best for us,” said Denman.
Fellow workers at the cage can agree with Denman. The vibe is very friendly and laid back, it’s a great place for students to come and relax. There are many students that participate in work study at the rec center and work alongside Mel. “They help me out with everything,” Mel said. “They’re my guys. We may sit around at the cage for a while, but we bust it and go hard when we start!”
General maintenance workers everywhere work incredibly hard. It’s important that we take the time to stop and recognize them for their effort. A clean, well maintained facility should never be taken for granted. Nor should GMWs like Mel. He is more than a custodian— he’s a friend to everyone he meets. It’s not hard to tell he loves what he does each and every day. He has a real passion for what he does and the people he does it for.
“The kids are like my family,” he said. “They’re what make my job worthwhile. I do it for the kids.”