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I root for all the Harbaughs

Feb 7, 2013 - By Betty Starks Case

Yes, the Super Bowl game last weekend was exciting. Especially when the lights went out at halftime.

But that wasn't my problem.

We were all set for the game -- baby back ribs, sweet potato fries, chip and dip, and fresh veggies galore.

I just couldn't decide which team to root for.

Why? Because the fraternal coaches of competing football teams carried the name Harbaugh -- the name of a couple I'd called my "second parents" for much of a lifetime.

How could I show favoritism here? Which Harbaugh team would I root for?

Following high school, I'd decided to further my education in Rapid City, S. D., where I'd live with lifelong friends, Del and Judy Harbaugh, who were expecting new baby Don. I could work for my room and board, they said, and care for their three children, Donna, age 10, Sonny, age 8, and Midge, age 7, while the parents enjoyed Saturday nights out with friends.

There, I felt happily at home. Del Harbaugh was a warm and familiar figure from my early childhood, my father's close friend who'd lived about a mile from our little house on the South Dakota prairie with his parents before he and Judy married.

The Harbaughs apparently had a deep and productive water well. They'd created a lovely yard of flowers on dry land where my sisters and I had learned to treasure dandelions and sunflowers brought to life by infrequent showers.

"Dandelions and sunflowers bring their own beauty," our mother reminded.

But my 5-year-old memory is etched with a scene where Del, somehow aware of my early love of color and art, picked me up and carried me around their yard to show and invite me to pick a handful of the beautiful flowers they'd raised.

In others' homes, my sisters and I had been taught to look, not touch. Yet here I was picking flowers at the Harbaugh house. Was I some special kid, or what?

One day as my father and Del prepared to drive the old farm truck to town, I led my little sister to climb into the truck box with me and hide, crouching behind the cab.

"Now we can go to town with Daddy and Del!" I announced.

It seemed so simple.

Down the road, the truck stopped at Del's home. To my great chagrin, our dad got out, quietly reached behind the cab and lifted us out.

"Run on home now," he said. "Mama will be looking for you."

A pleading look cast Del's way brought only a smile. He knew my dad.

My sister and I fumed as we trudged the long mile home.

That night a muscled arm reach out just as it always had. We snuggled into it, just as we always did.

"Good night, my good little girls," our father said.

The Harbaugh connections continued. For some reason, I'd always felt my mother's sister Edna, an attractive young schoolteacher, was my special aunt. I'd heard that my friend Del Harbaugh and his cousin Bob were also very fond of her.

Eventually, I heard, a physical confrontation ensued, ending with two young men tumbling down the long Stamford Hill in a fistfight over a young woman.

The scene created colorful drama in my mind. I remembered the hill -- steep and sticky with gumbo when it rained, big white gumbo lilies nodding along the roadside as if to applaud anyone who made it through.

When I lived with Del and Judy later, I teasingly asked him if the story was true.

Del grinned.

"Must be. And since Bob became your uncle, I guess you know who won."

But Judy, the real winner, just smiled.

On the morning I was to return to Wyoming, I padded across the upstairs hall to the girls' bedroom. There they lay, in tears because "big sister" was leaving. I climbed in bed with them and we cried until we laughed.

Many years later when my mate had also come to know and care for the Harbaugh family as I did, we drove to Rapid City to help celebrate Del's 90th birthday.

And the Harbaugh family drove to Wyoming to honor Ned's and my golden wedding anniversary.

With such a lifetime connection, how could I ever take sides in a football game where competing coaches shared the name Harbaugh?

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