Call him ‘Mister Gopher’
“The gopher is on the disabled list,” explained Mister Gopher himself, Dave Luokkala. “He’s got a couple pins in that leg for now but we expect him to be back in a week or two.”
Luokkala only lets a hint of a smile crack his lips as he expounds on the fate of his Golden Gopher, which was perched on the roof of the Lemon Tree liquor store and gas station off Highway 33 until a storm blew it over earlier this summer.
The gopher lost a leg in the fall, hence his time on the DL.
Luokkala had placed the football-carrying, burgundy-and-gold-clad gopher atop the Lemon Tree close to a year ago, partly as a prank, and partly to show all the folks from the Twin Cities driving through town that there are Gopher fans up north, too.
Luokkala said his personal history with the University of Minnesota’s Golden Gophers goes back to his youth, when he used to watch the Gophers football team play with his dad, a stoic Finlander.
“My father didn’t say much, football was our connection,” said Luokkala. “He grew up in the 1930s, when the Gophers team really was golden. They were national champs.”
Indeed they were. The Golden Gophers football team were declared national champions in 1904, 1934, 1935, 1936, 1940, 1941 and 1960. The team also played in the Rose Bowl in 1961 and 1962.
Although there have been bowl games since then (the Meineke Car Care Bowl in 2012 and the Texas Bowl in 2013 are the most recent of the 13), they haven’t carried the same kind of clout.
That didn’t matter to Luokkala or his dad.
“He was such sweet man about the Gophers,” Luokkala said. “He took a lot of guff for that, especially at the paper mill.”
The younger Luokkala’s fierce fan-love came to life 15 years ago, when the now-injured wooden Gopher was created. For several years, the creature lived the life of Riley, indoors with Luokkala. Then he got left outside for awhile.
“Those were some horrible seasons,” Luokkala said.
Soon the gopher will be outside again, but this time in a place of honor, rather than the doghouse.
Luokkala’s enthusiasm is infectious, said the Lemon Tree’s Zena Micklewright, a former painter who is charged with making him look new again.
“I just know Luke (Luokkala) is gung ho over this gopher, so he got me involved,” Micklewright said.
Soon, the Golden Gopher will return with a fresh coat of paint, a repaired leg and (hopefully) solar lights, all anchored in a 5-gallon bucket filled with cement. He will face passersby on Highway 33, perched above the liquor store, a testimony to all that there is love for the Gophers north of Hinckley.
“He’s not going to go flying off anywhere this time,” Luokkala said. “Only if he’s flying to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl.”