73 years ago, Neal McClure graduated from NDSU. Throughout his entire life, McClure has remained faithful to his alma mater proving that “Once A Bison, Always A Bison.”Photos by J. Alan Paul Photography
By Joe Kerlin
Bison Back Then
When Neal McClure enrolled at North Dakota State University, the world was changing. A world power was brewing in Europe while over in America most of our ancestors were enjoying their first Orange Bowl. It was the end of the Babe Ruth-era in baseball, a dime could buy you a gallon of gas and bread cost barely a nickel. North Dakota introduced their new sales tax but most importantly for McClure, he was starting the adventure we call life.
The NDSU we know and love today is nothing like it was during the thirties. When McClure first stepped foot onto campus in 1935, there were only a handful of buildings and acres upon acres of farm land. No Minard Hall, no Union, just the old Fieldhouse, Old Main and a few other smaller building.
“I stayed at the dormitory, Churchill Hall,” McClure said. “We had a room in the basement, kind of a community bedroom where the athletes and other people stayed and then they had ten kitchens all along the basement.”
McClure got to know Churchill well by working in one of the kitchens as a member of the crew along with numerous odd jobs like scrubbing windows and yard work. But it was the gridiron where he performed his toughest task.
Playing for Bison’s legendary coach C.C. Finnegan, McClure stared on the offensive line making holes for the explosive Bison backfield.
“We would trade off right and left guard and we had plays where the guard would run interference for the runner,” McClure said. “Quite frequently we were called upon to do that.”
McClure played for three seasons for the Bison accumulating a record of 14 – 13 from 1936 – 38. Football was a different game back in the thirties and McClure experienced more than his fair share of bumps and bruises.
“At that time, we didn’t have helmets that protected the face,” McClure said. “We were practicing one time, I was the tackle and we were charging through the line and someone swung their heel and caught me right in the nose. Broke it open and it took seven stitches. Casey (Finnegan) felt very responsible for that so he took me to the clinic and sewed me back-up.”
It may have been a painful experience for McClure but looking back at it now, he can’t help but laugh and be grateful for his memories on the gridiron.
Path to Success
Before becoming a Bison, McClure was raised in a farming community in Bowbell, North Dakota. The hard work and lessons learned from the farm were engraved into him and his brother at a young age.
“One of us had to stay home and milk the cows once in a while,” McClure said.
McClure kept his interest in farming while at school, pursuing an agriculture degree and planned on using his knowledge of the farm to teach classes. He was sent to both Casseltown and Fingal for teaching school until there was an unexpected change of plans.
“The dean got a call from the department of agriculture locally here in Fargo,” McClure said. “They had an opening in their department and was wondering if he would recommend somebody. He interviewed me and said that’s fine, come with me and as soon as you graduate we’ll put you on board.”
McClure went on to receive his degree during the winter commencement in 1939 and joined the department of agriculture staff. Fresh out of college and filled with life, McClure was put in charge of getting people to work during the depression while providing them a place to call home.
“… A lot of the big farms here got bought-out and the department of agriculture made them into a farm unit and they built a barn and a house and broke them into smaller units.” McClure said. “They usually went about 275 to 300 acres and that was it for the unit. They also had a grainery and a barn and livestock.”
This was also around the same time McClure married his college sweet heart, Lue, right here in Fargo in 1941. As much as the newly-wed McClure’s wanted to start a family, they would have to wait, because that same year the U.S. entered World War II.
McClure served as a first lieutenant during his three years of service during WWII. McClure was stationed at the US Naval Training Center during the war, training recruits in both Idaho and San Diego. He would eventually return home where he remained actively enlisted in the National Guard. When the Korean War broke out in 1950, McClure was sent overseas to serve his country once again. This time he came back to the states with a bronze star and a family waiting. Neal and Lue McClure had two children. Brian (66) and Ron (62), both still live in Fargo.
McClure went on to become an important figure in the North Dakota soil industry as the Assistant State Soil Conservation Officer. He worked for the federal government for 36 years before retiring and Pat, his daughter-law, said it best claiming him “the number two soil guy in North Dakota.”
Staying Loyal to His Roots
McClure graduated over 73 years ago, but hasn’t lost base with his alma mater. The former football player supports his team every Saturday, watching intently on TV in his living room.
“Every gameday he wears his green and gold,” Pat said.
McClure’s health has kept him away from the FargoDome for the past few years but it hasn’t scared him away from the practice field.
“Ron drove by and we decided to stop at one of the practices last fall and I got to visit with Bohl,” McClure said.
Before the death of Lue, back in April of last year, McClure and her loved going to the homecoming games to catch-up with old teammates and friends. Now at the age of 96 and with most of his former teammates gone, McClure can peacefully relax in the comfort of his own chair, reliving his wonderful experiences, watching the Bison battle it out on the gridiron while sporting the colors he still adores.