Life’s lessons learned on the baseball field at Dodger Stadium under the tutelage of iconic coach Ed McNeil have served Del Blankenhagen well in a career of education and military service.
Blankenhagen taught in the Fort Dodge Community School District for five years (where he was an assistant coach several years under McNeil), then worked as a principal and teacher in Wyoming for 11 years. He served in the US Army for 35 years – 17 on active duty and 18 in the reserve – before retiring as a colonel.
Today, from his home in Newnan, Georgia, in suburban Atlanta, he reflects on how his twin careers and his life were impacted by McNeil, who coached at FDSH from the mid-1960s until 1990. McNeil died in 1991 after suffering a heart attack at the age of 61. One season later, the baseball field at Dodger Stadium was dedicated and formally named in his honor: Ed McNeil Field.
“Ed instilled a sense of teamwork in his ballplayers,” said Blankenhagen, an All-State second baseman for the Dodgers in 1968, his senior year. “That is an extremely beneficial life skill. Teamwork is present in any successful business and organization. Obviously when a sports team performs as a team as opposed to individuals, success usually follows. It’s no different in military operations. The more a squad, companies, battalions, etc. perform as a team, the more successful is the mission. Successful missions save lives and property.
“Ed was extremely organised. As a player, I liked that we were continuously occupied with baseball skills and fundamentals in practice. We had hitting stations, pepper drills, infield grounder practice, and did situations. We were always occupied. This prepared us to be as successful as possible at game time. I used this type of format for my classroom as a teacher. I tried to keep my students creatively occupied with the time I had them. I put them in different learning stations: silent reading tables, diary writing station, math problem solving and puzzles. Being fully occupied created a good learning environment and consequently fewer discipline problems.
“Ed was always in charge. He created an environment with discipline that was fair and practical. You either abided by the rules or you didn’t play. As players, we had to look and act like athletes because we represented our family, school and city, made us want to play and win for the team. All off this helped shape us and prepared us for success in our future endeavours.”
When Blankenhagen coached under McNeil for several seasons, as head coach for junior varsity and third-base coach for the varsity, he saw a different side of McNeil “that he didn’t let us see as players.
“During that time, he allowed me to be my own coach, make mistakes and learn from them. As a principal and an officer in the military, I used those principles of teamwork, organization and discipline as the bedrock for supporting and improving my students, teachers, and soldiers.”
Blankenhagen recalled his last year as McNeil’s assistant when the Dodgers made the finals of the state tournament. As third-base coach, he waved a Dodger runner home from second after the batter hit a single. The runner was thrown out and the Dodgers eventually lost the game.
“In retrospect I shouldn’t have sent the runner,” he said. “The ball was hit hard and the outfielder had a good arm. I should have realized that but in my judgment, I felt he could make it. Ed took me aside and sternly asked why I sent him. I told him in my judgment I felt he could make it. Instead of chewing me out, he said “OK“. I think he wanted to know that I made a decision based on what I thought was right.”
None of this surprises Sharon McNeil, who was married to Ed for almost 35 years and lives in Fort Dodge. Her husband tried to teach father more than baseball skills, she said: He worked to impart life’s lessons, with one of the most fundamental ones: respect for others.
“He was very strict in what he believed in, and the kids respected him for that,” she said. “That’s what he believed in – to respect people, always listen with respect. He wanted his kids to live their life the right way, to respect life and respect people and to go out there and do the best you can.”
Said Blankenhagen: “I loved and respected the man a great deal. I think he had a lot of respect for me as well. It hurt when I heard that he died. I was supposed to be one of the pall bearers at his funeral, but I could not make it due to military obligations.”
Blankenhagen is the son of Erna and Delmar Blankenhagen, who met in Livermore when his father was working a soda pop route and delivered to a gas station where his mother worked while helping her father. They had five children. Chuck Blankenhagen, the oldest, died in 2006 of a stroke at the age of 57; he pitched for McNeil while attending FDSH. Del was next-born, followed by sisters Debbie Johnson of Hudson; Cindie Archer of Smith Center, Kansas. and Cara Burke of Cedar Falls.
Baseball was part of Blankenhagen’s life from the age of 4 or 5. He was 13 when he joined the Fort Dodge Demons, coached by another Fort Dodge baseball legend, Jerry Patterson.
At FDSH, he played baseball, wrestled and ran track “but I was only proficient in baseball,” he said. He was voted to the first-team All-State Iowa baseball team in 1968 as a second baseman.
Blankenhagen attended Iowa Central Community College in 1968-1969, and played baseball. He moved to Buena Vista College (now University) from 1969-1972, majoring in education with a teacher’s certificate and playing baseball all three years. He was all-conference in 1971 and 1972 and was named an NAIA Little All American for his team’s region.
In 1970, he married Jerrilyn Maurer, who graduated from FDSH the previous year. They have three daughters – Kristy, Keri and Kelly. Kristy Hughett of Fort Dodge is married to Bill Hughett, with children Landon and Leah; Keri Finkenbinder of Lithia, Florida., is married to Brooke Finkenbinder, with children Haley and Hannah, and Kelly Blankenhagen Lopez of Gilbert, is married to Eric Lopez, with children Quinn and Caroline. Del and Jeri had two sons who are deceased – Delmer James (DJ) Blankenhagen and Kyle Allen Blankenhagen.
The military ties continue with two of his sons-in-law. Eric Lopez is an ROTC instructor and commander of the Air Force ROTC at Iowa State University in Ames. Brooke works as a contractor and is a Warrant Officer 4 in the Army Reserve specializing in information technology.
After graduation from Buena Vista, the Blankenhagens moved to West Des Moines where Del worked at the Woolco department store. They returned to Fort Dodge in 1974 when he was hired as a physical education teacher for K-6. He taught physical education, coached baseball under McNeil and coached junior high wrestling.
With a friend Steve Harbaugh, then an elementary school teacher, Blankenhagen began work on a master’s degree at Iowa State University in educational administration and the two of them car-pooled to Ames three days a week, for four years, to obtain their degrees in 1978. Harbaugh is now retired from teaching and working as an elementary school principal.
The Blankenhagen family moved to Wright, Wyoming., in 1979 when he was appointed a principal there for a new K-8 school. He then moved to Gillette, Wyoming., to become an elementary school teacher and principal. His wife Jeri taught junior high science in Gillette.
Blankenhagen’s military career began in 1971 when he was a junior at Buena Vista and joined the National Guard in Storm Lake. He served in the Iowa and Wyoming National Guard at the same time he was working in education, from 1970 to 1985, and then transferred to the Army Reserve for the next five years.
In 1990, he entered the Army full time during Operation Desert Storm and was assigned to the 76th Training Division out of Hartford, Conneciticut., as a force development officer. He transferred to Colorado State University in 1994 as an ROTC instructor there and commander of the ROTC program at the University of Northern Colorado. He was assigned to Washington, DC in 1996, serving in resource management and force development at the Pentagon. Then it was off to an assignment with the US Forces Command in Atlanta in 2000, where he served as the Army Reserve Liaison from 2000 to 2004. His final tour was in Birmingham as the deputy division commander specializing in readiness.
Blankenhagen retired from the Army in 2006 and worked from 2006 to 2012 in the Washington area as a government contractor for the CALIBRE (a contract company). He worked on contracts with the US Army Reserve Command in East Point, Georgia, and the Office of the Chief Army Reserve (OCAR) in the Washington area.
“I liked the military because it was a structured organization – you do well, they promote you; you don’t do well, they don’t,” he said. “I got into a field I found interesting. In the military, knowledge of force management is very important.
“My most challenging assignment was in the DC area, as force management officer. It is important, you at the pinnacle of your military career. The decisions you make are decisions that you pretty much stick to and you live with them. It was an exciting time, a challenging time.”
Today, in retirement, Blankenhagen enjoys golf and travelling.
“I do volunteer with church projects and assist fellow Army officers with home projects, etc.,” he said. “I assist a fellow retired Army colonel with his Parkinson’s disease. We meet weekly for lunch, and I assist him in his woodworking projects.”