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As coach of the high school football team with the longest active winning streak in the nation, Carl Fruechte has been revered in his southeast Minnesota community of Caledonia.

But a letter to the editor that he wrote in the local newspaper recently has some alumni and community members questioning whether Fruechte, who also coaches track, is fostering a welcoming atmosphere for all the students he leads.

Fruechte's letter posed a question about a new student group at the high school called "Diversity Club" — a bimonthly gathering for students in the bluff country town of 2,800 to learn about "other cultures, perspectives, and all things that make each human unique," according to the teacher overseeing it. In a county that is more than 96% white, the high school club has administrative support and the school board approved it unanimously in mid-January.

But Fruechte soon questioned whether the club will accept opinions of everyone, such as those who believe homosexuality is wrong. His letter in the Caledonia Argus prompted a flurry of social media posts and responses on the newspaper's opinion pages.

"If the year 2020 has taught us anything, it is that free thinking isn't allowed when it comes to diverse issues," Fruechte wrote, after professing his love for students, parents and the community and applauding students who want to make a difference. "Who gets to decide what is acceptable and not acceptable speech? Are you going to allow students in your club who disagree with your opinions?"

He added: "Will Christian students be allowed in the group to agree to disagree with your opinion? Notice that I said agree to disagree not hate because I love all of the students in our community, but disagree with some of the things this group will stand for."

School alumni and community members quickly dissected his words.

Some supported the coach, saying that they believe he is a caring and accepting person and simply wants to make sure students with differing opinions won't be criticized. Others were appalled that a community leader was sharing views they saw as discriminatory.

"Coach Carl Fruechte, your letter was not written in love and you should be ashamed of yourself," wrote Alisha Eiken, who graduated from the school in 1999. "Regardless of the empty platitudes, your letter is a thinly veiled attack against homosexuality. The existence of a diversity club does not infringe on your right to think homosexuality is wrong. But you are not allowed to encourage other students to ostracize LGBTQIA+ kids because they don't conform to your narrow view of Christianity."

Fruechte declined to comment to the Star Tribune.

The longtime coach has been lauded in a book and in local media, described as an energetic, Christian father figure who helped transform a lackluster program to a team of disciplined, community service-oriented players. The team is on a 71-game winning streak, and two former players have gone on to the NFL.

The Minnesota State High School League declined to comment on the coach's letter. It is unclear whether district officials have reacted to it.

High school senior Madison Winjum, one of the club's founders, said students in the group were surprised to see the letter, especially coming from an influential figure in the community. The group simply wants to provide a safe space for students to talk about who they are, she said; she has friends in the LGBT community and knows that life can be difficult for them in their small town.

"Caledonia is mostly white, straight people and it can be hard and it can be challenging and scary to talk about what they go through," she said. "Our club just wants to be positive and help people out and bring people together."

Superintendent Craig Ihrke would not answer questions about the letter and refused a phone interview. He responded to some questions through e-mail.

Ihrke confirmed that a student approached a social studies teacher asking to start the club.

"I can't speak for the student, but assume they felt there was a need for a place where marginalized groups could meet and have a safe place to discuss issues and help foster understanding of such groups," he wrote. "The club is a place to come and understand and celebrate differences not to disparage others for who and what they may be."

Fruechte's letter disheartened Nick McGraw, a 2013 graduate who said he hid the fact that he was gay from everyone until just before leaving for college. McGraw, who was on the homecoming court, soccer and track teams, student council and in school plays and choir, said he didn't feel safe coming out back then and wrote in a letter to the editor that he is concerned to hear that bullying continues at the school.

McGraw said that Fruechte, as a track coach, was "very dedicated to helping me make sure that I could achieve whatever I wanted to" and acknowledged the coach was good at supporting some struggling students and keeping them out of trouble.

"I think there's also kind of that perpetual supporting [of] toxic masculinity," McGraw said. "Just kind of anti-LGBT and stuff like that. Not necessarily openly or anything like that, but it's kind of apparent that there's some pretty strong undertones."

The rebuttal letters show that the community is changing, said Melissa Wray, an alumna who now runs a nonprofit arts space in town and wrote a letter herself.

"There might have been silence before, but there isn't now," she said in an interview. "Our local community is really rallying together to make sure these students feel supported."

Alumna Rachel Storlie said she was heartened to see that.

"Fundamentally a lot of the things he's done have been really awesome," she said of the coach. "But if the diversity aspect is not really a part of that" it's disappointing, she said.

The community can seem unwelcoming to people who are different, she said, noting that many people of color who move there don't stay very long.

She is glad to see local people discussing diversity and acceptance more thoughtfully and openly now, she said. "In a way, that's a great opportunity now for whatever comes out of this."

Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102