A look back at the Dome’s glory days

After a 31-year run, the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome awaits demolition to make room for a new facility to house its main tenant: the Minnesota Vikings. (Patrick Larkin/Review)

Bill Lester and Jerry Bell, who both served as executive director of the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, reflect on their memories of the Metrodome, operations of which they each ran. (Linda Baumeister/Review)

Bill Lester, president of the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, was pictured in front of the Dome in 1987. (file photo)

Jerry Bell was named North High School alumnus of the year at the time he was pictured in the Metrodome with the Twins’ logo on the field as a backdrop. (file photo)

Jerry Bell, Bill Lester reflect on the good, the bad & the ugly sides of the stadium

A couple of guys who knew it best

It was a pleasant meeting not long ago. On one side of me was Bill Lester and on the other sat Jerry Bell.

Those names may not be familiar to many around these parts anymore, but at one time both were members on the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale School Board.

Bell was the school board chairman and served two terms, and Lester was a three-term member.

Bell and his wife, Phyllis, still live in North St. Paul, while Lester and his wife, Judith, have moved from Oakdale to the Highland Park neighborhood of St. Paul where she has roots.

But the reason I sat down for a chat with Bell and Lester recently was because they have another thing in common.

Both - first Bell and then Lester- served as executive director of the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission and were in charge of the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome operations.

Bell was there in the early days and then Lester took over in 1987, when Bell joined the front-office staff of the Minnesota Twins.

Bell retired as president of the Twins operations in 2011 and was one of the main drivers of the effort to get a new stadium for the baseball team. Lester retired from his post at the commission in 2012.

After the Minnesota Vikings’ disappointing final season in the Dome, there wasn’t a lot of fanfare leading up to the final sporting event in the stadium on Dec. 29.

The air will be let out of the Dome on Saturday, Jan. 18, and it will be dismantled and the usable items sold to make room for a new, largely publicly financed facility in which the Vikings will be the main tenant.

Two of the people on hand for the groundbreaking ceremonies last month were Bell and Lester. I suppose it was appropriate for them to be there, because they were the two most responsible for the success of the Dome during its 31-year run.

There was abundant laughter

Not that either of the men hadn’t seen each other over the years, but it was a get-together that was unlike any other “interview” I have been involved in.

As we sat and talked, there were frequent bursts of laughter, as one remembered incident would lead to another. First one man would recall a memorable moment and the other would add to the reminiscence.

Perhaps the one event that surprised Bell and Lester more than any other was the public gathering at the Dome following the Minnesota Twins winning the American League pennant in Detroit in 1987.

It was an event not planned by either of them.

They recalled the game in Detroit was an afternoon game.

“They (the Twins) weren’t in any hurry to get home. A manager at the Dome, Mark Weber, called and told me they were going to have a ‘Welcome Home’ for the team at the Dome.”

Bell, who was traveling with the team, said, “We got there, and it was late. There were people leaving, and we thought it was because it was so late.

“We couldn’t believe what was happening. We soon found out (people were leaving) because there wasn’t room inside.

“There were kids; there were fans. They were so many excited people. There were some 55,000 people there to greet the team. Players to this day talk in awe about that night they arrived home.”

Lester recalled it was such a spontaneous occurrence that “we didn’t have time to organize. There we were opening up section by section. The scissor gates that were in place were slid open throughout the entire stadium. 

“I remember,” Bell added, “that my first concern was that a tarp be put out in centerfield to avoid the grass being trampled.”

“It was just so great that it happened, and it was basically unplanned. It just happened,” Lester stated.

He then said, “Jerry’s from North St. Paul. Weber’s from Chisholm, and I’m from Anaconda, Montana. What did we know? It seemed like a good idea. How hard is this? It was tough to get any staff there.”

They laughed when they recalled that one player -better not named - always carried a briefcase. Together they recalled that he arrived wearing a trench coat and carrying the briefcase.

“The only thing he had in the briefcase was a bottle or rum,” roared the two.

The greatest sporting event?

Bell stated. “It had to be the ‘87 World Series. It was the first time, and after all, you can only have the first time once. I think that team was the best one.”

“The ‘91 team had better pitching,” said Lester, and Bell agreed.

Bell then recalled the great seventh-game pitching performance that Jack Morris put on to win in 10 innings against the Atlanta Braves. While Morris was in the dugout, he was reminded - after nine innings -that he had done a great job pitching.

Morris stated, “It’s not over yet, and I’m not done!”

In ‘87 the Twins basically had two pitchers -- Bert Blyleven and Frank Viola.

“After that it was like they used to say, ‘Spahn and Sain and pray for rain,’” Lester chuckled.

There have been so many memorable occurrences at the Dome it was difficult to single out one. The two agreed it might have been to 1987 World Series but simply because it was the first.

“Without the Twins and the Vikings -- they were the mainstays -- without them you don’t have a facility to utilize,” stated Lester. “Once you have them, you can maximize its use.”

And maximize the Dome they did. There were concerts, monster trucks, high school and college games, and countless other events.

It has drawn through its doors some 50 million spectators.

Lester recalled that in one six-month period, the Twin Cities had a World Series and the NCAA men’s basketball Final Four at the Dome. Also during that time, the Minnesota North Stars (remember them?) were in the Stanley Cup finals, and there was the PGA U.S Open at Hazeltine National Golf Club.

It has been a great run for the 31-year-old Dome.

Not many recall that the Timberwolves played their first season in the Dome. Lester stated, “They set a long-time record that will never be broken. The Timberwolves had over a million fans watch them in 41 games. That will never be broken because they don’t have that kind of seating capacity (in basketball arenas).”

The many events recalled many stories

“The monster trucks were some of the best tenants we had,” Lester said. “They came in. They made money. They cleaned up before they left.”

Bell said of the trucks, “People paid to get in (the building) and they came and cheered the trucks.”

That drew another round of laughter.

Lester, who is an avid basketball player, remembered when the Dome hosted one of the NCAA men’s basketball tournaments, and a special court was brought in and set up.

“Many of us would get together and play games on the court. We did it early, like 6:00 in the morning. We were at a meeting with the NCAA officials, and one our management team asked, “Is the game on in the morning?’ Well, I almost died. I said, ‘We won’t talk about that now.’

“After the meeting, the guy from the NCAA who was in charge, called me over and asked, ‘Are YOU playing a game on that court in the morning?’ I said, ‘Yes, but if there is any problem at all with that, there will be no game.’ The guy said, ‘Well my son and my old fraternity brother will be in town. Do you think they could get in the game?’ I breathed a sigh of relief and said, ‘The game is at 6 a.m. I know a guy who knows a guy, and we can make that happen.’”

The “interview” went on and on, so much so, there isn’t space to recall the many stories drummed up by the two friends.

The bad things that happened?

You can no doubt guess what Bell and Lester said almost in unison when asked about bad things happening at the Dome.

“The roof came down!” was their immediate response.

Bell said, “Actually, it came down three times. Once we said it came down on purpose. That’s what we said, but I let it down. It would have come down anyway. But twice it came down on its own because of the snow.”

The pair recalled how they would hire crews to go up on the roof to remove the snow.

They laughed about the time a crew went up there and then came down and reported they thought they were missing two guys.

The foreman said, “We had 12 guys to start with, and when we came down there were only 10.”

A somewhat frantic search later found that two of the “temps” were not really up to the task and simply had never gone up on the roof. They instead left the building and walked downtown.

On another occasion a photographer at the Minneapolis Star Tribune was adamant that she be allowed to go up and take some pictures of the crew involved with the snow removal.

She was informed that she wouldn’t receive permission because it was too risky, with too much liability.

Being determined and somewhat crafty like any good newspaper photographer who wanted to get her photo essay, she signed up for the snow removal crew.

Somehow she brought her camera with her on the job. She got her pictures in spite of Bell and Lester.

The last time the Dome collapsed was three years ago. Lester recalled that the Metrodome wasn’t the only one around the country that has suffered a similar fate.

But this last time, they wondered how they might collapse what was left of the fabric roof. They contacted a person in South Dakota who had used a shotgun to puncture what was remaining up on a domed arena there.

But he wanted nothing to do with the problem.

“So we got a guy with a laser gun,” Lester explained. “A shotgun would have put several holes in the material. A laser gun would just make one.

“Except when it was used, the hole caused the roof to collapse and spill the snow all over the surface of the floor.

“The next day I told one of our managers, ‘The guy with the laser was a pretty good shot, don’t you think?’

“He looked at me somewhat astounded and said, ‘What? You have to be a good shot to hit the roof from the floor?’

So it went, until it was past time to wrap things up.

Both men agreed when Bell said, “Everything comes to an end. The Dome was the best investment ever made by the state of Minnesota.

“Like I said at the beginning, it was a multi-purpose building built by the community. It was the last multi-purpose building built in the country,” Bell said.

“It more than served its purpose. The bonds were paid off in 10 years, maybe less than that. It was a facility that drew over 50 million people to it in some 30 years. It really did its job.”

Lester added, “It’s not the building itself. The building was a great investment that allowed us to have the (professional baseball and football) games. And the signature events -- basketball and the World Series. But it also held the high school Prep Bowl and the boys and girls soccer games. It brought kids to that field and if you were one of them on that field, you had to feel that it’s your Super Bowl. It’s your World Series.

“It created terrific memories. It’s the place that people go to and created those memories,” Lester said.

Bell then added, “Most of all, it is all those experiences that are created with your family and friends. That’s the real value of any building like the Dome.

“It’s always fun when you win, but what is more fun for the people is the experiences they have when they go.

“The fan must have a great experience. There are many aspects to that. It’s the ticket-takers, the ushers, the seating viewing, it is all of that. When people spend that kind of money, they have to have a good experience. That should be the No.1 objective.”

As we bid our goodbyes, they both agreed: “The Dome was probably one of the best public investments the state ever made.” 

If the Dome was the best, between the two of them they were more than likely the second best investments to make all those many events happen.

Wally Wakefield can be reached at wwakefield@lillienews.com.

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