Ralph Engelstad was born January 28, 1930 in Thief River Falls, Minnesota, to Christian and Madeline (Thill) Engelstad. He was one of five children. His grandfather emigrated from Norway to the United States in 1882. During high school Ralph Engelstad worked construction during the summer for Agsco, where his father was employed as a salesman. In 1948, under the suggestion and help of chemistry professor Ben Gustafson, he entered the University of North Dakota, where he was a goalie on the hockey team. After two years he left school to continue work and play minor league hockey in California. He returned to UND in 1952. In a posthumously published retrospective in the Grand Forks Herald on November 30, 2002, Engelstad wrote that "if it hadn’t been for professor Gustafson and the Fighting Sioux hockey team, I most likely would not have gotten an education" nor achieved what he had.
In 1954, Engelstad graduated with a degree in commerce from UND. Also that year he married Betty Stocker of East Grand Forks, Minnesota. Upon graduation, Engelstad was offered a contract to play professional hockey with the Chicago Blackhawks, according to a November 28, 2002, article in the Grand Forks Herald. He turned it down and took out a $2,500 loan from Valley Bank in Grand Forks to start his own construction company in the Grand Forks area. He contracted with Agsco, his former employer, and had much success.
In 1959, Engelstad achieved millionaire status and moved his company to Las Vegas. Initially his firm built federally funded housing under the direction of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. He also invested in real estate, including a 145-acre plot near a small airport outside Las Vegas. In 1967 tycoon Howard Hughes purchased that plot of land for $2 million and with the success of that investment, Engelstad then bought the Kona Kai, a small casino on the Las Vegas Strip. He later sold that and bought the Flamingo Capri, "a seedy motel on the Strip across from Caesars Palace," according to Jeff Burbank’s book License to Steal. On that site, Engelstad opened the Imperial Palace, from which most of his wealth came. According to the booklet that accompanied Engelstad’s induction into the North Dakota Entrepreneur Hall of Fall, by 2002 the Imperial Palace ranked "as the 16th largest hotel in the world, with 2,700 rooms and 2,500 employees." It also had ten restaurants and a variety of entertainment. Engelstad built up one of the nation’s top automobile collections, amassing approximately 500 rare and vintage vehicles, over 200 of which were put on display for the public at the Imperial Palace.
In 1981 Engelstad received the Sioux Award, the highest honor granted by the UND Alumni Association. In 1987 he was inducted into the Fighting Sioux Hall of Fame. The following year he established a $5 million endowment to the UND hockey program, after which the UND Winter Sports Center, which was located east of Memorial Stadium, was renamed the Ralph Engelstad Arena. The Imperial Palace was honored by the Nevada Governor’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities in 1987 and 1989 for hiring a substantial number of employees with disabilities. In 1991, the Imperial Palace was named National Employer of the Year by President George H.W. Bush’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities.
In 1988 it was revealed that Engelstad had thrown two parties for Imperial Palace employees held on the birthday of Adolf Hitler, one in 1986 and again in 1988. Public outcry over these parties and furor over an extensive collection of Nazi and Axis Power memorabilia, including automobiles, weapons and propaganda, launched Engelstad into media scrutiny. Further investigation by the Nevada Gaming Control Board revealed that 500 bumper stickers that read "Hitler Was Right" were printed at the Imperial Palace’s print shop. Inclusion in his automobile collection of vehicles formerly owned by Hitler and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini drew further criticism.
On October 6, 1988, after increasing media attention, Engelstad and his advisors opened the "war room," which housed the World War II memorabilia, and published full-page apologies in Las Vegas newspapers the following day. The UND Alumni Association paid for a group of seven UND representatives to fly to Las Vegas and view the controversial artifacts and meet with Engelstad on October 9. Though no official statement was released, they met with UND President Thomas Clifford to convey their impressions. The Dakota Student reported on October 14, 1988 that the UND contingency "generally agreed that Engelstad’s apologies for the ‘Hitler Parties’ were sincere, and that his Nazi-war collection was not a ‘glorification of Hitler.’" In Las Vegas, protests from the Jewish and Black leaders in the community prolonged the controversy. Eventually, the Nevada Gaming Commission levied a $1.5 million fine upon Engelstad for the negative publicity the events had brought to the state’s reputation.
A second Imperial Palace was opened in Biloxi, Mississippi, in December 1997. With over 1,000 rooms, it also included ten restaurants, six movie theaters, and other amenities, including a large casino and nightly entertainment. Engelstad also developed the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, a NASCAR track, which he later sold.
Engelstad developed plans for further donations to UND, and in 1994 he threatened to withhold a large donation to the university until Athletic Director Terry Wanless left the administration. Wanless was instrumental in UND hockey coach John "Gino" Gasparini’s resignation, with which Engelstad disagreed. Once Wanless announced he would be leaving UND in 1998, Engelstad pledged $100 million to construct a new hockey arena in Grand Forks. The Ralph Engelstad Arena opened October 5, 2001, with a game against the Minnesota Golden Gophers. The final cost of the arena was over $104 million.
The arena was not, however, completed without controversy. It was Engelstad’s desire that UND keep the nickname "Fighting Sioux," which has been protested as offensive to the American Indian tribe. He wrote letters to UND President Charles Kupchella threatening to halt construction on the arena if the university changed the team name, which was under debate. The State Board of Higher Education voted 8-0 to retain the logo and name. Concern grew that Engelstad was pulling strings with the board and UND to retain the controversial nickname; those responsible for retaining the nickname asserted they made the most beneficial decision for the university. The Ralph Engelstad Arena was constructed with estimates between 3,000 and 4,500 images of the logo and name throughout the arena, making a potential name change more cumbersome. Discussion of the nickname and Engelstad’s outspoken support became a polarizing issue within the UND and Grand Forks communities.
In August 2002, Engelstad was inducted into the North Dakota Entrepreneur Hall of Fame. While his philanthropy was a factor, the decision for his induction was based primarily on his exemplary treatment of employees at the Imperial Palace. Among the notable achievements, the Imperial Palace was the first casino to offer an on-site medical center for employees and did not lay off any employees following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, which greatly hurt the hospitality industry. Also cited was the 1991 commendation from President Bush’s administration.
Detractors of Engelstad have asserted that his philanthropy was conducted in self-interest; friends and supporters contend that his giving was done in earnest and with unwarranted media attention. Among the gifts he made were $10 million for a new hockey arena in Thief River Falls; the purchase and donation of the George S. Patton Papers to the Chester Fritz Library at UND in 1998, valued at $1.5 million; renovation of a railroad depot in Thief River Falls into a new city hall, valued at $200,000; donations to the Good Samaritan Home in Larimore, North Dakota; a gift of 2,000 wheelchairs for North Dakotans in 2002; and monetary donations for completion of statues honoring Sakakawea and the bicentennial of Lewis and Clark’s expedition.
Engelstad died of lung cancer November 26, 2002. An intensely private man throughout his life, he hid his disease from even his closest friends. In a front-page obituary on November 28, the Grand Forks Herald characterized him as a man of contradictions: "A private man who led a public life. An uncomplicated man whose days were complicated. A generous man who wouldn’t give an inch on certain issues. A man whose actions attracted a spotlight he despised. And an ultra-rich man who pinched pennies." On December 7, 2002, the UND hockey team retired #23, Engelstad’s former jersey number.
All sources for this biographical sketch can be found in this collection, the Ralph Engelstad Papers.
Donation; Acc. #2002-2585
The Ralph Engelstad Papers consist of seven folders documenting several events from late in Engelstad’s life: the controversy over Nazi memorabilia at his casino, the Imperial Palace; announcement, construction and controversy over the Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks; donation of funds to send a Sakakawea statue to Washington D.C.; his induction into the North Dakota Entrepreneur Hall of Fame; news of his death, including obituaries; and UND Hockey’s retirement of #23, Engelstad’s former jersey number.
Material on the controversy over Engelstad’s "Hitler parties" and Nazi memorabilia include Engelstad’s 1988 letter to the Grand Forks Herald and a series of articles from October 1988 in the Dakota Student. Also regarding this topic is an article in People Weekly magazine and photocopies from Jeff Burbank’s 2000 book, License to Steal.
All material regarding the construction of the Ralph Engelstad Arena comes from the Grand Forks Herald, except for one article from the Chronicle of Higher Education. These materials date from 2001 to 2004.
The Center for Innovation in Grand Forks inducted Engelstad into the North Dakota Entrepreneur Hall of Fall in August 2002, and it is the source of the materials regarding that honor, along with the accompanying Grand Forks Herald article.
President Charles Kupchella’s statement following Engelstad’s death was posted on the UND website and released in an email.
All other records are newspaper clippings. The majority comes from the Grand Forks Herald, but obituaries are also included from the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Fargo Forum, Bismarck Tribune, St. Paul Pioneer Press and the Ralph Engelstad Arena website.