A few simple gestures from a friendly neighbor not only helped shape a young boy's life, but paved the way for the man he eventually became.
Charlie Kankel's journey to the University of North Dakota began early in the 1950's in the small Minnesota town of Red Lake Falls. Around this time, a young 10-year-old Kankel befriended Harold "Pinky" Kraft, a high school coach who was living as a boarder in the house across the alley.
The two easily became friends and many days, even in the dead of winter, could be found shooting hoops at the basket Kankel's father had put up in the garage.
"He was living across the alley with Robert "Buck" Poirier, the manager of Wilcox Lumber Co., and would just walk across the road and come shoot hoops. I remember there were a few times when it was so cold that the ball wouldn't even bounce," said Kankel.
The new friendship also allowed Kankel opportunities to work with some of the high school teams. He was named the assistant student manager for both the football and basketball teams.
In the spring of 1954, Kraft moved from Red Lake Falls to Grand Forks and began his experience at UND as a graduate assistant football coach. Though the two were now separated by more than an alley, they remained in touch.
"Pinky met his wife in Red Lake Falls. In fact, she was the daughter of the man whose house he lived in. He would often come back to visit her and he and I would get a chance to catch up," said Kankel.
Kraft also invited Kankel to join him at the various Fighting Sioux athletics events. During these trips, the young Kankel was not only introduced to the community and the campus, but to other members of the athletics staff as well.
"The only coaches I really ever talked to were Pinky and Louie Bogan. I'm pretty certain the only reason Louie ever talked to me was because he and Kraft shared an office," said Kankel.
Kankel played football, basketball and baseball in high school, but since UND didn't have baseball at that time, Kraft worked on getting him to Grand Forks to play football or basketball.
In 1958, after picking up more than a handful of athletics letters (baseball-5; basketball- 4; football-3; track-2), Kankel graduated from Lafayette High School. Rather than join Kraft at UND, he decided to attend the University of Minnesota and follow in the footsteps of his high school hero, Kenny Bombardier.
"When I got to Minnesota, my roommate never showed up. I got a letter saying that he had changed his mind and was going to go to school and play football at Concordia," said Kankel.
Kankel went to classes and practiced with the freshman football team, but three weeks into his stay, the homesickness set in. Kankel called his father to come get him.
"More than anything else I was homesick. I was a Red Lake Falls boy in Minneapolis and just wasn't suited for it," said Kankel.
"I had more people in my freshman history lecture class than I had in my hometown."
That Minnesota freshman team he was a part of for those short three weeks went on to become national champions and would become the first Big Ten team to go to back-to-back Rose Bowl games.
Deciding to leave Minneapolis, Kankel also called Kraft, who made some calls of his own and pulled some strings to get him enrolled late at UND.
Kankel played four years of football (1958-61) and freshman basketball (1958-59) at UND. He helped the Sioux to a three-year record of 12-11-2 and three straight Nickel Trophy victories over North Dakota State.
"One of my fondest football memories was beating the Bison 16-7 on Homecoming in 1960. I had to play nearly the entire game because the other players at my position were injured," said Kankel. "In fact, I was injured also. I had sustained a high ankle sprain in the first game of the year and that had not completely healed all season. In those days, playing the whole game meant playing the WHOLE game. Offense. Defense. Special teams."
After graduating from UND in 1962 with a major in physical education and a minor in social studies, Kankel spent the next five years teaching and coaching.
"After graduation I took a job as an assistant football coach and assistant wresting coach at Custer County High School in Miles City, Mont. I went from Miles City to Jackson, Minn., as the head coach and then to the Army/Navy Academy in Carlsbad, Calif. From there I went to Vista High School in Vista, Calif.," said Kankel.
Kankel got the job in Vista with the help from a friend, Herschel "Pepper" Lysaker.
"Pepper and I were good friends. We played together in Minnesota and at UND. Well, he was on the varsity and I was on the freshman team for the brief time I was at Minnesota," said Kankel.
"We were great friends. He grew up in Crookston. I grew up in Red Lake Falls. He just happened to be the head coach at Vista and he got me hired there as an assistant."
In 1967, Kankel decided to join the United States Army. After spending his first year of enlistment in training, he served a year in Vietnam as a volunteer with the 74th Infantry Detachment (Long Range Patrol) 173d Airborne Brigade. While he was there the unit was re-designated N Company 75th Infantry (Ranger).
"It was a volunteer organization. You had to volunteer to be accepted and then you had to go through their training program. We'd go out in five- to six-man patrols deep in enemy territory and observe what was going on," said Kankel.
"The whole thing evolved. In the beginning it was long range reconnaissance patrol (LLRP). I wasn't in it when it was LRRP. That's when they went out on patrols and avoided contact at all costs. You didn't make contact with the enemy unless it was inadvertent. They then changed it to just long range patrol (LRP) because they wanted us to interdict and ambush. That sort of thing."
In 1969, Kankel got out of the Army, returned to Red Lake Falls, stayed out of the Army for 30 days, and then re-enlisted. He moved to Ft. Benning, Ga., where he worked as an instructor at the U.S. Army Infantry School.
In the summer of 1970, he volunteered to return to Vietnam and was there a full year. After his return, he spent the next five years as an instructor at Ft. Benning. While on active duty, he received a master's degree in education from Georgia State University.
In 1975, Kankel left the army and took a civilian job with the Department of the Army at the infantry school. Over the next 11 years, he served in several capacities as an education specialist.
"One of my main responsibilities as an education specialist was to develop training programs for new weapons systems and curriculum development for various programs of instruction," said Kankel.
In 1979, at the young age of 39, Kankel suffered the first of five heart attacks that would spread over the next few years. Seven years later, his health forced him to medically retire from the Civil Service.
Though now retired, Kankel keeps busy as a volunteer. He is currently on the Board of Directors for a women's recovery program called The House of T.I.M.E. (This I Must Earn).
"These are women that have no resources. In other words, they come in straight off of the street. They come from different communities throughout the area and get into a live-in, drug and alcohol treatment program. It's a life changing experience for them. It's not just a place to get off of drugs and alcohol, but to learn life skills," said Kankel.
But last November, life for Kankel took a turn for the worse. During a routine chest x-ray, doctors noticed a suspicious shadow on his left lung.
"I went through a whole series of tests. The first thing they did was a CAT scan, but they couldn't tell whether or not it was just infection. Then they did a PET scan, but that also was inconclusive. Next they did a bronchoscopy with no result. Then they tried a needle biopsy, but my lung collapsed before he could get a sample," said Kankel.
With no conclusive results, Kankel was referred to the University of Alabama, Birmingham Kirklin Clinic. He underwent several more tests and was about to undergo a mediastinoscopy. In other words, doctors were going to send a scope down into his chest to check on his lymph nodes and get a biopsy.
In March, surgery had to be cancelled when he was called with the final diagnosis. It was cancer. Not only was it in his lungs, but it had spread to the mediastinal lymph nodes, making it inoperable.
"When they use that word 'inoperable', you can put all kinds of connotations to that. This is the end. If it's inoperable you're a dead man. For 24 hours I was in a bad state of mind, but after returning to Ft. Benning and talking to my doctors, they set me straight," said Kankel.
Doctors told him that while it was bad news, it could be treated.
"They told me that I wasn't a dead man, but that that also didn't mean I would be cured," said Kankel.
Kankel was referred to the John B. Amos Cancer Center in Columbus, Ga., and has since undergone 37 rounds of radiation treatment and eight of nine chemotherapy treatments. A final round of treatment is scheduled for today, followed by nearly two months of rest to allow for recovery.
In late July/early August, Kankel will undergo several more tests to see if in fact these months of radiation and chemotherapy have paid off.
Still a strong member of the Fighting Sioux family, Kankel has stayed in touch with many of his former teammates and strongly supports the Sioux of today. He has been a football season ticket holder for the last several years and makes an annual trip back to the Grand Forks area to take in as many home games as he can fit in his trip schedule. He also is no stranger to Sioux road games, fitting them in when possible on his trips from and back to Georgia or if within driving distance of his home in Columbus, Georgia.
Pending a full recovery from his final treatment, Kankel hopes to make it back to the area in July for the golf scramble and plans to attend as many Fighting Sioux games as he can. Until then, he'll continue to enjoy his days of retirement on the golf course, surrounded by family and friends, and forever fighting as a loyal Sioux fan.
We here at the University of North Dakota wish Charlie all the best as he continues his battle against cancer. To us, he is not just an alum but a friend and a member of the Fighting Sioux Family.