VICKSBURG — Reading, traveling, enjoying time with family and sitting by the pool are all on Rhonda VanderKamp’s retirement list.
But before she embarks on that journey in June, she is finishing her 21st year as Vicksburg High School athletic secretary.
One person not looking forward to that June day is Vicksburg athletic director Mike Roy.
“I keep waking up every day coming to work, and maybe she’ll tell me I’m going to do one more (year),” Roy said.
“Like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when Tom Brady retires, they’re going to dearly miss him. That’s the best analogy I can give; that’s how important she is to the team we have here.”
Roy should know.
The two have worked together all 21 years, forming a work family that’s become an anomaly in the world of high school athletics.
Her own family is the reason VanderKamp landed at Vicksburg.
She left her job at Heco, formerly Hatfield Electric, in Kalamazoo, after 17 years because “I wanted to be on the same schedule as what my kids were,” she said. “This allowed me to have my summers off with them and Christmas and spring breaks. It’s been just fantastic.
“Both of them were athletes in school. My daughter was in middle school when I started. I think it was good for them to have me here when they were in high school.”
VanderKamp and Roy were hired into the athletic department within a month of each other.
She realizes how unusual their tenure is when she attends conferences.
“They’ll ask you to stand up, introduce yourself and say what school you’re from, how many years you’ve been an athletic secretary and how many athletic directors you’ve been through,” she said.
“It’s always such pride for me to say I’ve been an athletic secretary ‘X’ amount of years and I’ve only had one athletic director. That’s just not heard of these days.”
Roy, always quick with a quip, looked back at their first year working together.
“I told her from Day One: I’m like a new husband. You train me the way you need me to be,” he laughed.
He then got serious: “She’s the MVP. There’s so much stuff that gets done in this office behind the scenes, and it’s all because of Rhonda VanderKamp.”
Roy is not the only one calling VanderKamp “MVP.”
Seven-year wrestling coach Jeff Mohney echoes that sentiment, noting that his wrestlers call her Mrs. Rhonda or Mrs. V.
“She has never told me ‘no, I don’t have time for that,’” he said. “She handles everything from contracts, referee fees, cancelations, and student-athlete eligibility. She knows every student at Vicksburg and most of their parents.
“What separates her from others is her commitment to the coaching staff and the student-athlete. She is family-driven and lets us be a part of that. She shares stories of her family and asks about ours as well.”
Mohney said one portion of their tenures together stands out in his mind.
“Her commitment to us was not more evident than when masks were required at school,” he said. “We didn’t see her face for over a year. She was trying to keep her families safe to the best of her ability.
“Now the highlight of my day is seeing Mrs. Rhonda’s smile. Vicksburg wrestling would not be relevant without Mrs. Rhonda’s commitment to us.”
One of VanderKamp’s proudest achievements during her 21 years was the addition of 10 varsity sports: hockey, equestrian plus boys and girls clay target, bowling, lacrosse and skiing.
In addition to her athletic secretary duties, she is also in charge of coordinating attendance and discipline.
“All the sick kids, the late kids, the kids who need to leave early all come through my office,” she said.
“Discipline also comes through my office, although I have help with that now.”
Her typical day begins about 7 a.m., and she is usually greeted by the ringing of phones.
“The kids are coming in with notes they have to get out early, parents are calling for sick children, I’m listening to (phone) messages,” she said.
“Once school starts, it’s constant activity. I always make sure I confirm my refs scheduled for that day, make sure my rosters are ready to go.
“Mike always double checks transportation. It’s a cycle. You just know what needs to be done, and you go with it.”
She said the job has also become a lot busier with the additional sports including “entering every athlete into the athletic software, making sure they’re all getting their awards, keeping on top of coaches when they add athletes, submitting pictures once I receive them onto our website and to boosters so we can print a booklet for each season.”
Time to travel abroad
The travel part of her retirement will include a trip to the Netherlands to visit Suzan Hauwert, who lived with the VanderKamps during the 2001 school year, and to Germany to visit Annika Busch, who lived with the family in 2003. Both were exchange students.
In addition, “My husband spoke Dutch before he spoke English, so his parents came right over on the boat,” the soft-spoken VanderKamp said.
Her husband, Gerrit, was in the U.S. Army and stationed in Germany, so they also plan to visit some of his old bases.
While VanderKamp has never visited Europe, both exchange “daughters” have been back to Vicksburg several times to visit.
“Both were in my daughter’s wedding five years ago,” she said. “They’ll join us on vacations or come to visit. It’s such an intense bond we share with them.”
She also is looking forward to spending more time with 2-year-old granddaughter Presley, who lives in Portage with parents Andrea (VanderKamp) and Michael Prior.
Son Robert, and his wife, Shelby, live in Kalamazoo.
While she expects to leave her job in June, she said she does not need a lot of praise or attention – but deservingly is receiving it.
One of those praising her is Vicksburg’s 16-year volleyball coach Katrina Miller.
“Rhonda is a miracle worker” Miller said. “I swear she can do it all!
“As far as impacting my sport, it’s always nice for me to know that things are in order with my team and their paperwork and information.
“I have emailed her at odd hours looking for copies of physical forms or eligibility for tryouts and she is always right on it. She is going to be very missed, but we are happy that she will be able to have some time with herself and with her family.”
While her daily job may be over in June, VanderKamp and the Bulldogs will see each other again.
“I love the kids, I love my co-workers,” VanderKamp said. “I plan to sub if they need me in the office, so it’s not really goodbye. It’s ‘See you around.’”
Pam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Rhonda VanderKamp sits at her desk as she begins her 21st year in the Vicksburg athletic department. (2) VanderKamp has worked all 21 years alongside athletic director Michael Roy. (3) The VanderKamp family, from left: son Robert VanderKamp, daughter-in-law Shelby VanderKamp, son-in-law Michael Prior, granddaughter Presley Prior, daughter Andrea Prior, Rhonda VanderKamp, husband Gerrit VanderKamp and father Bob Rainwater. (4) Rhonda VanderKamp has welcomed thousands of students during her time as athletic and attendance secretary. (Top two and bottom photos by Pam Shebest; family photo courtesy of Rhonda VanderKamp.)
A first-of-its-kind mentorship program is greeting more than 100 first-time high school athletic directors who are officially beginning their tenures at Michigan High School Athletic Association member schools with the start of the 2023-24 school year.
The “AD Connection Program” has matched those first-year high school athletic directors with one of eight mentors who have recently retired from the field and will now provide assistance as those new administrators transition to this essential role in school sports.
A total of 102 first-year high school athletic directors are beginning at MHSAA schools, meaning a new athletic administrator will be taking over at nearly 14 percent of the 750 member high schools across the state. Athletic director turnover at MHSAA high schools has reached 10 percent or more annually over the last few years, and it’s hoped that this additional mentorship will support athletic directors adjusting to the high pace and responsibilities of the position for the first time.
The AD Connection Program will build on training received at the required in-service program all new athletic directors must attend each fall. There is also a strong connection to programming from the Michigan Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (MIAAA), the professional development organization for the state’s athletic administrators.
"When you crystalize it, the AD Connection Program is an attempt for us to give a true year-long in-service to new athletic directors with people who have done it,” said MHSAA Assistant Director Brad Bush, who is coordinating the program and joined the MHSAA staff in January after more than two decades as an athletic administrator at Chelsea High School. “This also connects new ADs with a larger professional group, and it will culminate in March at the annual MIAAA conference, where there will be several face-to-face meetings with all ADs.
“These mentors are meant to become that first-year AD’s go-to person.”
Mentors will conduct frequent meetings with their cohorts. They also will meet monthly (or more) with each first-time athletic director individually via zoom, and at least once during the academic year face-to-face at the mentee’s school.
The eight mentors, noting their most recent schools as an athletic director, are Chris Ervin (most recently at St. Johns), Brian Gordon (Royal Oak), Sean Jacques (Calumet), Tim Johnston (East Grand Rapids), Karen Leinaar (Frankfort), Scott Robertson (Grand Haven), Meg Seng (Ann Arbor Greenhills) and Wayne Welton (Chelsea). Leinaar also will serve as the AD Connection Program’s liaison to the MIAAA, which she serves as executive director.
High school practices at MHSAA member schools may begin today, Monday Aug. 7, for the nine fall sports for which the MHSAA sponsors a postseason tournament. The AD Connection Program was approved by the MHSAA Representative Council during its annual Winter Meeting on March 24.
The MHSAA is a private, not-for-profit corporation of voluntary membership by more than 1,500 public and private senior high schools and junior high/middle schools which exists to develop common rules for athletic eligibility and competition. No government funds or tax dollars support the MHSAA, which was the first such association nationally to not accept membership dues or tournament entry fees from schools. Member schools which enforce these rules are permitted to participate in MHSAA tournaments, which attract more than 1.3 million spectators each year.