Editor’s note: Stillwater resident, public servant and former Stillwater Ponies trainer Gene “Taco” Bealka passed away on Wednesday at the age of 89. This story originally appeared in the Stillwater Gazette on July 20, 2001, following his rertirement as SAHS trainer.
One of the most recognized faces in Stillwater athletics over the past three decades, Gene Bealka will try something new beginning in the fall. As always, Bealka will be glued to Pony football games, but he is trading in his sideline view for a seat in the stands.
After 29 years of preparing and treating Pony athletes, Bealka is officially retired as the school’s trainer.
Bealka, a member of the Stillwater City Council who also enjoys flying in his spare time, said the time had arrived for him to take a step back as trainer.
“It’s not that I don’t enjoy it or that I’m tired, but it’s time to go,” said Bealka, who is also slowed by knees that are apparently the only part of him showing signs of aging. “I’m 78 going on 40, but my knees are slowing me down a little bit. Age is only a number as far as I’m concerned.”
Bealka, known only as “Taco” by many of the friends and athletes he’s worked with over the years, said he will miss the job, although he is looking forward to the additional free time.
“I think I will miss the daily contact with the young people and working with the kids and building a good rapport,” Bealka said. “It’s not going to be easy walking away, but I have no regrets.
“This has been so much a part of my life and I wish everybody could have the same opportunities I’ve had. It’s been a great ride and a beautiful dance.”
Bealka, who has been a substitute teacher in the school district since 1980, will also use the time to help his wife, Bette, who’s in the antique business.
After 54 years of marriage, Bealka credits his wife for the constant support he’s received.
“She is one great woman,” Bealka said. “She gave me a lot of support and allowed me to do what I did for all those years.”
In addition to being a part of four state championship football teams, Bealka also spent 10 years as the trainer for the Minnesota All-Star football game — sacrificing his vacation time in order to do so.
Bealka says he couldn’t even begin to estimate the number of ankles he’s taped over the years, but admits it would be substantial.
“If I had a penny for every ankle I would be spending my time in the Bahamas in the winter,” Bealka said.
His actual compensation, however, has been more rewarding.
“I think every kid I’ve ever taped has said ‘thanks,’” Bealka said. “That’s my reward.”
He admits most people have no idea who “Gene Bealka” is, but they seem to remember “Taco,” a name given to him by longtime Stillwater public address announcer Jim Ratte. In fact, it’s not uncommon for wedding invitations to arrive addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Taco Bealka.
“Very few people know my name is Gene,” he said.
He’s worked with countless athletes over the years and many remember Bealka with fondness.
In 1990, Bealka was walking in downtown St. Paul when he was stopped by a former player from an all-star game 12 years earlier.
“He was walking the other way and he stopped and said, ‘Hey, Doc,’” Bealka said. “I turned around and he asked if I remembered him. He said I hadn’t changed a bit.”
The greetings and stops are even more frequent in Stillwater, a place he’s been proud to call home.
“I don’t think there’s a day I walk down the street and somebody won’t honk their horn and wave at me,” Bealka said. “That’s the nice part about living in an area like Stillwater.”
And while Bealka always had a front row view at the games, he never allowed himself to lose focus on his primary duties. When the rest of the fans were busy watching a player race down the sidelines for a touchdown, Bealka was focused on the pileup at the line of scrimmage, making sure there were no players injured in the process.
Some habits will expectedly be difficult to break.
“You’re never relaxed and always in a state of apprehension,” Bealka said. “I’m always trailing back on the play because it’s important to know what already happened instead of looking at what’s going to happen. I’m sure now when I watch games on Fridays my natural instinct will be to look back.”
There’s one other thing that might stay with him for a while.
“I’ve got that analgesic odor in me,” Bealka said.