BATTLE CREEK — To many Battle Creek sports enthusiasts, Bernie Larson was known as “Mr. Pennfield.”
But for two former athletes, twins Chris and Cam Larson, that was not the case.
“I never knew him or thought of him as Mr. Pennfield; he was Dad,” Chris said.
Larson, 78, who served as athletic director at Pennfield for 29 years, died March 14 after an extended illness.
A memorial service is being planned for May 15 at a time and place to be determined.
“A lot more remembrances come back when someone passes,” said Chris Larson, who lives in Virginia. “You hear so many stories from people who remember him, including former students and coaches.
“It’s great to hear the impact he had on so many people that you never knew about.”
Stories are plentiful when it comes to Bernie Larson.
“He was a heckuva golfer,” said Karen Leinaar, the current executive director of the Michigan Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (MIAAA) who during an early stop served as athletic director at Delton Kellogg, which with Pennfield for a time was part of the Kalamazoo Valley Association. “If you needed golf balls on the course, everyone said, ‘Just ask Bernie.’ He always had them.”
“If he had one ball in his bag, he had 50 or 60 in his bag,” said Larry Wegener, former Battle Creek Central athletic director. “He had milk crates full of golf balls in his garage” that he found on the course or fished out of ponds.
When Larson was named Pennfield’s athletic director in 1970, it became a family affair.
“I had no clue, no clue,” said Joni, Larson’s wife of 56 years. “We never trained to be wives of athletic directors. We learned the most from other wives.”
She became involved in the job, selling tickets at home games. When their sons were old enough, they helped out with the field.
“They knew where the flag was kept and how to play the national anthem. They learned how to keep score” and were active in playing sports, she recalled.
“Cam (who lives in Minnesota) played football, baseball and basketball,” Chris Larson said. “I played tennis, golf and basketball. We grew up playing little league baseball and football.”
One family favorite was the yearly athletic directors conference at Grand Traverse Resort.
“He was there for business; we kids were there for fun,” his son said. “As we got older, we went to the auditorium that was filled with booths with sports-related things.
“As a kid we went around and grabbed the swag. It was a kids of athletic directors thing.”
It was not all fun and games.
“Bernie Larson was instrumental putting Battle Creek on the map athletically,” Leinaar said. “Four of (the ADs), Bernie, Ralph Kenyon of Harper Creek, Glen Schulz of Lakeview and Larry Wegener of Central put on the tournaments and had crews of people every year right there helping.
“Their hard work and commitment to the MHSAA, running perfect tournaments, made Battle Creek a stop for athletics for many, many years. Many times, Bernie led the pack.”
In spite of his willingness to help others, there was a caveat, Leinaar said.
“He would say to me, ‘Karen, I’ll help you out however I can, but remember, Pennfield is going to win.’
“Pennfield joined the KVA in the late 1980s, so we saw each other quite a bit. Our football games were always barn burners as were track and field.”
Wegener recalls those days full of tournaments and 65-hour work weeks.
“We did so many MHSAA events, I think a lot of people thought we were on the staff,” he said.
Those tournaments included more than 50 state championships in baseball and softball, team and individual wrestling, volleyball and girls basketball.
Brett Steele, Pennfield’s current AD, said Larson “was still a strong presence in the athletic department and community as a whole even after he retired.
“Up until last winter, Bernie still helped out at football and basketball games as our officials host. He knew most of the officials in those sports and was a familiar face to many when they worked games at Pennfield.”
Larson had served as an MHSAA basketball and baseball official. He also helped found and is a member of the Pennfield Hall of Fame and coached both girls and boys golf.
He received the MHSAA’s Allen W. Bush Award in 1997, the MHSAA’s Charles Forsythe Award in 1999 and was the MIAAA State Athletic Director of the Year for 1991-92.
All About Family
In spite of the hours spent with his job, Larson was a good family man, Wegener said.
“He spoke highly of his kids,” he said. “Chris and Cam were the pride of his life. Joni was a real good fit for him.”
Wegener said Larson was a larger-than-life guy.
“If you were going to run a tournament and you brought a notebook full of stuff for your tournament, Bernie brought a briefcase.
“If you brought a briefcase, Bernie brought a suitcase. He just believed in being prepared for everything.”
One thing the athletic directors did a lot was frequent restaurants, and Larson had his favorites.
“Perkins whenever he traveled, the Pancake House every Sunday and the Irish Pub,” Chris Larson said.
A person could always spot Larson. He was with one with the napkin tucked over his shirt.
“He always wore a suit and tie and would use a napkin as a bib because he was always spilling something on his necktie,” Joni Larson said.
Another thing her husband was famous for was his jokes.
“He always had a favorite joke that I’d hear 27 times,” she said, laughing. “It was like he had a joke of the week, and everybody had to hear it.”
During summers, Larson taught driver’s education at the school, something Chris Larson remembers well.
“I remember on the last day of driver’s ed, you drove for 45 minutes,” he said. “My brother and I and one other kid were in the car, and I drove to Lansing to the MHSAA and we sat in the parking lot while my dad went inside.
“I know the MHSAA through his eyes and through my own eyes.”
Larson’s love of sports transferred to his sons.
“We all share a love of golf and would play together any chance we got, but over the past years his health wouldn't allow him to play,” Chris Larson said. “I miss that very much.”
Another tradition is being carried on by his son, but it evolved in an unusual way.
The twins were a Christmas surprise for Bernie and Joni.
“They didn’t do ultrasounds routinely back then (1974) so we didn’t know,” Joni Larson said. “We had Bernie’s middle name, Leon, picked out as a first name,” Joni Larson said.
“When we found out there were twins, we gave Chris ‘Leon’ as his middle name and Cameron ‘Noel’ which is Leon backwards, so both had dad’s middle name.”
Chris Larson has continued the tradition, giving his oldest son, Joshua, Leon as a middle name.
Chris Larson echoed the thoughts of many who knew Mr. Pennfield as a people person.
“In my opinion, he was the most Christian man I knew. He lived a Christian life and he shared it with others,” Chris said.
“He was chaplain for some baseball and basketball teams. He knew somebody everywhere no matter where we went in the state.”
Chris Larson paid a special tribute to his father after the funeral.
“He had a parking spot in the circle of the old Pennfield High School right in front of his office,” he said. “His van was there all the time.
“One of the things I did after the funeral was just hang out there for a while.”
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) Longtime Pennfield athletic director Bernie Larson also raised his family in the district, with sons Chris (left) and Cam among those to wear the uniform. (2) Bernie and Joni Larson were married 56 years. (3) Among Larson’s longtime colleagues were former Delton Kellogg athletic director Karen Leinaar and retired Battle Creek Central athletic director Larry Wegener. (4) The Larson family, more recently, from left: Cam, Joni, Bernie and Chris. (Family photos courtesy of the Larson family; head shots by Pam Shebest.)
There is a basketball court 5,000 miles from Sterling Heights with “MHL” painted on the center court.
It’s not the name of a local basketball league in the village where it is located – Siricino, Macedonia. Instead, it stands for Madison, Haleigh and Lola, the three daughters of longtime Michigan basketball coach, referee and athletic director Loren Ristovski.
“My dad loved going back (to Macedonia),” said Madison Ristovski. “He’s probably gone every summer since about 2017. His whole family still lives there. He loved going and visiting and seeing everyone.
“It was always a goal of his to give back to where he came from. He and Mom donated to the village to build a soccer field and basketball court with lights and everything. It was a pretty big deal. It’s something he wanted to do for them back home. We were very proud he did that.”
Loren Ristovski, athletic director for Taylor schools, died earlier this month while on leave to have surgery on his foot. It was a shock to his family, friends, and the Taylor community.
“It was a heavy blow,” said Matt Joseph, girls basketball coach at Utica Ford and a longtime friend of the Ristovski family. “It was like getting kicked in the gut. Basketball was his passion. Next to his family, basketball was definitely No. 1. He loved the game and all the intricacies of it. He loved seeing kids excel.”
Ristovski emigrated from Macedonia to Michigan when he was 9. He went to high school at Hamtramck St. Florian, where he excelled at basketball. He went to Wayne State University to get a degree in criminal justice and had plans to become a lawyer.
Before he could take the Law School Admission Test, however, basketball came calling.
“He started coaching at Henry Ford High School and Fuhrmann Middle School,” Madison said. “Once he realized how much he enjoyed coaching, he decided to go into education. He stayed the entire time. He never went to law school.”
Loren Ristovski became the head coach at Harper Woods but gave that up when his daughters were ready to start playing in high school.
“He gave up coaching varsity at Harper Woods so he could be at every one of my games,” Madison said.
He also coached them as youngsters, often teaming with Joseph to coach an AAU team.
“I met him when Madison was 5,” Joseph said. “He and I decided to put our daughters in the same parks and recreation team, and next thing you know we were coaching AAU.”
With Ristovski’s tutoring, Madison, Haleigh, and Lola all excelled at the game, each playing Division I college basketball after standout careers at Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett. In 2012, Liggett reached the Class C Final with all three starting. They combined for 55 of Liggett’s 57 points in the championship game, with Madison scoring 42 after earlier that week receiving the Miss Basketball Award.
Lola and Haleigh played at the University of Detroit Mercy, and Madison played at the University of Michigan. Today, Haleigh lives on the west side of the state and plays recreational basketball. Lola is a referee in the Catholic High School League as well as for the Division II Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, and also works area Division III college games.
Madison is a teacher and the varsity girls basketball coach at Sterling Heights Stevenson.
“He taught us the game when we were very, very young,” Madison said. “We grew up in the gym with him and watched him coach his team. He coached me my whole life. He was very instrumental – he taught us all those things you need to become an athlete, and more importantly the things you need to do to succeed in life.”
Her dad is the reason she became a coach.
“Watching my dad coach and seeing the impact he had on his high school athletes and even the kids in our church community – it inspired me to want to coach as well and give back like he did,” she said. “I watched him with my teammates and the impact he had on them. I thought it would be so cool if I could do the same for others.”
Loren Ristovski left a legacy at Taylor, too. School officials recounted several stories of how he balanced athletic budgets with the needs of student-athletes. He would lead fundraising efforts, created the Bitty Ball program for youth basketball players and cheerleaders and helped students become certified officials – and then would hire them to officiate games.
“He didn’t say no,” said Taylor boys basketball coach Chris Simons. “We made it work. We didn’t go out and ask people for a bunch of money. We would just do it. We all pulled together and made it work. Loren did everything he could to make things as pretty and presentable as he could with the budget we had.”
Ristovski also put on summer camps at both Taylor and at the Joe Dumars Fieldhouse in Sterling Heights, where he lived. He commuted about an hour to Taylor every day.
“He loved Taylor,” Madison said. “He loved who he worked with and the students. He included us, too. My mom would run the ticket table or do the scoreboard clock. I don’t know how many times I sold tickets for volleyball tournaments with him. He loved his people and loved having us there with him.”
Loren Ristovski, who played professional basketball in Europe during the late 1980s, ran well over 20 marathons in his life, including the Boston Marathon. He was a registered MHSAA official for 16 years, and in the weeks before his passing he refereed a varsity game in Rochester with his daughter, Lola.
“He looked at basketball, I think, differently than other people do,” Madison said. “He saw it as a way to have relationships with other people, to help people achieve their goals and to find meaningful relationships with others. It was more than just a game to him.”
Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Loren Ristovski, far left, and wife Svetlana support their lineup of Division I basketball-playing daughters – from left: Madison, Haleigh and Lola. (Middle) Loren Ristovski heads an all-family officiating crew with Lola and his brother Dean Ristovski. (Below) The daughters’ initials “MHL” glow on the court the family funded in Macedonia. (Photos courtesy of Madison Ristovski.)